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Have you ever wondered why some countries seem to have a superabundance of runners at the top levels? Many scientists have which is why there have been many studies about Jamaican sprinters, who repeatedly beat out the competition at an international level.
What they’ve discovered is that there are some genetic components to the abilities of sprinters. ACE or angiotensin-converting enzyme is a gene with some variants, and one of them gives you a large heart that is better at sending high oxygenated blood to muscles and helps your body respond to training. The highest rates of this variant in the world? Found in Jamaica.
One theory for why this is has to do with the slave trade. West Africa already has a slightly higher than average frequency of the variant, but when slaves were moved along the trade routes, thousands died. Jamaica was the final stop, which meant that the people who survived that long were incredibly tough.
One odd side effect is that many Jamaican athletes deal with diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular problems, despite the fact that they have trained their bodies at a high level.
Another gene that might play a role is ACTN3, which helps muscles contract repeatedly and affects fast twitch muscles. It also has a variant that is beneficial for sprinters, one that 70% of US athletes at the international level have. Jamaicans? Out of all citizens, 75% have it, athletes and non.
What’s amazing about these genes is that the supposed differences found on the genetic level are played out on the track. Jamaica has only 2,800,000 people, but repeated gold medals in sprints at the Olympics and across the world stage.
There are some other theories about why Jamaicans sprint so well. One points to the fact that there are aluminum ore deposits in the areas from which many Olympians hail. The ACTN3 gene can only do its work in the first three months of pregnancy, as that’s when the number of fibers in a person’s fast twitch muscles develops. Some people think that the aluminum in the environment or in a mother’s diet changes the creation of proteins in the baby.
No matter what the explanation, the island has some edge that gives it such amazing sprinters.