The Olympics represent the pinnacle of sport, and competing in one is recognized as a major achievement in an athlete’s career and winning an Olympic medal akin to the finding the Holy Grail. Given the importance of such an achievement to countries and governing bodies, there is an increased interest in understanding the factors that increase the chances of such an achievement. A recent study published in Frontiers of Physiology sheds some additional light on this as the authors explore the impact that having an Olympian in the family has on an athletes chance of winning a medal.
Running the numbers
To determine how much of an impact family has, the authors carried out a huge study looking at data back to 1896. The authors gathered biographical information on every athlete who competed at an Olympic Games, both Summer and Winter, from 1896 to 2012. This is a massive undertaking, and the results make for interesting reading. The scope alone is amazing:
- 125,051 athletes have competed at the Olympic Games from 1896 to 2012.
- Out of this population 5,661 athletes (4.5%) were blood related to another athlete, and 1404 (1.1%) had more than one relative who competed at an Olympics.
Before looking at the impact of family, the authors defined the baseline: of the 119,390 Olympians without a blood relative who had competed at the Games, 24,319 won a medal. This means that the probability of winning a medal over the course of Olympic history is 20.4%. They then looked to see how the numbers changed depending on the relation to an Olympian.
- If you had a relative who had competed at the Olympic Games, but not won a medal, your chance of winning a medal was about the same as everyone else – unless that relative was a sibling, in which case your chance was lower than average.
- If you had a grandparent who had won a medal, your chance of winning an Olympic medal was ~37%.
- If you had a blood related aunt or uncle who had won a medal, your chance of winning a medal was ~44%.
- If you had a parent who had won a medal, your chance was ~43%.
- If you had a brother or sister who had won a medal, your chance of winning a medal was ~65%.
- If you had a non-identical twin who had won a medal, your chance of winning a medal was ~75%.
- If you had an identical twin who had won a medal, your chance of winning a medal was ~86%.
What do all these numbers actually tell us? Well, firstly, you tend to have something in common with those you’re related to: genetics. You share about 25% of specific genetic variants with your grandparents and aunts/uncles. You share about 50% of your genetic variants with your parents, brothers and sisters, including non-identical twins. You share 100% of your genetic variants with an identical twin. It’s interesting that, as the % of relatedness increases, so too does your chances of winning an Olympic medal. This suggests that genes are an important modifier of sporting success. If genes weren’t the factor, then we’d expect to see no difference in medal winning performance between identical and non-identical twins – and yet, we do.
Of course, genetics aren’t all we share with our blood relatives. We tend to share socio-cultural and socio-economic factors also, which can no doubt have a huge influence on performance. Family support is also shared—hopefully equally—between siblings, as is opportunity to take part in sport. Clearly, it would be wrong to state that genes are all that matters, because they’re not the only shared aspect, but they are still important. This is especially true given that we know that many physiological, psychological, and anthropometrical traits have a genetic component, and that these aspects contribute to elite performance. We see further evidence of this in the fact that your chances of winning an Olympic medal are greater if you compete in the same sport as your relative than if you compete in a different sport; specific physical, psychological and anthropometrical traits are more advantageous in some sports than others.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can use specific genetic information to predict performance. Whilst it’s clear that genetic variation has an impact on performance, as of yet we don’t really know what those genetic variants are, meaning that we can’t test for them. I’ve just submitted a paper on this topic, so at some point I’ll delve into this in greater detail.
In summary, if you want to win a medal at the Olympic Games, your best chance is if you have an identical twin that has already done so, in the same sport that you hope to. The lowest probability of winning a medal comes when you have a sibling who has competed in the Olympics who has not won a medal (apologies to my brother and sister for my poor performance); here, your chances of winning a medal are less than if you had no relatives who had competed at an Olympic Games – because the shared genetic and environmental factors that contributed to their lack of a medal are also likely present in you.
All this shows the importance of genetics within sports performance, but also the impact of non-genetic factors, such as parental support. As such, elite performance is a complex, multifactorial trait, and hopefully in the coming years we will be able to better understand what contributes to such a trait.