Performance between ethnicities

“There is no doubt that our genetic makeup plays an important role into what and who we are. But finding them… now that’s a different story…”

Although a very sensitive topic, science has observed that specific ethnic populations seem to perform better in sports than others. Kenyan and Ethiopian runners dominate the world of endurance running, whereas Jamaican and African-American runners dominate the short sprinting events. However, there are various internal and external factors that contribute to success.

The graph on the left shows the 2015 IAAF standings for the men’s marathon (y-axis: time; x-axis: nationality). There has been lots of speculation surrounding populations from African descent, especially from those countries with areas that are high above sea level, and whether their genetics contribute to their overall performance. But thus far, no genetics can explain their success.

The human body can very easily and relatively quickly adapt to various forms of exercise, such as training loads and the environment (hot vs. cold environment, altitude). Thus, just because one group of people excels in a specific sport, does not necessarily mean that their success is genetic. Exposure to the sport, training volume and intensity, and motivation are factors that can significantly influence performance. However, to what extent these factors can push the human body to its limits and bring about the physiological adaptations, are still unclear.

What are we doing?

Together with some of the MyoLab’s collaborators, we are busy producing a review article that will focus on black and white sprinters and long distance runners. Many papers have focussed on the genetics, but this review will focus particular on observations and discoveries made on muscle physiology and the overall physiological response to exercise in a laboratory setting. Future studies will then be designed to answer the pressing questions that is still unclear.


Nicolas Place (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)

Laurent Messonnier (University of Savoie, France)

Ross Tucker (University of the Free State, South Africa)

Jamie Smith (University of Cape Town, South Africa)