We know that technology makes a difference to sporting successes. According to David Epstein, Jesse Owens’ personal best from the 1930s would have seen him finish in last place in the 2013 World Championship 100 metre final. But that ignores the effect of starting blocks and the superior track used in 2013. Take this into account, and Epstein says Owens would have finished second.
But what does the future bring? How might the Usain Bolt of today, compete against the sprinters in two or three decades’ time?
Let start with genetics.
We know that certain genes seem to be associated with success in certain sports. To take an obvious example: basketball. As David Epstein said: “If you know an American man between the age of 20 and 40 who is at least seven feet tall, there's a 17% chance he's in the National Basketball Association right now.”
There is also some evidence that certain genes are associated with sprinting prowess. Take the ACTN3 gene. There is clearly a link between this gene and sprinting success. Sprinter Michael Johnson has suggested that a unique combination of genes such as ACTN3, explains why so many of the top sprinters in the world can trace their ancestry back to West Africa. Johnson said: “Descendants of slaves from West Africa have a superior athletic gene.”
This may be true, but we have not yet pinpointed the genes that create this. While it is the case that the ACTN3 gene is more common amongst successful sprinters, is it not that rare amongst the population at large.
But the commercial opportunity is there. Back in 2008, a company called Atlas Sports Genetic began offering ACTN3 genetic testing for under $200. There was a fanfare of publicity, but you might struggle to find much about the company from the last couple of years, some say that such tests are little more than the modern day equivalent of selling snake oil. On the other hand, one of its tests was used by the women’s 800 metre runner Jenny Meadows, who changed her training regime based on the information the test revealed. She also said she may have avoided an Achilles tendon injury she suffered before the 2012 Olympics if she had taken the test before.
What we can say is that there is a link between technology and sporting success – obviously, there is a link with genetics too, but hard work is surely the main factor the drives the world’s top athletes.
You only have to look at Mo Farah’s training regime to realise he applies himself in a way that is truly extraordinary. He makes sacrifices that few us would be willing to even consider. Then again, can it be a coincidence that just 12% of the Kenyan population are from the Kalenjin people, yet this same group makes-up a massive proportion of the world’s top distance athletes?
As David Epstein said: “To put Kalenjin running success in perspective, consider that 17 American men in history have run faster than two hours and 10 minutes in the marathon. That's a four-minute-and-58-second-per-mile pace. Thirty-two Kalenjin men did that last October. That's from a source population the size of metropolitan Atlanta.”
Yet Kenya’s big rival for producing distance athletes is its neighbour, Ethiopia. Farah was brought up in the UK, but was born and traces his ancestry back to Somalia, a country that neighbours both Ethiopia and Kenya. It is stretching credibility to say genetics plays no part in the success of athletes from this region of Africa, just as it is stretching credibility to say genetics plays no part in the success of sprinters who can trace their ancestry to west Africa, but geneticists have not yet been able to find the link, or indeed ascertain its importance. Maybe it is just culture, peer pressure to succeed in particular sports, and sheer hard work that are the main drivers of athletic success.
But suppose the genetic configuration that lies behind athletic success could be defined. And suppose parents could have the genes of their child edited, using CRISPR, for example, a system for editing DNA that is used by bacteria, to fight off dangerous viruses. The current thinking is for the technology to be used to cure any genetic disease. But suppose it is used to fashion a body with inbuilt ability. Can you imagine a time, later this century, when the 100 metres final consists of sprinters whose genes had been edited, to give them even superior make-up for sprinting than Usain Bolt. Maybe if the Bolt of today was somehow transported into the 100 metres of say the 2068 Olympics, he would finish 14 feet or so behind the winner.
But what about technology? Djokovic may have a graphene tennis racket, and Oscar Pistorius may have been able to run the 400 metres in 45.44 seconds, despite not having any legs, but that is surely just the beginning. Prosthetics may currently exist for the benefit of those with a disability, but how long before we all have the option of enhancing our strength or speed, via prosthetics? In the 1970s, the idea of the six-million-dollar man, played by Lee Majors, having been granted superpowers by technology, was the stuff of science fiction, it may soon become reality.
But in age when many people fear that robots and computers may replace us, it seems as if the best hope for humanity is to use technology to enhance us. That maybe the only way that we can compete with the machine. And if this becomes normal, won’t it feel a tad quaint if the 100 metres final consists of athletes whose performance is not boosted by prosthetics?
And suppose a new performance enhancing drug was developed that had no negative heath implications. What is the difference from taking a healthy performance enhancing drug to support training, from using say wearable tech, or bioelectronics, to provide data to make training more effective?
Genetics matter, technology is essential, but without sheer hard work, these other factors count for very little.
Maybe that is the lesson for business owners, there is no substitute for hard work, and drive.