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Nature, Nurture Required for Elite Athletes

  • Carol Pearson

Swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time during the London Olympics. Queen Elizabeth II's granddaughter, Zara Philllips, helped her equestrian team win a silver medal. The American women's gymnastics team won gold. All of them are very different athletes. All were elite. Do they have a genetic edge over the rest of us?

Doctors Michael Joyner and Michael Bostwick at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota studied this and also looked at other research.

“Most high-level athletes have something that distinguishes them from regular people and thus makes them able to compete at a very high level,” noted Bostwick.

Joyner added that certain body types can provide advantages in certain sports.

"What is interesting about swimming is there’s a very, very narrow range of elite male swimmer body size," Joyner explained.

Swimmers are tall, typically between 1.9 and 2 meters, and they weigh around 90 kilograms. Height is an advantage. In other sports, the opposite is true.

"In sports like gymnastics, there are complex physiological and physical relationships between how much you weigh and how strong you are," Joyner added. "And the strength to body weight ratio, which is critical to be able to do these tricks in gymnastics, is probably higher in people who are smaller.”

The doctors say runners also have an advantage if they are short.

"We looked a couple of years ago at the 50 men who had broken 27 minutes for 10,000 meters," recalled Joyner. "Forty-nine were East Africans and on average they were between 5’6” and 5’7” (about 1.6 meters) and weighed between 120 or 130 pounds (between 54 and 58 kg)."

Additionally, many East Africans live at high altitudes and so they develop greater lung capacity, but Doctor Joyner says there's more to it. "It’s the way the blood from your heart moves through the lungs and how the blood interacts with the surface area of the capillaries where the oxygen is actually transported," Joyner explained.

Of course there is also the mental part of being able to concentrate under pressure.

Joyner and Bostwick conclude that when it comes to athletic excellence, physical endowment accounts for only about 20 percent of an athlete's abilities. Psychological stamina is also important. But most of the difference between champions and the rest of us comes from the excellent training they receive.