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Sporting success: Nature or nurture?

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It is common knowledge that many elite athletes hail from families with athletic backgrounds.

One can find a notable example in Singapore’s very own Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling, whose father Colin was a national softballer, while mother May represented Malaysian state Perak in tennis. 

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National swimmer Joseph Schooling shares a moment with his mother May at Parliament House. Photo: Sport Singapore

Top local badminton player Derek Wong is also the son of former national shuttlers Wong Shoon Keat and Irene Lee.

However, in the case of American swimmer Michael Phelps, his father was not a top athlete and only played football in high school and college. Yet the younger Phelps, who turned himself into the world’s most decorated Olympian, only picked up the sport because his mother wanted him to learn how to swim.

Genetics do determine sporting potential through the development of structural and functional characteristics, such as height and body type for sports such as basketball and volleyball. According to Singapore Sports Institute’s Principal Sport Physiologist Dr. Frankie Tan, these sub-traits are highly heritable. 

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Michael Phelps hugs his mother Deborah with sisters Hilary and Whitney after the medal ceremony for the men's 200m individual medley during the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, June 30, 2012.  Photo: Jeff Haynes/ REUTERS 

“A child inherits about 50 per cent of the chromosomes from each of both parents. All mitochondrial genes are inherited only from the mother. Thus a child receives only close to half of the genes from the father and a little bit more than half of the genes from the mother,” said Dr. Tan

“Therefore, in a very small way, a mother’s contribution might be slightly more relevant than the father’s, although it is impossible to measure how pronounced the effect is.”

Mostly, scientific evidence points towards other factors that come into play.

While the debate of nature versus nurture has been ongoing for years, more often than not, factors such as diet, lifestyle, training and rehab programmes and the environment can prove to be the difference.

Citing the example of East Africans (Kenyans and Ethiopians) and Jamaicans for their elite running abilities, Dr. Tan pointed out that the sprint gene variant was not unique to the latter and in fact, at least one copy of the variant could be found in nearly all Kenyans, as well as majority of Europeans, who are not renown for sprinting.

Additionally, scientists found that while Ethiopians and Kenyans have been equally successful in distance running, both groups do not share a large proportion of their genes; Ethiopians are much more likely to have blocks of gene variants common in Europe and Asia than the Kenyans.

A shared characteristic of both groups was the environment that they were brought up – at an elevation of about 2,000-2,500 metres in eastern Africa. As such, the assumption that the high altitude and exposure to low oxygen content could present certain unidentified genetic and phenotypical benefits that give the group an edge over their non-altitude based opponents can hold true.

Dr. Tan also highlighted that running is almost a necessity to the group when performing daily tasks. He cited running legend Haile Gebrselassie, who began running 10 kilometres to school each way at the tender age of five.

In a country that is plagued by poverty, the motivation to achieve economic success also drove these runners to train and compete, because their accolades could translate into socioeconomic benefits for their families.

“Elite athletes do show differences from the population as a whole, but they are not so overwhelming to attribute that this is the reason for their success. To date, no single gene for a specific sporting phenomenon has emerged. It is quite well accepted scientifically that there are many interacting genes involved in elite athletic performance.”


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