By Thomas Olivier (@gensmartme)
The Olympic Games Rio 2016 have started and already a lot of world records are being broken, raising the bar once again on what a human can achieve.
What determines the talents of these Olympians?
Whilst I believe we are all born athletic, some athletes have talents far beyond the rest of us, that allow them to beat world records.
Is this in their genes, or is it the continual practise, over and over again, that makes them real champions?
It is in fact a combination of both, as the latest research suggests.
In athletic performance, the ability of an athlete is a result of the combination between his genetic gifts and his environment.
In other words, although deliberate training and other environmental factors are critical for elite performance, they cannot by themselves produce an elite athlete.
Individual athletic potential is determined by our genetic make up, AND the thousands of hours of training that allows this genetic potential to be realised.
Could we then identify potential future athletes via genetic testing?
Nowadays, it is clear that GENETIC TESTING is becoming as easy as swabbing the back of your mouth or spitting into a tube.Thanks to the growing science of Genomics, we can now unlock the hidden secret of our genes.
We can use this information to screen for heritable diseases, test for lifespan optimisation, explore genealogy or even identify character traits- such as the ‘cheating’ gene (yes, there is such a gene! ) However, having those results, does nothing in itself to bring to fruition the abilities we are predisposed to.
In fact most of the time, results may be inappropriately utilised to assess the talent of young athletes.
So using genetic data as a decision-maker for determining a child’s future sport is,in my opinion an improper use of genetic information.
"A cell is a machine turning experience into biology"- Steve Cole.
Certain genetic variants with markers such as VO2 max, strength, fast twitch muscles for power, slow twitch for endurance and recovery ability, have been used as markers to predict talent in sport.
However, using these markers to determine if you are more suited to a particular type of sport or another, would be to limit your potential.
Moreover, the different combination of skills learned from different sports, ultimately transfers over to the sport that pro- athletes eventually play or participate in exclusively.
Therefore, despite the growing trend in genetics-based talent identification, as well as genetic testing to selectively place an individual in a specific sport, I strongly believe that these alone should not be promoted or carried out, as they may undermine the realisation of an athlete's full potential.
There is currently no scientific basis for predicting what sports or activity an athlete will excel at based on their genetics.
There is no such ‘triathlon gene’ or ‘ power lifting gene’.
Being genetically inclined towards say, a Power Event, does not necessarily mean you will excel in Power Lifting.
Therefore your ideal sport, as recommended by your own genetic make up, has no real scientific value.
Human traits-including sports performance-are a complicated puzzle, where genetics is only one piece.
With this in mind, a genetic test related to performance, should be use as a tool, in conjunction with your goals and chosen sport, to determine the best training and nutrition plan possible.
From genetics to improving your performance
Getting your result from a simple mouth swab, should be the beginning of your journey towards improving your performance.
We now understand that genetic testing isn't an end product, but a tool to provide you with recommendations on improving aspects of your performance that are grounded in the last two decades of scientific discovery.
From this genetic knowledge, an athlete will have a clear idea of how to improve his training, diet and recovery plan.
It is also important to make sure optimal environmental conditions are in place, as these are absolutely essential for high- performance athletes.
In summary, although our Genome encodes all the information of our bodies, there is no such thing as a “sport gene.”
Becoming an elite athlete in a specific sport, is a complex interplay between genetics, environment and life experiences.
Genetic testing is now becoming almost a common thing, and will soon become widely available. Therefore, it is important to understand that it isn't an end on its own, but a tool, to better empower ourselves in making the right choices- the choices that ALIGN with our genes.