Are elite athletes just lucky genetic mutants?

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Jason Daley

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Are elite athletes just lucky genetic mutants?

Some definitely are, but while Michael Phelps’s giant wingspan and Ed Viesturs’s monster VO2 max may seem freakish to an average athlete, their gifts would hardly qualify them for the X–Men. Like most other sports stars with genetic gifts, their physical advantages only register on the high end of normal. But every once in a while an athlete comes along whose extraordinary congenital assets are truly off the chart. Take the case of Finnish cross–country skier Eero Mäntyranta, who pocketed two gold medals at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics and discovered decades later that a mutation in his receptor for the hormone erythropoietin increased his number of oxygen–carrying red blood cells by at least 20 percent. But don’t point—you’re a mutant, too. Armand Marie Leroi, professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College London and author of 2003’s Mutants, estimates that, on average, newly conceived human embryos have some 300 mutations, most of them detrimental, although to widely varying degrees. Writes Leroi, “Some of us are more mutant than others.”

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