Can genes pick a future gold medallist?

by | Exercise and Fitness, Sports Fitness

Does inheriting a good set of sporting genes determine a future gold medallist?

Sporting prowess runs in families, so inheriting a good set of sporting genes may make the difference between being a weekend athlete and a gold medal winner.

Since the 1968 Mexico Olympics attempts have been underway to identify the genes that improve sporting performance.

Many thousands of athletes have now been tested to find the hidden genetic code for sport performance. So far this search for sporting genes has been without success.  Part of the problem in finding the genetic code for sport performance is the complex nature of different sports.

In all sports there are subtle vagaries of luck, technique, strategy and single mindedness, all factors that cannot be predicted by a genetic test. However, there is one common feature of many sports. This is the ability to convert oxygen into performance.

The ability to use oxygen is called aerobic capacity. This is the combined capacity of the lungs, circulatory system and oxygen carrying ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the working muscles.

For athletes this is measured as the maximal amount of oxygen that can be used in a minute. To measure this, athletes complete a voluntary maximal oxygen uptake test (known as VO 2 max).

Athletes breath through tubes connected to an oxygen metre that measures the amount of oxygen consumed in each breath. At the same time the exercise test (generally running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike) is increased in intensity till the athlete has to stop.

All endurance athletes have high VO 2 max scores, with some of the most successful Olympians of all time having exceptionally high scores.

A major international program has been hunting for genes that predict exceptionally high VO 2 max scores.

Scanning across the DNA of thousands of national and international world-class athletes, including 825 who have competed in various past Olympics, has been completed to locate the aerobic genes.

Despite thousands of possible genes, only one small genetic region (rs558129 to be precise) has any association with VO 2 max.


The conclusion of this analysis is that genetic testing cannot identify world-class athletes from the rest of world’s population.

Athletes are only partly born that way and much of their elite and remarkable feats of skill, speed and endurance are made through hard work and perseverance.