The perfect athlete
THE moment I sit down in Dr Yannis Pitsiladis’s small, bright office, in the science block of the University of Glasgow, he fires me a question. Why do I think black sprinters are so dominant, he asks. “Come on,” he says, “every sprinter who has run 100 metres in under ten seconds is black - why do you think that is?”
“Come on,” he says quickly. “I’m surprised you’re taking so long.”
“Er. They’re stronger?”
“So you are thinking that the black person has some kind of advantage over the white person?” replies Pitsiladis. “Hmmm. I may disagree. I would say that you should speak to a sociologist; I could say that it has nothing to do with biology.”
Coming from a scientist, this is surprising, to say the least. Indeed, some of Pitsiladis’s colleagues might even describe it as tantamount to sacrilege. Yet Pitsiladis should know, or know as well as anyone, whether there is such a simple explanation for the success of sprinters who hail from the West of Africa, or - in an another remarkable phenomenon, and one which sparked Pitsiladis’s original interest - the near total domination of endurance running events by East Africans.
For it is from here, in Glasgow’s West End, that Pitsiladis runs the International Centre for East African Running Science (ICEARS), a ‘virtual’ centre involving researchers from the sports sciences and social sciences from around the world. It is here, too, that he is carrying out pioneering research into the relationship - if indeed one exists - between genes and athletic performance.
It is a contentious area of study. The question of the apparent superiority of black runners is rarely explicitly posed, which, given the above phenomena, seems remarkable. When the young (and white) English sprinter Craig Pickering achieved his breakthrough at the Kelvin Hall earlier this year, beating his (black) training partner Jason Gardener over 60 metres, one of the first questions his coach, Malcolm Arnold, was asked was, “How far can he realistically expect to go?” The subtext was obvious, certainly to Arnold, who calmly replied that he could go all the way - there was nothing, Arnold seemed to be suggesting, preventing a white sprinter becoming Olympic champion.
The question of the apparent superiority of black runners is rarely explicitly posed
(edit) …If there is a truth to be discovered, a lock to be unpicked, then he wants to be first. He is a scientist, after all; this is what scientists do.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that he is doing it in Glasgow. It is from here that he makes regular visits to Kenya and Ethiopia, where he has studied more than 1,000 leading endurance runners. More recently he travelled to West Africa, to study the sprinters, and, in the last month, to Jamaica, to visit members of the ‘Sprint Factory,’ which includes the world’s fastest man, Asafa Powell.
Pitsiladis’s lab in Glasgow, meanwhile, sees a steady stream of visiting athletes (or their DNA). His net has widened to take in swimmers, especially, but also cyclists and “any sport where one can actually study and understand the limits of human performance. We don’t study those that are multi-factorial, such as football, but those where speed, endurance and strength are key.”
For Pitsiladis it all started - figuratively speaking - in East Africa. Though the domination of world endurance running by athletes from two countries, or specifically from one area - the Rift Valley - is well established, it has not been subject to too much serious scientific research until recently.
There isn’t much funding available to carry out what is expensive work, perhaps because “it isn’t as useful as cancer research,” as Pitsiladis wryly notes.
There had been some work done in the field, in Copenhagen, by one Henrik Larsen. But to Pitsiladis much of the previous research was short on real science; it was a little woolly.
While there was a general assumption that the explanation is genetic - an idea reinforced by well-worn sayings such as “the key to Olympic success is to choose your parents well” - there has never existed any hard evidence.
So, around five years ago, Pitsiladis started looking; and three years ago he founded ICEARS.
“If it is genes that provide the explanation then where are they? I went into this to try and understand; it wouldn’t be good enough for me, as a scientist, to repeat the myth - sorry, I mean the view: it’s not a myth until it’s been dismissed - that black athletes are simply naturally superior, which is what you,” he says, pointing at me, "seem to be saying. I needed evidence. If I found the ‘magic gene’ I would patent it.
“We started in Ethiopia and initially getting access to the world’s greatest runners was hard. (edit) … to try and get some biological material from athletes was difficult. They’d become very, very nervous.” Nevertheless, Pitsiladas and his team were able to test hundreds of Ethiopean and, later, Kenyan athletes - he claims to have studied “the majority of the world’s greatest endurance athletes” - comparing some of their genes against those belonging to samples of the general populations of these countries.
Five years into his studies, Pitsiladis’s findings are shocking - at least, they are shocking coming from a scientist.
“I have searched and searched and searched,” he explains, "and I haven’t found a genetic explanation. So far, there is no compelling genetic evidence that there are race-related genes to explain this phenomenon.
“My feeling is that there are more compelling sociological and cultural explanations. For instance, there are around 3,000 Kenyans who make a living through running. They’re not necessarily making big money, but they are making a living. When I visit Kenya I have kids and parents coming up to me asking if they can come and run for my country - because I am white they assume I am an agent. The tradition of running goes back to the 1950s - they can see it is a way to make a living; there are lots of role models for young East Africans to try and emulate.”
There are parallels with Brazil’s young footballers - and no one has suggested a genetic explanation for Brazil’s conveyor belt of talented footballers. Another factor is environment. Many of the top East Africans are raised at altitude. Then there is the fact that many children have to travel long distances to school - and often they run.
Another curious phenomenon is the paucity of top-class Africans in other ‘pure’ endurance or power sports, such as swimming and cycling. The theory has been advanced that bone density explains black swimmers’ lack of success in the pool, though socio- economic factors - as with cycling - must be another barrier.
There aren’t many swimming pools in Africa. The other theory, of course, is the converse of the ‘running genes’ theory; it is that black people are not genetically disposed to swimming or cycling.
“I think the bone density argument is rubbish,” says Pitsiladis. "It doesn’t make sense to me that there is no black tradition in swimming or cycling.
The heart, when it is working, doesn’t know whether it’s swimming, cycling or running. The athletic demands are essentially the same. Again, sociology and culture I think have the explanation."
Pitsiladis’s insistence that society, culture, environment and economics might all be greater factors in athletic success than genes seems to undermine the work he is doing.
Or perhaps not. He is encouraged by some recent research undertaken by a student of his in Japan. This, he says, offers “a glimmer of a possibility” that the elusive genetic explanation is out there.
“All the ‘evidence’ of performances tells you it must be genetics - Kenya winning the world team cross-country championships 18 times in a row; all the track and field world records up to 400 metres at one time being held by those of West African descent - and an incredible concentration of Olympians from this one province, the Rift Valley, and about 80 per cent of Kenyan Olympians from one tribe, the Kalenjin.”
The glimmer of a possibility concerns the possibility that the world’s top runners, regardless of race, are all descended from East Africa. “130,000 years ago all of us were living in Africa, mainly East Africa,” says Pitsiladis. “The major flaw in a lot of genetic research of sport performance is the assumption that all whites and blacks have homogenous genes. But the Kenyans and Ethiopeans look very different genetically. We talk about the East African phenomenon, but they have different genes.”
According to Pitsiladis, there is a long way to go in unlocking the genetic secrets - if there are any - of sporting performance. “We humans have around 30,000 genes,” says Pitsiladis, "and 95% of them are the same as a chimpanzee’s.
"Between humans there is 99.9% commonality. We can isolate those genes that we suspect might be very significant - and there are three types we are studying just now - but there’s a lot of work to do.
“We can spend one year studying a single gene . and I’m not going to live to 30,000.”