ATHLETE x SCIENCE
ATHLETE x SCIENCE
The topic of nature versus nurture presents itself in the world of elite sporting events as a sustained debate. Are world class athletes born or bred? Is there a certain amount of practice that can turn the average athlete into an elite? There are two main theories which aim to explain both arguments in the spectrum of the debate: the genetic influence model and the deliberate practice model.
The genetic model argues that athletic potential and success is predicted by a predetermined set of genetic traits. These physical traits are polygenic, or coded my many genes, producing the ultimate elite phenotype (Tucker & Collins, 2012). The four most influential traits include: gender, height, skeletal muscle composition, and VO2max (Tucker & Collins, 2012). The most obvious influence on athletic performance is the drastic segregation of male and female performances; this in itself is proof of genetic predisposition to athletic potential. Height is developed by both nature and nurture (nutrition), and is very predictive of sport-specific success; for example, the height required for basketball players is not conducive to long distance running.
Studies have found a number of VO2max genes in untrained individuals, inherently genetic, and also genes activated by training, environmentally influenced (Tucker & Collins, 2012). VO2max is a strong predictor of maximal aerobic capacity and thus performance in endurance-based events. Being genetically gifted with a superior aerobic capacity automatically places the athlete in an advantageous position for accelerated graduation to the elite level. Skeletal muscle properties are subject to similar genetic and environmental influences (Tucker & Collins, 2012). Hence, an athlete born with greater strength capacity in his or her musculature will have an easier time transitioning into strength-based sports, such as football or wrestling.
The dominance of East African runners in the middle-and long-distance events is well-known, especially in the last decade where 85% of the top 20 ranks in the world have come from this region (Vancini et al., 2014). These runners are primarily of Kenyan and Ethiopian descent and classically possess high VO2 max, hemoglobin, hematocrit, tolerance to altitude, bland diets of rice and beans, optimal running economy, and optimal muscle fiber type composition (Wilber & Pitsiladis, 2012). Much research has explored the possibility that genetic factors have yielded an advantage in this particular population, especially genes responsible for anthropometric, cardiovascular, and muscular adaptations to training (Vancini et al., 2014).
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