Genetics or training - what is the secret to becoming a star athlete?

Amongst all the records, achievements and scandals at Rio 2016, a small piece of history was written. Leila, Liina and Lily Luik from Estonia became the first identical triplets to compete against each other in a single event – the marathon. If this wasn’t proof enough that athletic talent runs in the family, there were at least 36 sets of siblings competing in the Rio Olympics, showcasing family dominance at the Summer Games.

 

Amongst all the records, achievements and scandals at Rio 2016, a small piece of history was written. Leila, Liina and Lily Luik from Estonia became the first identical triplets to compete against each other in a single event – the marathon. If this wasn’t proof enough that athletic talent runs in the family, there were at least 36 sets of siblings competing in the Rio Olympics, showcasing family dominance at the Summer Games.

The most emphatic familial success in Rio was for Team GB’s brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee. Their respective gold and silver medals in the Triathlon saw them improve on their first and third places in London 2012; the result of a combination of advantageous genetics, fierce rivalry and carefully managed training behaviours.

 

But there was one absentee at this summer’s Olympic games. One sibling who missed London, Bejiing and every world Championships in between. In fact, Hassan Farah has never run a competitive race. Why? Because he never got the chance.

 

Unbeknown to most, Hassan is the twin brother of Mo Farah – now a household name and one of Britain’s most decorated Olympians. Hassan remains a telecoms engineer in Somalia despite having been a promising runner himself. As boys, the pair were extremely close and would often chase each other around their hometown of Gebilay, before they moved to Djbouti escaping Somali conflict. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Hassan explained that ‘Mo and I were on a par as runners… sometimes I would beat him, sometimes he would beat me’.

 

Their mother agreed that Hassan had been a talented runner, but admitted that he just didn’t have the same opportunities.

 

Aged 8, Mo and Hassan had the chance to improve their quality of life and move to London through their British citizen father. Unfortunately, before they were about to travel, Hassan fell ill and was forced to remain with extended family in Somalia.

 

Astonishingly, several months later when their father returned to Somalia to collect Hassan, they could not find him. He came back to England empty-handed and was met by Mo’s devastation. Only years later did Mo discover that the extended family Hassan had been staying with had left the city and his father was simply unable to locate him. It took 12 years before the twins were reunited.

 

After their separation, the twins’ lives took very different directions. As soon as he had settled in Shepherds Bush, Mo started competing and taking running seriously. His ability was first discovered by his P.E teacher in secondary school at 13-years-old when he finished ninth in the English school’s cross country. From then on he continued to work his way up the ranks, winning long distance Junior Championships before starting life as a full-time athlete, aged 18.

 

Despite both Farah brothers inheriting many traits that gave them the ability to excel at running from an early age, it was only when Mo completely shaped his environment to succeed at the sport, did his true potential come to fruition.

 

Hassan who, incidentally, was brighter than Mo, has earned a decent living for his family by becoming a telecommunications engineer and admitted that it was Mo’s environment that allowed him to achieve his dreams.

 

‘Now he has had the most technically-advanced training and advice available in the world, with top running tracks and gyms to work in, and I have had nothing’.

 

Mo began to live an extremely disciplined life, moving in with a group of Kenyan runners and Australian Craig Mottram, where they ate, trained and rested without any form of social life.

 

Like many East Africans with a good biological basis, he reaped the benefit of his Somalian genes. His long, strong limbs and slight stature, rakish almost, gave him the crucial power to weight ratio that is essential in any world class distance runner.

 

In 2008 he spent the winter training in Kenya and Ethiopia, taking advantage of being able to run at altitude. In 2011 he moved to Portland to become a part of the Nike Oregon Project headed up by American coach Alberto Salazar. This environment seemed to bring the very best out of Mo. According to Salazar, up until then his training had been “haphazard”. “He was all over the place. He did no weight training. He would jog and do five minutes of drills with no stretching afterwards”.

 

Mo began to make his presence known on the distance running scene, famous for being the undisputed dominant force when it came to the final couple of laps of a race. Despite being ranked only 31st in the all-time 5000m lists and 16th over 10,000m, his raw speed and astonishing turn of pace in the last 400m of races allowed him to win races when it mattered.

 

His furiously competitive nature and tactical superiority developed as products of the very best environment, taking him from a good runner into a race winner. He became both physiologically and psychologically supreme.

 

As you’d expect, Hassan had the same genetic potential. Because identical twins develop from a single fertilized egg, they have the same genome. But the difference between the twins, came down to their environments, not genetics.

 

Hassan had the same genetic basis to facilitate a lean 9.5 stone frame and incredibly economical running style that would have made him, too, an exceptional distance runner. In both Farah’s there was the huge aerobic capacity combined with a higher top speed capability than classic endurance racers. This could have enabled Hassan as well as Mo to be a little stronger and a little more powerful than the rest of the field.

 

Who’s to know whether Hassan could have eclipsed Mo’s achievements given the chance? Could Team GB have had another utterly dominant family pair as seen in the Brownlees? Could the brotherly competition of Mo and Hassan have brought even better results and caused a gulf between the two of them and the other athletes? We will never know.

 

 

But what this story does show, is that although genetic information is integral to what we become, one’s environment has a huge influence on how far those inherited traits will develop. And in Mo’s case, the combination of his genetics, incredible work ethic and focused training has lead him to become a runaway success.

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