GORDON Strachan has, quite rightly, been slated for a number of different things in the aftermath of Scotland failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, with much of the reprobation being directed towards his comment that the Scottish players just don’t have the genetics to succeed. As a nation we are, the Scotland manager said, just too small.
Immediately, stats were flung about highlighting just how many small players have succeeded. That Strachan himself is a mere 5ft 6in tall yet made 50 appearances for Scotland was cited as evidence that he was talking rubbish.
To use the suggestion that our players are too small as an excuse for the national team’s consistent and abject failure in recent years is lamentable but Strachan does, in fact, have a point, although I’m not sure he realised it at the time.
“I would pick my parents very carefully,” commented the Swedish exercise scientist Bengt Saltin, when asked what steps should be taken to become an Olympic sprinter. This is, of course, reductive in the extreme, and was said somewhat tongue in cheek. It clearly takes far more than merely some good genes to make an elite athlete. Attitude, talent, dedication and a host of other attributes are at least as important as genes when it comes to making a Usain Bolt or a Roger Federer.
Many observers believe that nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to ultimately being successful in sport. The 10,000 hours rule, which states that 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ is needed to become world-class in any field is often used to debunk the theory that genes have any impact on an athlete’s success. However, if this were completely true then how did athletes such as Michael Phelps and Martina Hingis achieve success over their far more experienced rivals long before they had accumulated the required 10,000 hours?
This surely suggests that genes do play a significant part in an athlete’s success. While it takes hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different factors to come together to make a world-class athlete, one must start with the right raw materials, which means the right genes. While the right genes do not, in any way, guarantee success, the wrong genes make success far less likely. The most obvious examples are that if a man is 5ft 7in tall and weighs 11 stone, he is unlikely to play top-level rugby union. Similarly, a 6ft tall female is unlikely to become a world-class gymnast. There will always be exceptions, but generally, the right genetic make-up is needed before the other elements can begin to be added.
And, if genetics were of so little relevance, why would genetic doping be such an issue? Gene therapists alter individuals’ genetic make-up to cure sickness but it is suspected that it is being used on healthy individuals in order to create stronger, more powerful athletes.
A study conducted by British scientists in 2007 compared 700 pairs of twins and concluded that 66 percent of the differences in sporting ability could be explained by genetic differences. Which means that the sum total of training, diet, environment and the rest accounts for far less than genetics when it comes to determining sporting talent.
It is thought that there are specific genes that contribute to sporting ability. Most of the population has around a 50/50 split of ‘talented’ and ‘untalented’ genes. A slightly above average athlete is likely to have a slightly better ratio, while an elite athlete is thought to have a better ratio still. Therefore, it stands to reason that if these specific genes can be manipulated, the chance of making a so-called ‘superhuman’ athlete is increased.
Strachan was rightly called out for blaming genetics on the national team’s failure. It seems certain there are far more contributing factors to the Scotland team’s lack of success than purely genetics. But there is a seed of truth in what he says. So while we need to improve a plethora of factors before our male footballers are anywhere close to the best in the world, maybe Strachan is right when he says we should be looking at recruiting individuals with the right genetic make-up, as well as everything else.
AND ANOTHER THING…
The revelation by the Norwegian Football Association that the men’s and women’s national players will receive equal financial compensation for representing their country was one of the most heartening stories I have heard all year. The men will make a financial contribution to the women’s team, which will result in the pot of money set aside for the women increasing almost two-fold.
This move is far more significant than merely tossing a few extra kroner in the direction of the women; it shows that women’s football and female footballers in Norway are valued, something that cannot be said for every country in Europe. In recent months, the Irish and Danish women’s teams, as well as the Scottish women’s national team have been embroiled in disputes about various things including money issues and lack of respect.
Norway taking this ground-breaking step reflects incredibly well on the country and says much about the male players who view this as an important step to move the game forward. I’d love to think this was the start of a raft of men’s teams following suit – but I fear the Norwegians may be alone for some time yet.