Skip to main content Accessibility help

Genetic influence on East African running success

  • Robert A Scott (a1), Colin Moran (a1), Richard H Wilson (a1), Will H Goodwin (a2) and Yannis P Pitsiladis (a2)...

East African athletes now dominate international distance running events from the 800 m to the marathon. Explanations for their phenomenal success have included optimal environmental conditions for developing distance running performance, psychological advantage and advantageous physiological characteristics. It is well established that genetics plays a role in determining inter-individual differences in exercise performance and adaptation to training stimuli. It is not known, however, to what extent inter-population differences (i.e. between ‘races’ and/or ethnic groups) in exercise performance can be attributed to genetics. There have been considerations that ‘black’ athletes are genetically adapted towards performance, given the concurrent success of athletes of West African ancestry in sprint events. However, the current notion of ‘race’ is not universally accepted, and genetic differences within and between populations are not clearly delineated by geographical or ethnic categorizations. Recent findings from mitochondrial DNA show that the populations from which Ethiopian athletes are drawn have not been isolated populations and are not genetically distinct from other Ethiopians. Y-chromosome analysis of the same population shows concurrent results, although some differences are present between athletes and the general Ethiopian population, suggesting an influence of the Y chromosome on athlete status in Ethiopia. It is concluded that there may be a role for genetics in the success of East African athletes; however, any genetic component to their success is unlikely to be limited to East Africans and is more likely to be found in other populations. At present it is unjustified to implicate a role for genetics in the success of East African runners when no genes have been identified as being important to their performance.

Corresponding author
Hide All
1Phillips, JC (1976). Toward an explanation of racial variation in top-level sports participation. International Review of Sports and Sociology 113: 3955.
2Entine, J (2001). In: Entine, J, Salles, G and Kearney, JT (eds.) Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk about it. New YorkPublic Affairs.
3Pitsiladis, YP, Onywera, VO, Geogiades, E, O'Connell, W and Boit, MK (2004). The dominance of Kenyans in distance running. Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology 14: 285291.
4Larsen, HB (2003). Kenyan dominance in distance running. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part A, Molecular & Integrative Physiology 136(1): 161170.
5Entine, J (2001). Race and sport. The race to the swift – if the swift have the right ancestry. Peak Performance Special Issue. Race and Genetics 158: 16.
6Saltin, B, Kim, CK, Terrados, N, Larsen, H, Svedenhag, J and Rolf, CJ (1995). Morphology, enzyme activities and buffer capacity in leg muscles of Kenyan and Scandinavian runners. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 5(1) 222230.
7Saltin, B (1996). Exercise and the environment: focus on altitude. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 67: Suppl. 3 S1S10
8Bale, J and Sang, J (1996). Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography, and Global Change. London: Frank Cass.
9Scott, RA, Georgiades, E, Wilson, RH, Goodwin, WH, Wolde, B and Pitsiladis, YP (2003). Demographic characteristics of elite Ethiopian endurance runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35(10): 17271732.
10Fagard, R, Bielen, E and Amery, A (1991). Heritability of aerobic power and anaerobic energy generation during exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 70(1): 357362.
11Lesage, R, Simoneau, JA, Jobin, J, Leblanc, J and Bouchard, C (1985). Familial resemblance in maximal heart rate, blood lactate and aerobic power. Human Heredity 35(3): 182189.
12Klissouras, V (1997). Heritability of adaptive variation: an old problem revisited. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 37(1): 16.
13Perusse, L, Rankinen, T, Rauramaa, R, Rivera, MA, Wolfarth, B and Bouchard, C (2003). The human gene map for performance and health-related fitness phenotypes: the 2002 update. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35(8): 12481264.
14Rankinen, T, Perusse, L, Rauramaa, R, Rivera, MA, Wolfarth, B and Bouchard, C (2001). The human gene map for performance and health-related fitness phenotypes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33(6): 855867.
15Rankinen, T, Perusse, L, Rauramaa, R, Rivera, MA, Wolfarth, B and Bouchard, C (2002). The human gene map for performance and health-related fitness phenotypes: the 2001 update. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 34(8): 12191233.
16Taylor, RR, Mamotte, CD, Fallon, K, van Bockxmeer, FM (1999). Elite athletes and the gene for angiotensin-converting enzyme. Journal of Applied Physiology 87(3): 10351037.
17Gayagay, G, Yu, B, BHambly, B, Boston, T, Hahn, A and Celermajer, DS (1998). Elite endurance athletes and the ACE I allele – the role of genes in athletic performance. Human Genetics 103(1): 4850.
18Woods, D, Hickman, M, Jamshidi, Y, Brull, D, Vassiliou, V and Jones, A (2001). Elite swimmers and the D allele of the ACE I/D polymorphism. Human Genetics 108(3): 230232.
19Nazarov, IB, Woods, DR, Montgomery, HE, Shneider, OV, Kazakov, VI and Tomilin, NV (2001). The angiotensin converting enzyme I/D polymorphism in Russian athletes. European Journal of Human Genetics 9(10): 797801.
20Rankinen, T, Wolfarth, B, Simoneau, JA, Maier-Lenz, D, Rauramaa, R and Rivera, MA (2000). No association between the angiotensin-converting enzyme ID polymorphism and elite endurance athlete status. Journal of Applied Physiology 88(5): 15711575.
21Rigat, B, Hubert, C, Alhenc-Gelas, F, Cambien, F, Corvol, P and Soubrier, F (1990). An insertion/deletion polymorphism in the angiotensin I-converting enzyme gene accounting for half the variance of serum enzyme levels. Journal of Clinical Investigation 86(4): 13431346.
22Woods, DR, Brull, D and Montgomery, HE (2000). Endurance and the ACE I/D polymorphism. Science Progress 83: 317336.
23Myerson, S, Hemingway, H, Budget, R, Martin, J, Humphries, S and Montgomery, H (1999). Human angiotensin I-converting enzyme gene and endurance performance. Journal of Applied Physiology 87(4): 13131316.
24Payne, J and Montgomery, H (2004). Angiotensin-converting enzyme and human physical performance. Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology 1(4): 255260.
25MacArthur, DG and North, KN (2004). A gene for speed? The evolution and function of alpha-actinin-3. Bioessays 26(7): 786795.
26Yang, N, MacArthur, DG, Gulbin, JP, Hahn, AG, Beggs, AH and Easteal, S (2003). ACTN3 genotype is associated with human elite athletic performance. American Journal of Human Genetics 73(3): 627631.
27Rivera, MA, Dionne, FT, Wolfarth, B, Chagnon, M, Simoneau, JA and Perusse, L (1997). Muscle-specific creatine kinase gene polymorphisms in elite endurance athletes and sedentary controls. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 29(11): 14441447.
28Rivera, MA, Dionne, FT, Simoneau, JA, Perusse, L, Chagnon, M and Chagnon, Y (1997). Muscle-specific creatine kinase gene polymorphism and VO 2max in the HERITAGE Family Study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 29(10): 13111317.
29Yu, N, Chen, FC, Ota, S, Jorde, LB, Pamilo, P and Patthy, L (2002). Larger genetic differences within Africans than between Africans and Eurasians. Genetics 161(1): 269274.
30Bouchard, C (1988). Genetic basis of racial differences. Canadian Journal of Sport Sciences 13(2): 104108.
31Burchard, EG, Ziv, E, Coyle, N, Gomez, SL, Tang, H and Karter, AJ (2003). The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice. New England Journal of Medicine 348(12): 11701175.
32Ingman, M, Kaessmann, H, Paabo, S and Gyllensten, U (2000). Mitochondrial genome variation and the origin of modern humans. Nature 408(6813): 708713.
33Cooper, RS, Kaufman, JS and Ward, R (2003). Race and genomics. New England Journal of Medicine 348(12): 11661170.
34Wilson, JF, Weale, ME, Smith, AC, Gratrix, F, Fletcher, B and Thomas, MG (2001). Population genetic structure of variable drug response. Nature Genetics 29(3): 265269.
35Pearce, N, Foliaki, S, Sporle, A and Cunningham, C (2004). Genetics, race, ethnicity, and health. British Medical Journal 328(7447): 10701072.
36Scott, RA, Wilson, RH, Goodwin, WH, Moran, CN, Georgiades, E and Wolde, B (2004). Mitochondrial DNA lineages of elite Ethiopian athletes. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part A, Molecular & Integrative Physiology (submitted for publication).
37Dionne, FT, Turcotte, L, Thibault, MC, Boulay, MR, Skinner, JS and Bouchard, C (1993). Mitochondrial DNA sequence polymorphism, VO 2max, and response to endurance training. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 25(7): 766774.
38Murakami, H, Ota, A, Simojo, H, Okada, M, Ajisaka, R and Kuno, S (2002). Polymorphisms in control region of mtDNA relates to individual differences in endurance capacity or trainability. Japanese Journal of Physiology 52(3): 247256.
39Rupert, JL (2003). The search for genotypes that underlie human performance phenotypes. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part A, Molecular & Integrative Physiology 136(1): 191203.
40Ruiz-Pesini, E, Mishmar, D, Brandon, M, Procaccio, V and Wallace, DC (2004). Effects of purifying and adaptive selection on regional variation in human mtDNA. Science 303(5655): 223236.
41Anderson, S, Bankier, AT, Barrell, BG de, Bruijn, MH, Coulson, AR and Drouin, J (1981). Sequence and organization of the human mitochondrial genome. Nature 290(5806): 457465.
42Maca-Meyer, N, Gonzalez, AM, Larruga, JM, Flores, C and Cabrera, VM (2001). Major genomic mitochondrial lineages delineate early human expansions. BMC Genetics 2(1): 13
43Macaulay, V, Richards, M, Hickey, E, Vega, E, Cruciani, F and Guida, V (1999). The emerging tree of West Eurasian mtDNAs: a synthesis of control-region sequences and RFLPs. American Journal of Human Genetics 64(1): 232249.
44Richards, M, Macaulay, V, Hickey, E, Vega, E, Sykes, B and Guida, V (2000). Tracing European founder lineages in the Near Eastern mtDNA pool. American Journal of Human Genetics 67(5): 12511276.
45Salas, A, Richards, M, De la Fe, T, Lareu, MV, Sobrino, B and Sanchez-Diz, P (2002). The making of the African mtDNA landscape. American Journal of Human Genetics 71(5): 10821111.
46Passarino, G, Semino, O, Quintana-Murci, L, Excoffier, L, Hammer, M and Santachiara-Benerecetti, AS(1998). Different genetic components in the Ethiopian population, identified by mtDNA and Y-chromosome polymorphisms. American Journal of Human Genetics 62(2): 420434.
47Semino, O, Santachiara-Benerecetti, AS, Falaschi, F, Cavalli-Sforza, LL and Underhill, PA (2002). Ethiopians and Khoisan share the deepest clades of the human Y-chromosome phylogeny. American Journal of Human Genetics 70(1): 265268.
48Rando, JC, Pinto, F, Gonzalez, AM, Hernandez, M, Larruga, JM and Cabrera, VM (1998). Mitochondrial DNA analysis of northwest African populations reveals genetic exchanges with European, near-eastern, and sub-Saharan populations. Annals of Human Genetics 62: 531550.
49Ellis, N, Hammer, M, Hurles, ME, Jobling, MA, Karafet, T and King, TE (2002). A nomenclature system for the tree of human Y-chromosomal binary haplogroups. Genome Research 12: 339348.
50Jobling, MA and Tyler-Smith, C (2003). The human Y chromosome: an evolutionary marker comes of age. Nature Reviews. Genetics 4(8): 598612.
51Underhill, PA, Shen, P, Lin, AA, Jin, L, Passarino, G and Yang, WH (2000). Y chromosome sequence variation and the history of human populations. Nature Genetics 26(3): 358361.
52Moran, CN, Scott, RA, Adams, SM, Warrington, SJ, Jobling, MA and Bosch, E (2004). Y chromosome haplogroups of elite Ethiopian endurance runners Human Genetics (submitted for publication)
53Skaletsky, H, Kuroda-Kawaguchi, T, Minx, PJ, Cordum, HS, Hillier, L and Brown, LG (2003). The male-specific region of the human Y chromosome is a mosaic of discrete sequence classes. Nature 423(6942): 825837.
54Beall, CM (2003). High-altitude adaptations. Lancet 362: S14S15
55Moore, LG, Shriver, M, Bemis, L, Hickler, B, Wilson, M and Brutsaert, T (2004). Maternal adaptation to high-altitude pregnancy: an experiment of nature – a review. Placenta 25: Suppl. A S60S71
56Montgomery, HE, Marshall, R, Hemingway, H, Myerson, S, Clarkson, P and Dollery, C (1998). Human gene for physical performance. Nature 393(6682): 221222.
57Baker, J and Horton, S (2003). East African running dominance revisited: a role for stereotype threat?. British Journal of Sports Medicine 37(6): 553555.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology
  • ISSN: 1478-0615
  • EISSN: 1479-070X
  • URL: /core/journals/equine-and-comparative-exercise-physiology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed