You’ve heard the stories: sitting in classrooms around the country are humans with Thorpeish swimming abilities, Cadel-like aerobic capacity or Freemanesque sprinting.
At one point, the most successful pool swimmer in the world, Michael Phelps, was described as being the “perfect physical specimen” for his craft.
At 1.93 metres, he’s tall – an important factor for medal winners. Taller swimmers are more efficient in the water: their size reduces drag, they can reach higher velocity thanks to their bigger bodies.
Sports institutes around the world, and in Australia, scour the school yard and sports industry searching for the person who will be the next big thing in the pool, track, ball courts and playing fields around the world.
As much as people love the idea that freakish athletes are somehow born that way, the truth is far more mundane.
As much as sports commentators and pub stool vernacular love the idea that freakish athletes are somehow born that way, possessing of some borderline impossible mix of genes that make them claim medal after medal, the truth is far more mundane.
Genes come into it, but not in the way we think
“It’s one of the tantalising topics, where it’s probably a genetic role in some sporting performance, but actually pinpointing them [the genes] is going to be a massive challenge,” says Professor David Bishop from Victoria University, a muscle exercise physiologist who has worked with Australian Olympic teams, and consulted to AFL clubs.
And the challenge he identifies is crunching the genomes of thousands of elite athletes across the globe to find the candidate DNA that might give a glimpse into what gives them an edge.
There’s also another problem. The chances of one or a few genes giving someone an edge is unlikely.
“Sometimes there can be one genetic variation that might contribute really strong to a disease… but sporting performance, regardless of how you define it, there’s probably going to be a large number of genes,” Bishop says.
The chances of one or a few genes giving someone an edge is unlikely.
Height, for example, that most sought after quality in elite swimmers, basketballers and rowers, might be determined by hundreds of genes – a combination of which is taken from a person’s parents.
Genes do, however, play an inescapable part. But it’s what Bishop calls the “anthropometrics” of the budding athlete that ultimately play a part.
What nature’s randomness gives you – be it your father’s skinny legs or your mother’s height – and how you use it is certainty one pillar of the holy trinity of sporting performance.
Parents play a second role in the budding athlete
Annette Edmondson has no idea whether genetics came into it for her career.
Edmondson hung the bike up on a decorated road and track cycling career two years ago. Her brother Alex is still racing in the men’s road world tour.
Surely, if one family produces two world champion track cyclists, there must be something special going on in the genes?
“Potentially genetics, but also, we were very lucky to grow up in a very loving family that was encouraging in whatever we chose to do, and encouraging our passion,” she says.
Parental commitment seems to be one of the major factors to take potential talent to the top.
“They dropped everything to let us chase our goals.”
Parental commitment seems to be one of the major factors to take potential talent to the top.
Edmondson was identified after completing a series of school-based tests. Such test are often undertaken by students across the country in the format of shuttle run, 20-metre sprints and vertical jumps.
From there, her results, made their way to the South Australian Sports Institute (SASI).
There, the rule is run over the data and talent scouts will either re-test prospects at school, or directly invite them to specialised training to see if they might have what it takes to excel in elite sport.
Genes might even come into it here, as academies take note of biological parent height, just in cases the all-important growth spurt is yet to happen.
But as much as genetic traits and parental support are crucial, they matter little if one all-important factor, located roughly between the athlete’s ears, doesn’t exist.
It’s all in the head
Former Olympic gold medallist Brett Aitken now runs the program that the Edmondsons and dozens of other elite bike riders have cycled through over the decades.
When I ask what the chances that the perfect cyclist is actually yet to be found, that they’re actually sitting around pushing pens and scribbling science articles, he agrees it’s entirely possible.
But he would hope that the best possible athletes are already being picked up through the academy system, where the best talent is being sifted to the elite level.
That’s because, fundamentally, the magic biological component isn’t in the genome, but rather, one particular organ.
In sports measured by wins and losses, it’s the mental component that ensures the cream rises to the top.
“Sometimes you can’t get it just from looking at the physical numbers,” Aitken says.
The magic biological component isn’t in the genome, but rather mental.
“You’ve got to look at them in-play, when they’re doing the shuttle run test, how much grit and will do they have?
“That mental, psychological aspect is massive. Sometimes it overcomes everything else, even if they potentially are a little bit off in the physical component.
“They’re at such a young age as well, they’re still developing, so you have to be able to see through that. There’s a maturity age in talent search kids, especially in young teenagers, who are going through different phases of maturity and development.”
Hearts and minds
The Queensland Government is hoping to identify the next big thing in elite Olympic sports now.
A 13-year-old in the Sunshine State today can be identified and introduced into one of the Queensland Sport Academy’s development streams, then make the cut through to elite training, and could be donning the green and gold in the Brisbane 2032 games.
The hope is that not only will Australia enjoy the gold rush often seen among host nations, but that a sizeable chunk of medals will be scooped by Queenslanders.
But state sports academies and Olympic squads might not have exclusive rights to the top talent.
While these high-performance programs are breeding ground for world performers, it can’t compete with something other domestic codes in Australia offer.
The football codes and cricket programs have developed a knack for poaching code-switchers in recent years, and not just between each other.
While these high-performance programs are breeding ground for world performers, they can’t compete with money.
Former WNBA title winner Erin Phillips was a marquee signing for the Adelaide Crows in the first AFL Women’s competition held in 2017, eventually winning three premierships. Commonwealth and World Championship gold-winning netballer Sharni Norder joined Collingwood’s netball team in 2017, then moved next door to the Magpies’ Australian football team in 2018.
Even Olympic gold medallist Kyle Chalmers, one of Australia’s top swimmers, met Port Adelaide and Geelong AFL clubs in 2020 about getting out of the pool and diving into the lucrative native football competition.
Cricket might also be eyeing off prospective talent too. Patrick Farqhart is Cricket New South Wales’s head of sports science and medicine. Previously the lead physiotherapist with the Indian national men’s team, he’s worked with some of the planet’s top cricketers.
He sees parallels between what NSW needs in fast bowlers and some of the Olympic codes.
“If you look at the prototype of the javelin thrower, the 400m hurdler, the long jump or triple jumper, I can see lots of those transferring over to becoming a fast bowler, particularly in the female game,” Farqhart says.
“Should we be openly targeting people in those sports? Selfishly as a cricket person, yes.”
Farqhart says cricket might also turn its gaze towards “combine testing” employed particularly in the AFL: Mass gatherings of talented juniors for the nation’s top talent spotters to pick out prospective big hitters and pace bowlers for senior state selection.
With plenty of money in domestic competitions, and specialised talent programs designed to identify – and keep – top talent across the football and cricket codes, state sports academies which specialise in Olympic-style sports, have their job cut out for them.
Back in South Australia, Aitken remembers one such talent that slipped through the cracks.
“About six or seven years ago now on the back oval at SASI, we’d set up a mini circuit where they did time trials on bikes on an oval,” Aitken says.
With plenty of money in domestic competitions, state sports academies which specialise in Olympic-style sports, have their job cut out for them.
“I remember looking at this one kid who was just a standout, not just in that test but in a number of different tests. I was looking at all the other [discipline] coaches going ‘I want that kid’.
“That kid’s name was Izak Rankin. He ended up being close to the number one draft pick in the AFL.”
Aitken says the rise of women’s football particularly threatens talent acquisition for Olympic-type sports. Part of the challenge, which the Brisbane 2032 games may assist, is capturing the imaginations of young Australians once again.
“Olympic sports are not the prized sports anymore for a lot of young athletes… I think everyone still aspires when they watch the Olympics and that is still the ultimate of sport.
“But it’s a completely different culture and demographic these days, and younger generations are more aspired to sports they see more regularly: AFL, cricket, basketball and all these other sports that are a bit more lucrative, and those sports themselves are really determined to find that talent as well.”