Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

What role does genetics play in sports performance? In the upper tiers of performance, it can be everything. While training can play a significant role in performance, the right anatomy and physiology can be the difference between a champion and an also-ran. Michael Phelps has the ideal body type for a swimmer. NBA players are almost all in the upper echelons of height. Even the "short" players often have arm spans and vertical leaps greater than normal. Certain groups of runners (such as those from some areas of Kenya) have genes that allow them to succeed in long distance running events. Usain Bolt hails from an area of Jamaica that has produced many fast runners. Jamaica is also a country that treats sprinting as a national sport, making it more likely that people will compete. (A fast runner in the US may focus on football instead.)

What does this mean for the average person? In some ways, not very much. They may not have the body to become an olympic champion at their preferred sport, yet they can still enjoy it and get better. Others may get better much more quickly. It may mean that they worked harder, but it could also mean that they are genetically predisposed to be better at the sport. Wealthy spectator-driven sports today tend to draw the greatest attention. Certain genetic characteristics that may not have been in demand earlier, suddenly are ideal for maximizing performance in certain sports. Will we gradually start to breed for these? Could we continue to maximize the "football" gene? What would the impact on society be? Would spectators still be as interested if they couldn't even see themselves as a competitor?

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