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Finnish skier Eero Mantyranta at the IX Winter Olympics in Austria, 1964

Finnish skier Eero Mantyranta at the IX Winter Olympics in Austria, 1964

Photograph by ITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy

David Epstein

for National Geographic

Published October 7, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo Back when Eero Mäntyranta was the greatest endurance athlete in the world, there was nothing remarkable about his physical appearance.

Sure, in pictures I had collected of him from the 1960s, his slightly tan skin seemed more like something born of the Mediterranean coast than Arctic Finland's pine forest, but it was nothing to warrant a second look.

That's why I was startled by Mäntyranta's face when I stepped through the door of his home, in the tiny Arctic hamlet of Lankojärvi. Today, at age 75 and working as a reindeer farmer, his skin is closer to the hue of the red paint that comes from this region's iron-rich soil than to that of the snow. His daughter had told me on the drive up that his skin had changed, but I didn't quite expect this shade of cardinal, mottled in places with purple.

Mäntyranta's skin has progressively reddened because his body produces an overabundance of red blood cells. The condition was first discovered during a routine physical for the Finnish military when he was 18. The doctors initially worried that it might be dangerous, but Mäntyranta was perfectly healthy. In fact, he was more than that.

Almost as soon as he could walk, Mäntyranta could ski—it was, after all, the best way to get across the frozen lake to school—and as a seven-year-old he began to win local cross-country ski races. By age 11, Mäntyranta could polish off the competition in the entire municipality of Pello.

Still, he had no thoughts of athletic stardom. Not until, as a teenager, he found himself in dead-end work in postbellum Finland, cutting and hauling timber alongside men who had fled to the remote north to evade the law. Mäntyranta knew that the Finnish government was in the habit of giving promising young cross-country skiers cushy jobs as border patrol agents, so he started racing again.

His success was immediate, and at 22 he brought home a gold medal in the 4x10K relay from the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.

At the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Mäntyranta was peerless. He won the 30K race by over a minute and the 15K race by 40 seconds, a margin of victory never equaled at the Olympics before or since. Mäntyranta would compete in two more Olympics and win seven medals in all.

But his high red blood cell count—measured at up to 65 percent above an average man's—could no longer be ignored. Passed off for years as a medical oddity, in the midst of a world-beating athletic career it led to speculation that Mäntyranta was blood doping—artificially boosting the supply of red cells that carry oxygen to muscles. (As we now know, Tour de France riders famously injected synthetic versions of the hormone EPO, which spurs the body to produce more red cells.)

It was not until 20 years after his retirement from skiing that scientists pinpointed the truth, that Mäntyranta was naturally doped. Finnish geneticist Albert de la Chapelle found the single DNA letter swap in Mäntyranta's EPO receptor gene. The EPO receptor is like a lock that awaits the key—the EPO hormone. Once the key is in the lock, the receptor signals a bone marrow cell to start the process of creating a red blood cell.

In Mäntyranta's body, the braking mechanism that halts red cell creation was disabled, so production ran amok. Mäntyranta's niece, Elli, also has the gene mutation, and was world junior champion in the 3x5K relay in 1970 and '71. His nephew, Pertti, has it too, and won gold in the 4x10K relay at the 1976 Olympics.

"It's an advantage," says de la Chapelle. "There's no question."

I met Mäntyranta during the reporting of my book on the genetics of athleticism, The Sports Gene, for which I also had some of my own genes tested. I had been an 800-meter runner at Columbia University. I was paired up in training with a blue-chip recruit named Scott, who would enter every season in excellent shape, while I would start in dismal form. But once the hard training began, I would gain on Scott, rapidly, and surpass him. Teammates and coaches assured me that this was because I was just tougher than Scott. I had to be, they said, because he was so much more talented. And because he was not improving, he must just be a head case.

But Scott and I were doing the exact same workouts, stride for stride, day after day. Years later, I came across the most famous exercise genetics study in history, the Heritage Family Study. In Heritage, DNA was collected from 98 two-generation families who were put through five months of identical training on stationary bicycles. Amazingly, despite identical training, some exercisers did not improve their aerobic capacity—the amount of oxygen their bodies could use, and a powerful predictor of endurance—at all, while others improved more than 50 percent. And how much each subject improved had nothing to do with how good he or she was to start.

In a 2011 breakthrough, the researchers found 21 gene variants—slightly different versions of genes between people—that predicted changes in aerobic capacity. Heritage subjects who had at least 19 of the "favorable" versions of the genes improved their aerobic capacities three times as much as subjects who had fewer than 10.

When I had one of the Heritage scientists look at my genetic data, he informed me that I should be a "high responder" to endurance training. With the Heritage Family Study as my filter, I now believe that the narratives foisted upon Scott and me were nothing more than stories of convenience that obscured a tale of genes and gene/training interactions that was playing out hidden from sight.

Scott was like one of the Heritage subjects who started with a high aerobic baseline but barely improved, while I began with a low baseline and improved rapidly, and thus was granted the flattering side of the narrative.

I improved so significantly in college that I made the All-East team in the NCAA and was later presented with a dazzling wood and glass box known as the Gustave A. Jaeger Memorial Prize, given to a four-year Columbia athlete who "achieved significant athletic success in the face of unusual challenge and difficulty." My difficulty being that I just stunk at first. Certainly, I worked hard, but Scott did the same work.

As exercise genetics continues to progress, more people will have the chance to peer into their sports genes. How we choose to view the information, that's another matter entirely. I now credit much of the Jaeger Prize to my genes. Mäntyranta, though, cannot be convinced that his rare gene mutation was behind his success. Through his daughter's translation, he insisted it was his "determination and psyche."

14 comments
Dr. T. K. Stone
Dr. T. K. Stone

Charles Darwin said, "It's not the strong that will survive, it's the ones that are the most adaptable." Life has seven variables, breathing, drinking, eating, the sun, moving, resting and the mental influences. These variables influence the genetics we are born with and are all important to the survival of any animal on the planet.

Tom Petres
Tom Petres

Wow.....how is this news? Obviously there are differences between individuals that give them advantages and disadvantages. The Blank Slate model was abandoned by any scientist worth their credentials years ago.

Kai Eiselein
Kai Eiselein

I think genes have at least something to do with it. I have a cousin who is an Olympic gold medalist, his sister is a champion in jiu jitsu.
Many in my family have excelled in sports. My parents were both swimmers, I won my first race when I was 5, against kids who were older.
Unfortunately for me, a catastrophic hip injury ended most of my athletic aspirations when I was 14.

greg matusky
greg matusky

Funny www.directathletics.com does show David Epstein to be quite the runner he portrays himself to be in this article.  1:53 or 1:53.  Coming in five in the Ivy League indoor champs.  Maybe I am missing something but he seems to be inflating his own success to make a case here. 800-meter run.  2003 results 

1. Vincent Galgano . . . . . . . . . .Columbia.............1:53.00

2. Sam Burley . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Penn....................1:53.07

3. Doug Kay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Navy....................1:53.98

4. Rob Hulick . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Princeton.............1:54.27

5. Josh Kauke . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Princeton.............1:54.44

6. David Epstein . . . . . . . . . . .Columbia.............1:55.08

Ron Britvec
Ron Britvec

So, we're not all "created equal"?  Most people know that (deep down).  Nor do we all have the same desire, perseverance, attention span, hair color, height, et cetera, et cetera.  There will be more interesting & useful discoveries  in the future.

reva madison
reva madison

I ran faster because I wore tennis shoes, and didnt wear blue Jeans, but shorts.  Sometimes a headline just doesnt tell a good story.

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

 Winners will always rationalize their wins even when it was due to dumb luck or cheating.


Wall-St bankers, drug dealers, athletes (whether they doped or not), all of them claim they were the reason for their success, even though it rarely had anything to do with their own actions.

As for where this is going, well, people already do anything else they can to win at life, what's to stop them from a little genetic engineering?

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

Alan Dempsey
Alan Dempsey

@Xira Arien you are beyond contempt. Have you ever noticed how the harder someone works, the  luckier they seem to be? Success is almost always down to the efforts and focus of the person. Only lottery winners and heirs defy this Law of Nature as specific groups. And interestingly,  75% of both these groups die a lot poorer that they were when their luck befell them. 40% die destitute or nearly so. Get a grip Xira. Champion preformers in any field of sport , business etc no doubt have genetic lottery wins that give them motivation (usually hormonal balance), intellectual (direct gene relationship), cardiovascular, red cell and other factors. But beyond this it is the individual's drive that makes the game. I raced bikes. THere was aguy when we werejuniors who was simply another Eddy Merckx. Physically gifted to the point of not even needing a strategy; he could simply win by smashing the field to pieces or sprinting or climbing. He could beat almost every international senior, when he was only 16, without even trying. But he quit when he was 17. Didn't have the drive. You need both.

Largo Lagg
Largo Lagg

@Xira Arien - Xira, you must be so disappointed that dumb luck didn't land on your head.

Even you must realize that people's success, by definition, has a lot to do with their actions.  If you insist you don't, then I suggest an experiment for you:

Stop writing on that blog of yours for a year.  Measure its success, then report back to us, and let us know if your lack of effort had anything to do with that.


Incredible.

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