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Genes Separate Olympians From Average Joes

A combination of genetics and training give elite athletes the edge over weekend warriors.

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Are Olympians born, made, or both?

Coaches may argue that hard work and dedication make great athletes, but new research suggests that world-class athletes really are superhuman and born with special genes that let their bodies perform faster, longer, and better than mere mortals.

In other words, Olympians are from Mars and you're from Main Street.

"These individuals are off the chart," says Michael Meyers, PhD, director of the human performance research laboratory at West Texas A&M University and a consultant to several U.S. Olympic teams. "They are an anomaly with some of them almost bordering on freaks of nature."

Those genetic gifts alone might get some athletes to the elite level. But to go beyond that and become an Olympic champion, experts say it takes rigorous training of both the body and mind.

"If we look at competition day, these athletes are bred to the highest level of performance. [Those] who can perform on that day boils down to how well trained their brain is," says Sal Arria, DC, executive director of the International Sports Sciences Association. "If they've got great genes, but they don't have the mindset, who are you going to pick?"

Genes Set Olympians Apart

Becoming an Olympic champion starts with genetics, say researchers.

"What we do through our training and testing is supplement what the individual has already been endowed with," says Meyers, who works with Olympic and professional teams to identify and develop talent. "We enhance what they have; you can't enhance nothing."

And what they have, according to a growing body of research, is a set of genes that predisposes them to athletic prowess.

"I think they are genetically different, but we have not been able yet to identify the genes," says Claude Bouchard, PhD, executive director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and director of its Human Genomics Laboratory in Baton Rouge, La. "So far we have only a very partial understanding of the genes that are involved."

In a landmark study published in 1999, Bouchard linked certain genes to maximal aerobic capacity -- a key factor for endurance athletes, such as long distance runners, cyclists, and rowers. Since then, more than 100 genes have been added to his fitness and physical performance genome map.

Bouchard says most of the genes identified so far affect overall fitness, but "a couple dozen" genes are under investigation for their particular effects on individual performance traits.

One of the most studied athletic genes is the ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) gene, which appears in different forms in elite sprinters and long-distance runners. A variant of another gene that affects the fast-twitch muscles, known as ACTN3, has also been linked to superior performance.

Bouchard says linking specific genes to athletic traits is an extremely complex and painstaking process, and any single genetic variation may only play a minor role in affecting overall performance.

"Everything points in the direction of a multigenic system with many genes involved and many variations contributing," says Bouchard.

"It's not possible at this time to predict based on genes and DNA sequence variants who ... has the potential to reach the Olympic podium," Bouchard tells WebMD. "But research is continuing, and I'm sure that eventually it will be possible to spell out in some detail the [genetic variations] that have favorable effects."

More generally speaking, genetics also determines body size, height, body mass or muscle-to-fat ratios, and other variables of the body's physical structure.

For example, Arria says most people are born with about a 50/50 ratio of red and white muscle cells. Red muscle cells are more efficient in extracting oxygen from blood and are critical to endurance activities, while white muscle cells are high-energy cells used to produce quick bursts of energy.

"People with a higher proportion of white muscle cells have more explosive capabilities," Arria explains. "You're not going to find a marathon runner with a lot of white muscle cells."

Training the Mind and Body

Thanks to advances in sports science and technology, Arria says there are few hidden secrets left in training, and most coaches stick with proven training programs. At the Olympic level, those programs must not only maximize physical performance but sustain it and allow the athlete's performance to peak at the proper times.

"An Olympic athlete has to be able to perform and peak at the local, regional, and national levels and then peak again for the Olympics," says Arria, who also served as team doctor for the U.S. Track and Field team at the 1984 Olympics. "They have to be able to control their training cycle so they get the optimum performance out of their body on the day of the competition."

Genetics and training being equal, experts say it's the mind that often gives some athletes the winning edge.

Arria recalls a prime example from his days with the U.S. Olympic track team at a major international meet against the East Germans in the mid-1980s.

"World record holder Udo Beyer from East Germany was in sixth place and on his sixth and final throw. American Dave Lout had just set the American record and was in first place," says Arria. "Udo Beyer walked out, looked at Dave Lout's mark, looked beyond, and went back to the ring, spun, and threw that shot for a world record."

"It is the mind that controls the body to dig deeper and perform better on that day and that moment," says Arria.

"When it comes down to it, I'd say on competition day the mind is probably most powerful variable in controlling the ability to win or lose," says Arria. "Because that athlete has been there before at that level and performed at that high level. But to do it on that Olympic day takes an incredible focus."

Published Aug. 6, 2004.

SOURCES: Michael Meyers, PhD, director, human performance research laboratory; associate professor, West Texas A&M University; member, United States Olympic Committee - Sport Psychology Registry. Claude Bouchard, PhD, executive director, Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Sal Arria, DC, executive director, International Sports Sciences Association. Perusse, L. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, August 2003; vol 35: pp 1248-1264. American Journal of Human Genetics, September 2003; vol 73: pp 627-631. Abbott, A. Nature, Aug. 5, 2004; vol 430: pp 602-603. Lee, S. Journal of Applied Physiology, March 2004; vol 96: pp 1097-1104.

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