Have you ever wondered what it takes to compete as an Olympic athlete? Many of us wonder about the factors behind their athleticism: those factors can be reduced to hard work and genetics. Michael Phelps practiced up to six hours every day in preparation for the Olympics, but it also helped that his above-average wingspan, double-jointed ankles, and double-jointed elbows gave him a competitive advantage in swimming. In the 2018 Winter Olympics, biotech company 23andMe ran a campaign: “DNA of a Champion”, to persuade audiences to utilize their genetic testing services (1). The campaign included a series of testimonials from Olympic athletes claiming that tests had identified their talent and performance. The scientific community, however, does not support genetic tests to determine talent or athletic ability.
In 2014, Uzbekistan announced that the country would incorporate DNA tests in a national plan to identify future Olympians (among children) to compete in future Olympic games. Uzbekistan’s Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry found 50 genes that could identify future Olympians and performed DNA tests on children to report their “athletic ability” (1). Whether specific genes are markers of exceptional athletic ability has been highly debated. The human genome is too vast to be able to identify genes that match athletes to their suited sport. Known as the “speed gene”, α‐actinin‐3 (ACTN3) codes for muscle protein allowing athletes to produce explosive power in fast muscle contractions (2). ACTN3 has been found in top athletes competing in sports including sprinting, weightlifting; top Olympic athletes almost always have at least one copy of ACTN3. People with the non-working version of ACTN3 cannot produce ACTN3 and those with two non-working copies (XX genotype) completely lack ACTN3 (2). A notable exception to this gene was a Spanish Olympic long-jumper with two non-working copies of ACTN3) who won and competed in European, World, and Olympic Championships while breaking records (2). While ACTN3 was the first structural skeletal-muscle gene that demonstrated genotype-sports performance phenotype association, further research is required to determine the effects of ACTN3 and non-working genes.
Although you may not be able to find a sport for you based on your DNA, certain genes can improve training and injury recovery. An example is a gene, COL1A1, which assists in producing collagen but when mutated, decreases the risk of ACL rupture (1). DNA testing companies claim to provide information for exercise, recovery, and dietary needs but studies done by these companies are too small to indicate whether one or a few genes influence athletic ability. Athletic ability would be affected by hundreds to thousands of genes and would vary among populations. The process of consolidating research to support genetic contributions to athletic ability would be extensive and difficult. Organizations including the Athlome Consortium are conducting massive, unbiased global studies to understand genome influences on exercise instead of focusing on small candidate-gene driven studies (1).
The future of athletics could be greatly based on genetics, where athletes would train and perform in sports based on their genetic ability– but research is limited. Talent in sports is overrated and hard work will still benefit those not genetically gifted.
(1) Brown, K. V. (2018, February 21). The Search for the Olympian Gene. Retrieved from https://gizmodo.com/the-search-for-the-olympian-gene-1822975337
(2) Lucia, A., Oliván, J., Gómez‐Gallego, F., Santiago, C., Montil, M., & Foster, C. (2007, February 8). Citius and longius (faster and longer) with no α‐actinin‐3 in skeletal muscles? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2465381/