Your resilience is partly genetic

Genes in sport: tradition versus training

Genetics play an important role in human development, including in sports. The genetic information is passed on from the parents to a child and stored in the body cells in the form of DNA (Deoxyribonucleid Acid). The DNA influences characteristics such as body size and weight and has a significant influence on athletic perspectives. Yannis Pitsiladis, Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton, has the largest DNA collection of world-class athletes and has spent many years looking for a special "Laufgen". He hasn't found it yet, but for Pitsiladis one thing is certain: "If you don't choose your parents carefully, you will never become one of the best." He also believes that the genes that help East Africans to be the best long distance runners in the world are the same that made Paula Radcliffe the world record runner.

As early as 1998, British researchers found a gene called ACE (Angiotensis converting enzyme = so-called conversion enzyme), which is associated with people's endurance capacity. This "endurance gene" is supposed to influence the control mechanism of blood circulation in the muscles. The researchers came to the conclusion that mountaineers who were able to move at an altitude of 7,000 meters without additional oxygen have a special composition of this gene.

Then there is the ACTN3 gene. This gene is responsible for the production of a structural protein in fast skeletal muscle fibers. It exists in two different forms. One ensures that the body produces a protein called alpha-actinin 3, which is found primarily in fast-developing muscles and is beneficial in sprinting and weight training. The other expression of the gene prevents the production of the protein and helps with endurance performance. However, this genetic disposition is not all too exclusive: around a fifth of the entire population has it.

50 percent of the performance?
The experts are by no means unanimous about the importance of the gene profile. Training scientist Professor Dr. Joachim Mester from the German Sport University in Cologne assumes that "genetic conditions can explain around 50 percent performance, not only in sport, but also in learning behavior." Dr. Alun Williams from Manchester Metropolitan University even puts the proportion of genes at 50 to 70 percent. And the German professor Jürgen Weineck comes to the conclusion in various studies that the influence of genetics is significant in terms of both aerobic endurance and speed of locomotion. It is low in terms of absolute muscle strength and frequency of movement, but high in terms of mobility and movement response.

Other wise minds see it differently. Molecular geneticist Dr. Colin Neil Moran, Senior Lecturer in Health and Exercise Science at the University of Sterling in Scotland, says, “I believe that anyone can achieve world-class levels in any sport. It's just that those with the good genes get to the top more easily than the others. " Matthew Syed, British journalist, television and radio man, blows in the same horn in his 2010 book “Bounce”: If you do something over a long period of time in a targeted manner and with a high level of motivation, you will achieve excellent results yourself. He mentions himself as an example.

Syed belonged to the world class in table tennis for years and is convinced that only training, a favorable environment and a lot of enthusiasm have brought him there. His parents bought a table tennis table, which Matthew practiced countless hours as a boy. Coincidentally, there was also a trainer at his school who promoted the talents. And so it came about that the small town of Earley in the south east of England produced far more table tennis talent than the rest of Great Britain in the 1980s.

Dr. Barbara Wessner from the Center for Sports Science at the University of Vienna supports this thesis when she reported in 2010 about identical twins (= identical gene profile) who achieved very good results in two very different sports. One, Kurt, became an endurance athlete, the other, Ewald, a weightlifter. Wessner comes to the conclusion that the training has a far greater influence than the genetic specifications. "In this example, the body reacted to the different training stimuli and made specific adjustments."

Kenyans also had top sprinters
The best endurance athletes currently come from East Africa, the best sprinters from the west of the continent and Jamaica. That was not always so. Between World War I and World War II, the Finns dominated the medium and long haul, then the Swedes; in the 1960s it was Australians and New Zealanders, followed by the British with Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. And only then did the Kenyans take over the reins.

In the sprint, the best came from the USA for decades. But the Kenyans once had very good sprinters, which has been forgotten because of the dominance of the East African endurance athletes. Kenya has even produced more world-class sprinters than any West African country, with the exception of Nigeria and perhaps Ghana. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the Kenyan quartet with Charles Asati, Hezakiah Nyamau, Robert Ouko and Julius Sang won gold over 4 x 400 meters. At the Africa Games in 1987 there was gold over 200 meters and silver over 400 meters, 110 meter hurdles, 400 meter hurdles, over 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 meters, for women gold and silver over 400 meters, silver over 4 x 400 meters and bronze over 4 by 100 meters. The last sprint medals at a World Championship went to Samson Kitur (3rd over 400 meters) and the 4 x 400 meter relay (2nd) in 1993. Then European managers and coaches came and persuaded the Kenyans that the short distances were a jobless art. Even 800-meter star David Rudisha was a 200-meter runner when he was at school.

What can be concluded from this? That tradition and training play a major role in the success of an athlete. And the genetic requirements? For example, they play a role in training tolerance. The 260 kilometers that Dennis Kimetto covered per week in preparation for the marathon world record would probably not be able to endure any European. The resilience, perhaps also the ability to suffer, has to do with the difficult life with which the ancestors faced each other every day. This, as well as the light physique, was passed on to today's runners in the genetic profile.

Why West Africa and Jamaica?
Yannis Pitsiladis examined thousands of gene samples from top athletes and was then able to dispel various myths. The African genes are no more powerful than the Eurasian. Kenyans are genetically very different from Ethiopians, Eurasian types are much rarer, and the diversity of African types is greater. In other words, East Africa is a genetic melting pot.

What about the theory that the simple population in the highlands of the Rift Valley mutated into tireless endurance athletes over the course of millennia and that the superiority of the world's best sprinters can be traced back to the time of slavery? At that time slaves were shipped from the west of the continent to the new world. In Jamaica there was an uprising of slaves who still live as the Maroon people in the autonomous settlement of Accompong. Only the strongest survived the transport from Africa to the Caribbean, only the fastest could escape the British farmers and only the toughest could survive in the wilderness.

But Pitsiladis did not find any arguments for this either. There is great genetic diversity among the Jamaicans and even among the Maroon. And among the world-class US sprinters there are other types, some of them European. The explanation for the superiority of individual countries or continents is possibly much simpler and can be traced back to socio-cultural factors. Kenyan and Ethiopian students walk several hours a day. As a result, the maximum oxygen uptake in 14-year-old boys and girls is already as good as in well-trained European athletes. When the youngsters finally begin structured training, they will find themselves at a level that athletes in the western world will pursue for a lifetime.

It is estimated that around 5,000 young people in Kenya are seriously training. Not because they want to become Olympic champions or world champions, but to earn money. In a country where 50 percent get by on less than a dollar a day, that's the main motivation. It is similar in Jamaica, where a system of school competitions allows children to sprint intensively from an early age.

Tradition therefore plays a decisive role. Not just in East and West Africa or Jamaica. There are other examples too: boxing in Cuba, basketball in the USA, rugby in England and New Zealand, swimming in Australia and the USA, gymnastics in Japan and China, football in Brazil and many more. The legendary Irish coach Brother Colm O'Connell, who has lived in Kenya since 1976 and has produced many world-class athletes, hits the nail on the head when he says: “Whites always want to find something special. A little hidden secret. They want to transfer it to their runners to get the same result. Or even just to be able to say: Look here, this is why these people are superior to us. So we cannot compete with them at all. Kenya's success in running is very simple: there are thousands who try running because that is the only perspective in their lives. "