Olympic Gold Begins With Good Genes, Experts Say

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Great cyclists generally have an extraordinary heart capacity. The average resting heart rate is 66 to 72 beats per minute (bpm). A well-trained endurance athlete has a resting heart rate of 40 bpm. Miguel Indurain, a five-time Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medalist in 1996, recorded a resting heart rate of 28 bpm. In the mountain stages of the Tour de France, Indurain could take his pulse rate up to 190 beats per minute and drop it back to 60 on the descent within half a minute.

To varying degree, these traits are all hereditary. As the renowned Swedish exercise physiologist Per-Olof Åstrand once said, "The most important thing an aspiring athlete can do is to choose the right parents."

Biological Truth

Stephen Gladstone is the director of Intercollegiate Athletics and the head men's crew coach at the University of California, Berkeley. He remembers when Sebastian Bea, a 2000 Olympic silver medalist in rowing, began training in the fall of 1996.

"I saw immediately that he was at a level that could not be arrived at without significant gifts," Gladstone said. "His endurance capabilities were phenomenal. He could go forever."

No wonder: Bea's father was an Olympic basketball player, and his mother was a swimmer.

The performance gap between men and women in sports is also due to genetics. Androgens—sex hormones such as testosterone—make males taller, heavier, and more muscular than females.

"When applied to human sports competition, the natural consequence is that men are faster and stronger," Sparling said. "These are simply biological truths associated with being male or female."

But sports scientists emphasize that genetic endowment is simply the stage on which the ultimate performance is created. Physiological gifts are easily squandered without the right training, nutrition, and mental desire.

"There's no one born to be a world-record holder," said Phillip Henson, a professor in the department of kinesiology in Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. Henson was the director of competition in charge of track and field at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "People are born with certain abilities, but they have to work with those abilities to become really good."

But genetics, particularly a person's nerve system, also partly determines how well athletes can train and how successfully they can make adjustments and improve their technique.

Henson worked with pole-vaulter Dave Volz, a U.S. record holder and three-time Olympian, who invented a technique in which he used his hand to steady the bar as he went over it.

"No one taught him that," Henson said. "He just had a feel for it that others didn't have."

Physical Limit

So, how much better can elite athletes get?

Some scientists have noted that world records have been broken more seldom in recent Olympics than they were in, say, the 1970s and 1980s. This has led some experts to suggest that human beings are finally approaching the limits of their physical accomplishment.

Gladstone disagrees.

"Every generation feels as if this is it—we can't go any faster, we can't go any further," he said. "Then somebody comes along and breaks the record and the same pundits will be on board to explain why it happened."

But most scientists agree that we have entered an era of smaller improvements, in which the time periods between world records could become longer.

"If you graph the improvement of a sport, the slope of the curve will angle up sharply at first," Henson said. "But as athletes improve, the slope of the curve decreases and begins to level off."

"No one is ever going to run a mile in 60 seconds," he said. "On the other hand, I don't know if we will ever reach the point where we say a record can't be broken."

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