Is There a Secret Genetic Ingredient That Turns Mere Mortals Into Super Athletes?

The dangers (and importance) of gene research in sports medicine.

When David Epstein, author of the newly released The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Performance, was a high school track runner, he noticed that his school’s large Jamaican population tended to congregate in the track program.

He recently told The Atlantic in an interview that throughout his athletic career, and as he began to study the physiology of athletes more closely, he wondered why it was that Jamaicans made up such a large chunk of the elite sprinting field (see: Bolt, Usain.) Most runners, I think, have marveled at the dynasties that are Jamaican sprinters, or Ethiopian marathoners. Epstein started to examine the ancestry of many of these Jamaican track stars, and found that nearly all could trace their origins to a small region of West Africa.

The region has a very high malaria rate; one genetic adaptation that resulted from this environment was a low hemoglobin rate — that is, the protein that carries oxygen. While a low hemoglobin rate will make you a crummy endurance athlete, it also has the capacity to a) fend off malaria, and b) shift your metabolism such that you excel at anaerobic activity (i.e., the 200 meter dash.) (He also found that Jamaica’s national track enthusiasm is rampant. School kids are recruited early and often to find the best possible sprinters. Meanwhile, I had to suffer through floor hockey-induced shin bruises and humiliation in gym class.)

In The Sports Gene, Epstein argues that such genetic research is extremely valuable when it comes to identifying risk factors in athletes. For instance, the ApoE4 gene has been shown to predispose people to more severe trauma after brain injuries. So if Jr. is on the fence between hockey and swimming this year, for instance, and can undergo a test to see what his risk is for permanent brain damage, you might be able to more easily guide him in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Epstein says, such data is often fraught with anxiety about how genetic variations (especially genetic trends within ethnic groups) might be received. And it’s not unjustified: As much as we crave explanations for and logic behind the talents of Bolt or Michael Phelps, the findings can sound like an eerie callback to 19th century pseudoscientific theories about the “abilities” of one group or another. To say “West Africans are likelier to have sprinting talent because of a genetic predisposition”… well, that kind of makes me flinch, too.

Epstein once talked with a sports medicine researcher who declared he’d never publish his studies on how different ethnicities respond to certain dietary supplements: “I heard this a number of times: He was worried it would be extrapolated into saying somehow that there were also innate intellectual differences between black and white people. … When people ignore the fact that low hemoglobin is a genetic adaptation to malaria and that West Africans are low in hemoglobin, they find that when they start giving them iron supplements, they start dying from malaria. … Ultimately that’s when I realized there were certain genetic themes within ethnicities that I would really be remiss to not discuss.”

The value of this research, Epstein says, correctly, is its potential to make athletes aware of their vulnerabilities before they wind up with ill-healing concussions or mis-prescribed supplements.

But let’s be real: That’s the medical value. For most people, and especially athletes themselves, the fascination with taking apart our own genetic puzzles isn’t some prophylactic greater good — it’s the step closer we’re taking to isolating and identifying that mysterious gene, that magic chemical compound that makes the best athletes so damn good. The secret ingredient that turns mere mortals into superhumans. And it’s this irresistible instinct that has the most damaging potential when it comes to actual research about athletic ability.

For one, Epstein points out, our society can’t seem to shake our innate certainty that brawn precludes brains.  “The idea of a biological teeter-totter — that athleticism is somehow inversely proportional to intelligence,” he says, “isn’t the cause of bigotry, it’s a result of it.”

Moreover, isn’t chalking talent up to sheer biology dismissive of what we love most about athleticism? Saying that a person’s athletic success is because of their “natural” athletic ability in some ways undermines the amount of dedication and hours it takes to cultivate that talent and become a great competitor. A small bit of convenient biological history paves the way for a trivializing theory that professional athletes just don’t have to work as hard as the rest of us do. They were simply dealt the better hand.

Maybe that’s what makes this temptation to break our star athletes down into muscles and genes, and think of them as specimens rather than professionals, so irresistible. There’s comfort in compartmentalizing what we ultimately can’t be part of. While the research Epstein discusses has the potential to find risk factors early and safeguard athletes against the usual sporting hazards, it also may enable our tendency to put these sports stars on a distant pedestal — and in a category — completely separate from ourselves.