Risk gene tied to Olympic athletes?


With the Olympic Winter Games well under way, it seems fitting to draw comparisons with its counterpart: the Olympic Summer Games.

While the summer games boast more athletes and a greater variety of events, the winter games exhibit an uncanny amount of risk-taking.

We watch 15-year-olds being thrown feet off the ice and perform pirouettes in the air, all while placing their safety in their partners hands.

Our jaws drop as we watch 17-year-olds ski 90 miles an hour down a steep hill that spans more than four football fields in length.

Our knuckles clench and turn white as we anxiously grip the edges of our seats while watching 26-year-olds rocket down icy sheets with their faces just mere inches from the solid surface.

While watching, most people are thinking something along the lines of “Are these people crazy?” Or “I would never be able to do that.”

The risks these athletes take on a daily basis are monumental and can be fatal in many cases.

Is this need for speed inherent? Former alpine ski racer, Todd Brooker seems to think so. He thinks “it’s just part of your life. It’s something you’re born with.”

In fact, he may actually be onto something.

For the past two decades, scientists have known of the existence of a risk gene, and they say that one in five of us possess the genetic marker.

Steve Perino, the ski reporter for NBC at the Sochi games, mentioned speed addiction in his coverage. Science supports this phenomenon by claiming that it is based on the chemical reaction that this type of risk taking behavior produces in the brain.

It would seem to make sense that something ingrained in our biological makeup would be the force behind some people’s complete lack of fear when it comes to performing tasks that most humans wouldn’t dare try.

Dr. Nancy Snyderman, a physician who covers health and medicine for NBC, said, “There’s a reason why some of us are spectators and others are Formula One drivers.”

How else can it be explained that some people perform death-defying acrobatics on a sharply inclined snowy hill that’s more than 30 stories tall, while others can’t even jump off a diving board that’s four feet off the ground?

In my opinion, it seems to make sense that there is a scientific reason as to why many of us are spectators, while a select few of us are in Sochi right now skiing down steep hills at over 80 mph. However, it also makes me think about how it will affect the games in an ethical way if people begin to get tested for such a gene.

The brilliance of the Olympics is watching teenagers and adults alike performing acts that many of us will never come close to executing. It’s seeing how they grew up miles or continents away from us and one day decided to pick up a snowboard when they were toddlers.

There’s an outpouring of heartfelt stories where we see athletes as two-year-olds diving into a pool for the first time, realizing they had a love for the water and then watching them stand on the podium with a gold medal in hand years later — proud of themselves, their determination, their hard work, and most importantly confident in their choice of pursuing these sports.

If people are able to test themselves for the gene, what’s going to happen if the only Olympians we see are those who tested positively and use that fact as their sole motivation? Will we still admire their courageousness and passion?

While very interesting, I believe that this gene may rid the Olympic Games of its very essence — becoming an athlete based on passion, love and dedication to the sport. Because you believe that you are capable of defying odds and taking risks. Not because some machine confirmed that you’re genetically made for something greater.

So what’s the final verdict? Can this extraordinary defiance of fear be founded upon science? Are Olympians destined to become risk-takers from birth? Is there a concrete, scientific reason that explains why we don’t all become Olympians? And most importantly, what will happen to the Olympics if people begin to test themselves for the risk gene?

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