T Nation

Genetics vs Probability


This one has been on my mind for a bit now...

I'm starting to get the feeling that genetics mean very little (>1%), if not nothing at all, in one's success in sport/competition.

I don't think it is possible or logical to say the world record holder, in any realm, has the best genetics in his/her realm.

Maybe it is my math but, considering that we currently have no idication of our extreme genetic potential, the probability of the world record holder being the guy/girl with the most superior genes is very slim. I mean how would the person know they were the best? There is a great possibility that the guy with the best genetics is still out their... playing piano.


True, it will take more than great genetics to excell at a sport, but it's a pretty good step in the right direction...I don't think there will be any 5'6" players setting records in the NBA anytime soon, but it doesn't mean a few won't make it(Mugsy Bogues and that dude from Denver come to mind.) It's a good mentallity to have that you don't need good genetics to succeed, but in the long run of professional sports where everyone is training to fulfill the highest level of their potential, those with the better genetics will tend to top out higher than those with lesser genetics.


I don't understand your logic here. Why would you even assume that ANYONE thinks that someone great at a sport is the one with the greatest genetics in the world? There may be someone with even better genetics as far as muscle mass, coordination and endurance who ended up becoming a school teacher. Micheal Jordan was magic on a basketball court...but who is to say the college drop out in the next neighborhood over who took a wrong turn and ended up in jail couldn't have been better with guidance? In fact, does it matter? Life doesn't exactly grant you anything based on genetic talent in sports. You pretty much have to earn it in that respect, no matter where you start off in athletics.

You just can't make an absolute statment like that. However, when comparing two INDIVIDUALS who are competing in the same sport, if one sucks and the other is an artist on the field, you can either blame it on training, genes, or both.

Obviously, genetics are a huge factor in performance. Someone with more fast twitch muscle fibers will probably do better at powerlifting...or sprinting. Training and dedication being the other factors involved can often level the field.

I have trained with people growing up who I KNOW had better genetics for muscle mass than me. One guy was literally muscular as hell with what must have been 17" arms in only the 7th grade. The difference between us now is I kept training while he quit lifting regularly years ago. I have passed up his development.

Genetics play a great role, but they aren't everything involved in an athlete.


It IS very unlikely that they would have the best genetics when compared to a pool of people including the entire world. However, you need to consider a smaller pool of people who actually participate/have participated in the sport in question.

(1) The top individual likely has very good genetics when compared to that population.

(2) This population in general will have better genetics than average when compared to the general populace.

So while it's very unlikely that he would have THE BEST genetics, it's very likely that he has vastly superior genetics when compared to the average person.


Superior genetics are necessary but not sufficient for dominance at the highest level of a given sport. As pointed out though, the only gene pool that matters is that of other competitors in the specific sport. If someone claims that Lance Armstrong has the best genetics in the world for cycling, it may not be absolutely true, as there could be others who chose marathon running or were born in outer Mongolia and had no access to the sport, but at the same time the statement wouldn't be too far from the mark. It probably is safe to say though that he's in the top .001 percentile in terms of genetic potential along with the small handful of others who dominate the sport.


Well, thinking in another direction, for many sports, different genetic attributes will let you excel in different ways.

For example, being able to continue to exert at a high level for long periods of time can make up for being less explosive during earlier moments.

Also, mindset is a huge factor. I know when I was playing hockey that I was not the fastest on the ice, but I'd work very hard whereas some folks start to get lazy and slack off.

There are many factors to performance... though various sports or contests can narrow the factors down.


The most important gene is the Persistence Gene.


That was exactly my point.


Makes you wonder how people with exceptional genetics end up in their said sport. Or do they really not have absolute exceptional genetics but relative exceptional genetics.

Sort of weird how some of the "best" ended up in their sport.

I must say... the only people I see paying attention to genetics are the ones who sit and say that they will never make it because they don't have it. Maybe thats just the people I see. I know a whole group of triathletes who don't train hard because they don't think they have the "genetics" to make it to the top.


That's life. As a kid, I never thought I would where I am now doing what I am doing now...but I am good at it and enjoy it. I would imagine most of those athletes found it to be the same way when it comes to their sport. I personally believe we are where we are supposed to be at that time. The challenge is ending up where you are happiest. Some people never find that, and that sucks.


Re: the point about Michael Jordan. I think he is just one prime example of the power of determination.


I disagree. As others have said the guys at the top of their respective sports likely have some of the best genes amongst those people who compete at their sport.

As you say there are quite likely people with better genes for the sport in question out there but who don't compete at that sport. The fact that they aren't competing makes their better genes irrelevant though.

The point is that if you want to get to the top of a particular sport by and large you need to have better genes than all other people who you are competing against.

Obviously many other things come into play like how hard you train and how smart you train and even just good luck but genetics do play a very big role.

If for example you want to set a couple of worlds records and take home several gold medals at the olympics (at say swimming for example) you need to have some pretty darn good genes for swimming compared to the average population (even though the person with the best genes in the world for swimming who could beat your record with appropriate training may be a lard arse eating popcorn and watching you while you compete in the olympics on telly or as you say playing the piano).

I for one could train as expertly and as hard as I like but I won't be setting any swimming world records or taking home any olympic gold medals for swimming (and I'm willing to bet you won't be either).

Not that that worries me as swimming is not my thing bodybuilding/powerlifting is. I think I probably have very average ordinary genes for building muscle (perhaps 50% of the male population has better genes than me). For one thing I'm not a mesomorph.

Yet at a reasonably lean 230lb and a PB bench press of 3 reps with 365lb I would say that I am more muscular and stronger than at least 99% of the male population (including the 49% who have better genes for being more muscular than me but who don't train for it). In that sense I think you are right. (Never the less my weight and strength look pretty ordinary compared to some of the guys with the best genes out there who do train).


I think if youve got relative exceptional genetics then you've also got absolute exceptional genetics.

Getting back to my swimming example. If you are the world record 100m freestyle holder then you probably have better genes for swimming than at least 99.99% of the pool of other swimming competitors (which includes not just other olympic level competitors but all levels including school level i.e. out of anyone who has had an oportunity to see how good they are at swimming and had a serious desire to compete if they were any good).

If you have better genes than 99.99% of the pool of people who are into competitive swimming than you will also have better genes for swimming than 99.99% of the entire worlds population (including the vast majority who aren't into competitive swimming).

That means that percentage wise at least you have absolute exceptional genetics not just relative exceptional genetics (even though with 6 billion or so other people in the world there are possibly tens of thousands of people with better genes).

The only way this would not be the case would be if the pool of people who were into competitve swimming consited only of people who out of the general population were the worlds worst 1% of swimmers (which is unlikely).


(Not wanting to get into some sort of racist debate here or anything) but if you look at the line up of finalists in any of the past olympic 100m sprint finals (for at least the last couple of decades) you will note a curious perponderance of people with dark colored skin.

However if you look at the line up of finalists in the olympics 100m swimming finals you will this time note a perpondernace of lighter colored swimmers.

As skin color is a gentically determined trait and as other traits are also genetically determined this provides some evidence that genes are quite important for suitability to different sports.


What a great scientific study you've just provided us with, thank you so much. You could've just sited the article that was posted about that very topic about 5 years ago on this very site.

But your use of such outstanding empirical evidence is without reproach...at least you used a big word like "perpondernace" to make it sound a little more science-like. What does perpondernace mean by the way? I take it that it's a little like PREponderance except it's per.


....or fixing helicopters


Or not striving to improve himself at all because he doesn't have the drive because he's already so damn good.

What's that saying? Hollywood is full of the second-most beautiful people in their home town?


Is it just me or do I detect a hint of sarcasm in your post?

I wasn't making any claim to be doing a scientific study or to be presenting any great empirical evidence. Sorry but scientific studies is my day job (which I am doing right now actually, even though its Sunday) I am just here to have a social chat on a topic that interests me, that is I'm talking off the top of my head, I'm here to relax and pass the time (I don't have the time or energy to do a scientific study or statistical analysis of the topic at issue here). Not everything I write can be a scientific study (its time consuming enough having to write up one thoroughly researched and double checked scientific document, I don't have the time or energy to do the same with my social chit nor does anyone else I see posting here).

I'm not sure but sounds like you may have some disagreement with what I am saying. Care to point out exactly what it is?

Are you perhaps disagreeing that black athletes have a genetic advantage over white athletes when it comes to winning 100m sprints? Are you perhaps suggesting that the color of the line up of the athletes in the last several Olympics 100m finals is a total coincidence. Would a thorough statistical analysis (the one your bagging me for not doing) prove the skin color of 100m Olympic finalists to be a complete coincidence perhaps?

BS I could have done no such thing because I was previously unaware of the existence of any such article until you pointed it out to me just now. I wasnt reading T-Nation articles 5 years ago (only been reading T-Nation maybe a year or two). Sounds like an interesting article though, hope I can find it.

I am currently in the middle of writing up my PhD thesis (even though its Sunday here) on the topic of how light is able to be transmitted through periodic sub-wavelength apertures in conducting thin films and with a transmittance much greater than one in some cases (interesting stuff I assure you).

Point is that in between posting in this thread I am in the middle of writing a scientific document and perhaps as a result when I post here I'm sounding all scientific like and using big words as well? My apologies if my "big words" were too much for you but like I said right now as I write up my PhD thesis my brain is in "big word" writing mode.

(I guess its better than doing the reverse and writing stuff about genes and sporting performance in my chapter on the "Development of a Rigorous Model of an Infinite Array of Sub-wavelength Slits in a Perfectly Conducting Thick Film").

No its just a simple spelling error. Sorry but I only spell check my thesis (MS Word is pretty good, spell checks it as I write). I'm a mathematician not an English major (yeah my spelling is crap, always has been - so sue me - doesn't stop me getting the highest level qualification possible though albeit in Physics not English (oops there I go using big words again, the word albeit isn't too big for you is it?).

Any way do you have any specific objections to what I've written (on the topic it issue), any specific points you wish to argue with me?

Well its been good being distracted from what I should be doing; now to get back to it (another eight hours of maths to go today, joy oh joy). Suspect I'll be back here for another distraction soon.

PS Ive run this post through the spell checker, it found ten spelling errors but youll be pleased to know that they are all corrected now so there shouldnt be any left in it (apart from missing apostrophes - why do all my apostrophes get changed to question marks?)

Any way please let me know if you do find another spelling error preferably in your sarcastic tone if possible (after all spelling is so important to a T-man, its one of the lesser known side effects of testosterone; a pedantic obsession with spelling).


I think genetics are fundemental for an athlete to be extraordinary. Extraordinary like Olympic level. At lower levels, hard work can be substituted on occasion.

My friend David Spender was not particularly tall, nor was he incredibly strong, or anything really special genetically. He was above-average probably. But he went 5th in his division in his sprinting events and went down as one of Wooster's finer swimmers. This was because he busted his ass every practice, doing things like moving into the "fast lane", working to his max in the weight room, and going to the optional morning practices.

Then there is Ethan Crabtreem the fastest sprinter out of Wooster ever. He is definitely genetically predisposed. He was over 180 very lean pounds when he got his best time. He is up near 6'4", and with all this his arms and legs are obviously very long. He's built to sprint, that is certain, but he also worked VERY hard. He got every edge he could and was relentless in search of his eventual 5th place at States. That is an example of genetics and work together, as opposed to work alone.

So in conclusion, to excel, genetics are almost absolutely necessary, but not always. If one is as large as Ethan but slacks off, misses a lot of practices, eats poorly, etc. his performance will greatly suffer. My times earlier this season are indicative of this, as I am Wooster's tallest swimmer this year and I am very fit, as strong as most every kid on the team, but I am not really a standout.

I wasn't pushing myself enough. Now that I am starting to, my times are getting lower and lower... but being only a sophomore I'm not too worried about not being the next Ethan Crabtree.


I definitely agree with you here.

You can go much farther with work ethic and no genetics than genetics and no work ethic.