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What Makes an Athlete?

As the baseball season winds down and the football season is poised (hopefully) to begin, it's interesting to think about why some people become professional athletes and others don't. It's not just a matter of talent and determination--it also involves having the right GENES. In other words, what's more important: nature or nurture?

The ACE gene comes in two forms, one of which has an insert of 287 base pairs in its code and one which is missing these inserts. About 19% of Caucasians have two copies of the insert (one from each parent), and 37% have no inserts (they have "deletions" instead) and the rest have one. People who are good at sports requiring strength are more likely to have deletions in the ACE gene, while people who are good at endurance sports are more likely to have inserts. Inserts show up in long-distance runners, rowers and triathletes. Mountaineers who climb high peaks are also much more likely to have inserts. But most professional swimmers have deletions, because most swimming events demand short bursts of strength, rather than long term endurance.

In the July 30-31 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley writes, "The neat thing about the ACE study is that, while it implies a role for nature, it does not do so at the expense of nurture. Indeed, it underlines the role of effort. The answer to the nature-nurture riddle is much more interesting than 'both.' Because people obsessively practice skills that come naturally, and avoid those they find hard, nurture is constantly reinforcing nature. People who are gifted in music, mathematics for sports labor mightily to improve their talent. And 'hard work beats talent--if talent doesn't work hard,' as the basketball player Kevin Durant is fond of saying.

"That both versions of the gene are common implies a bout of indecision on the part of evolution: Sometimes the strong won, sometimes the tireless. Perhaps a tribe with some of each did especially well, or perhaps when one version grew rarer, it was favored, so that the strong did well when most people were tireless or vice-versa."

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