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For athletes facing head trauma, perhaps there are some relatively painless actions they could take. "If this gene is how you're describing it," says Duguay, whose test showed that he has one ApoE4 copy, "and I knew I had it when I was playing, I would've seriously considered wearing a helmet."
Glen Johnson, a 41-year-old boxer with a 50-13-2 record, including wins over Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver, says he was considering retiring after his November loss to Chad Dawson. The older Johnson gets, the more he wants every bit of information that can tell him about what his life might be like after he quits fighting. Johnson—who understands that it isn't a particular gene variant, but rather getting hit in the head, that is the key factor in brain injury—has already put his relatives and friends on alert to tell him if they notice any differences in his speech or memory. "I'd have to get a better understanding of [ApoE4], and I'd take a lot of other things and tests into consideration when I think about fighting again," Johnson says, "but I'd never hide from extra information."
FINDING THE PERFECT ATHLETE
IF PITSILADIS IS to pinpoint the athletically perfect genetic specimen, he or she must first exist. Just how many of these folks might have stepped right off Mount Olympus is a question that kept Alun Williams awake two years ago. Williams, a geneticist at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, and a colleague pored over the scientific literature and chose the 23 genetic variants that have been most strongly associated with talent in endurance sports. The scientists gathered information about the variants' prevalence—some are found in more than 80% of people and others in fewer than 5%—and made statistical projections of how many "perfect" endurance athletes (people with two "correct" variants of each of the 23 genes) stride the earth.
Williams figured that perfection would be rare. After all, a Lance Armstrong comes around only once in a lifetime. But Williams was shocked when he ran the algorithm on his computer and saw that the odds of any person having all the right gene variants for endurance were less than one in a quadrillion. That's a one followed by 15 zeroes. Think of it this way: If you pony up for 20 tickets each week, you'd have a better chance of winning the Mega Millions twice in a row than of hitting this genetic jackpot.
The bottom line is that even Lance isn't a perfect specimen. Based on only the 23 chosen genes, there's almost certainly no genetically perfect athlete alive. In fact, given that a measly 6.8 billion people live on our planet, chances are that nobody has the ideal endurance profile for more than 16 of the 23 genes. An individual is also unlikely to have only a few of them. Essentially everybody falls in the muddled middle, differing by only a handful of genes. It's as if we've all played genetic roulette over and over, moving our chips around, winning sometimes and losing sometimes and gravitating toward mediocrity. "We're all relatively similar because we're relying on chance," Williams says.
But if anyone is the beneficiary of a long genetic winning streak, it should be a world-record holder, shouldn't it? Pitsiladis selected 24 gene variants most often associated with sprinting or endurance prowess and looked for them in the genomes of four men who have held the world record in the 100-meter dash and five who have held the world record in the marathon. What he saw was that based on those genes, the world-beaters are not genetic outliers at all. Pitsiladis analyzed the DNA of some of his graduate students for comparison and found that "a student of mine has a better rating for sprinting than the likes of an Asafa Powell or Usain Bolt." (Pitsiladis is legally prohibited from identifying specific athletes with their genetic material, so he used Powell and Bolt as rhetorical examples.)
That rather startling result leaves two broad possibilities: First, there is a tremendous amount of work left to be done to find all the remaining genes that contribute to athletic success; second, something other than genetics is at work. Both may well be true, but only time and more research will rule on the former, while Pitsiladis has compiled considerable data on the latter.
Some of the most intriguing work comes from his study of the demographics of elite East African distance runners. When Pitsiladis analyzed Kenyan runners, he found that three quarters of all elite international competitors were from a single tribe, the Kalenjin, who make up a mere 10% of Kenya's population. At first blush that would seem to indicate a genetic advantage in the Kalenjin, but Pitsiladis also found that they were likely to be living and training at altitude in the Rift Valley. When Pitsiladis compared 400 elite Kenyan athletes with a group of randomly selected Kenyans, he found that as children, the athletes were more likely to have lived at least several miles from school, and much more likely to have had to run there and back. Eighty-one percent of the elite Kenyan runners he studied had to rely on their feet to get to and from school, compared with only 22% of the control group. One 10-year-old boy whom Pitsiladis tested last year was already such an experienced runner that he clipped off six-minute miles when Pitsiladis tested him on a dirt track.
Haile Gebrselassie, the world-record holder in the marathon and perhaps the greatest distance runner ever, began running to school when he was five, covering more than six miles each way. For Ethiopians like him, Gebrselassie says, "every day is running. Every job is running: working in the fields or just getting somewhere. Life is running." (The statistics bring to mind a mock charity drive announced in the late 1990s on a now defunct online track and field message board: Help Americans compete in distance running by donating school buses to Kenyan children.)