Jamaican me speedy

2008-08-22 00:00

Jamaicans dominated the Olympic 100 m and 200 m sprints, with Usain Bolt setting two world records and his team-mates taking the medals in the women’s events.

Jamaica is a poor, tiny island nation. What makes its people such champion sprinters?

A combination of nature and nurture, according to existing studies.

One study conducted in Quebec in the 1980s found that black West African students had higher amounts of “fast-twitch” muscle fibres — responsible for short, explosive bursts of action — than white French Canadians did.

So far, there is no evidence that even extensive training can turn slow-twitch muscles into fast-twitch ones, though moving in the other direction is possible.

Exercise physiologists at the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies are researching the genetic, nutritional and sociological factors behind this sprinting success.

The team have just begun to analyse the genetic data they have collected, but preliminary findings suggest that 70% of Jamaicans have the “strong” form of the ACTN3 gene — which produces a protein in their fast-twitch muscle fibres that has been linked to increased sprinting performance.

That’s a significantly higher percentage than in the U.S., where about 60% have the gene variant.

A further 28% of Jamaicans are heterozygous — possessing two forms of the same gene, one from each parent — compared with 20% of Americans.

The rest, by contrast, have the “null” form of the gene that produces no protein, apparently making for lousier sprinters.

Cultural factors also are likely to add to the success of Jamaican sprinters.

Track and field has historically held a high place of honour in Jamaican culture.

Some have attributed the medal haul to better training over the past 30 years.

The country’s University of Technology has become a premier training centre for track and field.

However, four-fifths of this year’s Olympic team trained overseas.

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