Nature vs Nurture

Nature vs Nurture

words by Eleanor Brinkhoff
photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash


For those with aspirations of triumphing at an elite sporting level, the sacrifice of time and energy is demanded in return. Any athlete who makes it to the top tier of competition, let alone a podium finisher, will have dedicated a lifetime to their sport.

Is it the unrelenting training that creates exceptional athletes? The 10,000 hours rule has often been dubbed as the amount of time of deliberate practice required to become an expert performer. However, there are those who train equally long hours who simply don’t make it.

This can sometimes be regarded as down to their natural genetic make-up. Hard press to find are rowers who don’t tower over most, with broad shoulders and impressive quads. Michael Phelps, the 28-time Olympic medallist, is supremely adapted to swimming due to his 6’7” wingspan, double jointed ankles and scientifically proven capability of producing 50% less lactic acid than others. Pete Reed boasted the greatest lung capacity of any athlete ever recorded whilst competing in the Rio Olympics.

But when is the genetic advantage deemed too great? The double Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya lost her legal battle last year, requiring her to take medication to lower her natural testosterone levels if she wishes to compete. The Swiss federal tribunal dismissed an appeal by Semenya stating that the ruling was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate to ensure fair competition in women’s sport.”

There is no doubt that elevated testosterone levels in women significantly increase aerobic performance, muscle power and strength; highlighted in a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But is it fair that Semenya was mandated to alter her natural hormonal composition? There have been numerous examples of genetic advantages in athletes walking through Olympic villages over the years, with almost all competitors having some advantageous physical attributes.

Ultimately some people are naturally better suited to certain sports over others. This advantage may be due to their above average height, or the fact their physiological processes run differently to others. However, without years of dedicated training whilst pushing their bodies and minds to the limit, these attributes alone would not result in international success.

So, you may be a Hercules reincarnate, but do as your coach says and get back in the boat.