Olympic champions must train hard, but the right genes are also essential

(David J. Phillip - AP)
By Laura Hambleton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno trained for the Vancouver Olympics for two years. He sprinted up mountains, lifted weights, ran, biked and skated. He often worked out twice a day, sometimes more. In his first event of the 2010 Games, he won a silver medal.

But as the world heard about the training, dedication and drive that helped him become the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, overlooked was a key factor in Ohno's success: his genes. Ohno is a ready-made package for speedskating. His compact body allows him to crouch low to the ice and skate around the rink at top speed.

"His short stature is advantageous for short-track speedskating because the distance he has to travel when he puts his hand on the ice for stability is less than your 6-foot-2-inch guy," said J.P. Hyatt, a Georgetown University assistant professor who studies skeletal muscle adaptations. "His advantage would be taking tight turns."

In a world where victory can be measured in a fraction of a second, what you're born with -- your size, shape, slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers, lung capacity, size of the heart's left ventricle and running mechanics, for instance -- can be what separates an Olympic athlete from an also-ran.

Consider the genes of swimmer Michael Phelps. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, his genetic advantage was plain for all to see: His feet are almost flipperlike at size 14, his hands are huge and he is double-jointed -- attributes that earned him the nicknames (Half-Man Half-Fish and Deep-Sea Frog) for his prowess in the water.

"You can roughly identify body types that will be more advantageous for one discipline than another," said Jay T. Kearney, a performance physiologist and a high-performance director for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "In swimming freestyle or the butterfly, it is advantageous to be tall, to be thin back to front, to have wide hands, great big feet and flexibility."

Or, as Barry Boden, an orthopedic surgeon in Rockville with a specialty in sports medicine, put it: "Genetics is a kind of predictor. Body type does matter. Ninety-five percent of basketball and football players would not be playing if they weren't tall. They'd get selected out."

During a recent Georgetown class on physiological adaptation, Hyatt demonstrated the power of genetics. He projected a photo of the Bulgarian-Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, known as the Pocket Hercules. "He was tiny" at less than 5 feet, Hyatt told the class. But "his size was an advantage. He didn't have to move the weights as far as a guy 6-foot-8." . Suleymanoglu won Olympic gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

Next Hyatt showed a photo of Eric Heiden, who won gold in five speedskating events, from sprints to long distance, in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. It's an achievement that has never been repeated.

"Eric Heiden is a freak of nature, in a good way," said Hyatt. He explained that Heiden is blessed with extraordinary genes and very probably an unusual ratio between fast-twitch muscle fiber, which sprinters and speedskaters need for short bursts of speed, and slow-twitch fibers, which don't fatigue easily and are what marathoners and long-distance bikers rely on.

"He was good at both sprinting and long distances. He must have really good aerobic fibers. If I had to make a guess, I think his muscle properties lean toward the aerobic, slow twitch, which gives him stamina. He uses his fast twitch for speed, training them to be more aerobic, and took advantage of his fatigue-resistant slow-twitch fibers. "

Heiden, like other top-flight athletes, made his good physiology better through the right exercise regime. Moreover, his body undoubtedly reacted more productively to intense workouts, increasing its endurance and capabilities more than the average body would, Hyatt said. That's just the luck of your genetic makeup.

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