newest hero: Keshorn Walcott on his way to securing T&T's second Olympic gold medal at the London 2012 Games. —Photo: AP

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Genes and Olympic athletes

By Kevin Baldeosingh

Yams. Pelting mango. Sea breeze. These are some of the explanations proffered, only half-jokingly, for the success of Caribbean athletes at the Olympic Games. But the real explanation may be even more basic.

"There's the philosophy of what makes a champion, nature versus nurture," says sports medicine specialist Dr Anyl Gopeesingh. He cites research which shows that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice (or about ten years) to master any particular skill, but also notes that genes account for 35 per cent to 45 per cent of the kind of muscles an individual has. "The idea is that there are dormant genes which are activated by practice," Gopeesingh, 36, explains. "But there are people who may put in the 1,000 hours and nothing happens. Therefore, the genetic component is necessary."

Dr Terence Babwah, 39, who has a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise medicine, agrees. "The major factor appears to be genetic," he says in respect to Caribbean athletes' success at the Games. But he also believes the rural background of the athletes helps. "Genes are only one aspect. The diet, such as the complex carbohydrates from provisions, is also a factor."

So what are these genetic factors? The major gene related to athletic performance is labelled ACTN3. Muscles fibres come in two types, "fast twitch" and "slow twitch".

The former is good for speed, the latter is good for endurance. And tests conducted on 200 Jamaican athletes in 2008 by the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies identified Actinen A in the fast-twitch muscles of 70 per cent of the athletes from Jamaica, as compared to only 30 per cent in an Australian group. These genes can be traced back to the Caribbean athletes' West African ancestry, and Babwah suggests that Afro-Caribbeans have a physiological advantage over even their ancestors. "It may be that only the fittest individuals survived the journey here," he says. "Those who went to Jamaica had the longest trip."

American journalist Jon Entine, author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports, in an article in Forbes magazine published earlier this month, writes: "West Africans and North American, Caribbean and European blacks who trace their ancestry to the Middle Passage...generally have bigger, more developed overall musculature; narrower hips, lighter calves; higher levels of plasma testosterone; faster patellar tendon reflex in the knee; and a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy."

Table 1 shows the gold medal winners in the men's 100-metre sprint in the past ten Olympics. With one exception (Scottish runner Allan Wells, who ran in 1980 when the USA boycotted the Games) all are of African descent.

TABLE 1:

100-metre sprint Olympic winners

Year Name Country Time

1976 Hasely Crawford T&T 10.06

1980 Allan Wells UK 10.25

1984 Carl Lewis USA 9.99

1988 Carl Lewis USA 9.92

1992 Linford Christie UK 9.96

1996 Donovan Bailey Canada 9.84

2000 Maurice Greene USA 9.87

2004 Justin Gatlin USA 9.85

2008 Usain Bolt Jam 9.69

2012 Usain Bolt Jam 9.63

Table 2 shows the top five medal-winning countries on a per capita basis. That is, although America and China won the most medals, they have large populations and so a larger pool of athletes to draw on. But, if size is taken into account, the United States and China rank quite low in Olympic victories and T&T takes the lion's share of medals.

TABLE 2:

Top Olympic nations per capita

Rank Country Weighted

medals

1 Grenada 4

2 Bahamas 4

3 Jamaica 28

4 New Zealand 33

5 Trinidad and Tobago 37

Source: Simon Forsyth, University of Queensland

By this criterion, India with its 1.2 billion people is glaringly absent, having taken only six medals in the 2012 Olympic Games.

An article in CNBC by Catherine Boyle notes, "India's team came back with one medal per 200 million people in its burgeoning population. By this ranking, they did a thousand times worse than Grenada."

Economist Abhijit Banerjee in his 2011 book Poor Economics (co-authored with Esther Duflo) notes that India "has won an average of 0.92 medals per Olympics, over the course of 22 Olympic Games, putting it just below Trinidad and Tobago at 0.93."

Banerjee attributes this to malnutrition, saying, "Given that child malnutrition is....where South Asia really stands out, it seems plausible that these two facts – wasted children and Olympian failure – have something to do with each other."

But this makes little sense. About one-third of India's population is categorised as poor, and only about three per cent as wealthy and 12 per cent as middle-class. But that still works out to 180 million people who are not malnourished, which means that there must be some other factor which accounts for India's under-performance in sports.

This under-representation is also the case for India's diaspora population, including T&T, where Indians are generally found at top levels only in cricket.

If genes account for African success, might genes not also account for Indian failure? "It could be," says Babwah. "I don't want to go so far. It might just be the selection process, and the caste system." In T&T, he says, "Indian parents don't encourage their children to go into sports, except cricket." Gopeesingh thinks Indians have athletic potential in sports with a lower power-to-mass ratio, such as cricket and volleyball.

In his Forbes article, Entine notes: "Asians, on average, tend to be smaller with shorter extremities and long torsos—evolutionary adaptations to harsh climes encountered by Homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia 40,000 years ago. China, for example, excels in many Olympic sports, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons, according to geneticists, is that they are more flexible on average—a potential advantage in diving, gymnastics (hence the term "Chinese splits") and figure skating. Whites of Eurasian ancestry are mesomorphic: they have larger and relatively more muscular bodies with comparatively short limbs and thick torsos. No prototypical sprinter or marathoner here. These proportions are advantageous in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium.

Predictably, Eurasians dominate weight-lifting, wrestling and most field events, such as the shot put and hammer. At the London Olympics, with the exception of North Korea, the top lifters come from a band of Eurasian countries: China, Kazakhstan, Iran, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. Despite the image of the sculpted African body, no African nation won an Olympic lifting medal."

India's six medals were in sports which did not require speed, stamina, or strength, but which emphasised reflexes, flexibility, and hand-eye coordination: shooting, badminton, wrestling, and boxing. Similarly, China's 88 gold medals were won in just five of the 38 Olympic sports: diving, swimming, badminton, weight-lifting, and artistic gymnastics. (It should be noted, too, that India's boxing medal and China's weight-lifting one were won by women.) The United States took home its top haul of 104 medals in 19 events, with 57 per cent of the medals coming from swimming and track and field.

Does this mean that T&T should concentrate on sports in which the population has a genetic advantage? Gopeesingh doesn't think so. "Then you would never find a Keshorn Walcott," he points out. He thinks there should be multi-sport development, and cites a Canadian programme which has primary school children training in just running, swimming, and gymnastics. "When they decide on a sport at 14 or 15 years, then they have the basic skills for anything," he says.

Babwah emphasises the need for professional coaching and proper physiological analysis of budding athletes. Because of a lack of coaching, a lot of local athletes get bad habits and never learn the basic skills of their sport. And then there is the lack of proper sport medicine. "There are many promising athletes who have been stopped by recurring injuries," he explains. "Had they been picked up early, they could have been trained to prevent injuries."

Babwah also points to nutrition as a key barrier. "Many of them eat a doubles or a KFC, even the national teams would not eat good food, they say the meals not tasting good. That is the general attitude."

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