Gymnast Simone Biles’s signature move: Two backflips in the air, with straight legs, and a blind landing after an extra little half-twist.
Witnessing that gravity-defying feat, known as “the Biles,” you can’t help thinking that her level of talent is due to more than just thousands of hours of practice. Biles must have amazing genes. Clearly, there are some genetic markers for height—in Biles case, it helps to be small—but how about for factors like strength and precision?
For decades, scientists have been studying the role of nature and nurture in producing Olympic athletes like Biles. What they’ve learned is that while genes do play some role, they’re not a silver bullet. Environmental factors are extremely important: It makes a big difference if the athlete’s parents are interested in sports, and if they had access to both high-quality training and fresh food.
Scientists have pinpointed some gene variants that are associated with endurance and power, but are by no means predictive. “There is no super-athlete gene,” says Jennifer Kristin Wagner, a bioethicist at Geisinger Health System, based in Pennsylvania.