a1 International Centre for East African Running Science (ICEARS), Institute of Biomedical & Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QQ, UK
a2 Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, University of Central Lancashire, Preston PR1 2HE, UK
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.