Athletic ability and genetics: can science spot a sure-fire winner?
Wednesday 31 May 2017

Athletic ability and genetics: can science spot a sure-fire winner?

For more than 50 years, sport scientists have used a variety of physical tests to try and identify those exceptional athletes who walk among us. Despite most countries having some sort of athlete talent identification program, many talented individuals remain unidentified. But could our genes be the key to unlocking our athletic potential?

Twin and family studies suggest that more than 50% of the difference in athletic performance can be explained by genetic factors.

The big question isn’t whether genetic factors are associated with elite athletic status and trainability: it’s which genetic profiles contribute to elite performance. And can we use those profiles to identify champion athletes early in life so they can receive the support they need to achieve their incredible potential?

A search for genes for performance

The search for “elite sport genes” started in 1998, when Professor Hugh Montgomery from University College of London and his colleagues identified an association between genetic markers and exceptional endurance performance.

They revealed a genetic marker within the angiotensin-converting enzyme (or ACE, responsible for fluid balance, and cardiac and muscle hypertrophy) is strongly associated with elite British high-attitude mountaineers.

Following that, Professor Kathryn North from the University of Sydney, together with colleagues from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), identified that the ACTN3 gene variant is associated with elite Australian athletes. Those papers ignited an intense interest in the influence of genes on sports performance.

What do we know now?

Our research group and others are trying to identify the relative contribution genes make to performance. We are looking at both sprinters and and endurance athletes.

From physiological and biochemical point of view, pure endurance and pure sprint or power performances represent the distinct end points of a sporting continuum. The metabolic demands in a marathon are the polar opposite of those required in a 100m sprint.

It’s assumed an individual is predisposed toward better performance in either sprint and power, or endurance events.

For the last two decades, the focus has been on testing a single or a small number of genetic markers. Studies have shown an association between more than 25 genetic markers and elite athletic performance in several populations around the world.

But most of these studies are conducted with small numbers of participants and are based on single observations. The small numbers and the possible uncontrolled confounding variables – such as poor selection of genuine elite athletes – make it difficult to prove the presence of any genetic marker that influences athletic performance.