Born to Run, Flip or Smash?

Author:  David Epstein

The Sports Gene Cover (183x276)Why is your favorite sports hero – be it Aaron Rogers, Gabby Douglas, Ronaldinho, Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong – so successful?  Is he blessed with superior genes?  Does he simply work harder than everyone else?     Was she fortunate to have had the finest coaches?  Does he inject the best regimen of performance enhancing hormones and chemicals?  Or is it some combination of all of the above?  While it’s clear that there’s no simple answer, there are plenty of clever scientists who are trying to figure it out.  David Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, explores the modern world of athletic genetics in The Sports Gene, trying to sort out the many complex mysteries of great sports achievement.

Challenging the validity of the “10,000 Hour Rule” – a recent meme that claims that expertise in any area of endeavor is simply a matter of performing the task for 10,000 hours – Epstein wonders if there might be more to it than that.  Are some people simply better at seeing the rotation on a 100mph fast ball?  Do some body types favor running a marathon under 2:15?  Why do some people seem to excel in any sport they try?  While it seems pretty obvious that Danny DeVito would have been unlikely to make it in the NBA no matter how much he practiced, the science behind who succeeds and fails is consistently intriguing.

Epstein – a successful college 800m runner – puts together a well-researched  and entertaining adventure, traveling the world to try and figure out why Jamaica produces so many sprinters while Kenya generates marathon runners.  He also checks on sled dog breeding in Alaska and visits Eeno Mäntyranta – a man born with super charged blood and Finland’s greatest Olympian – in the wilds north of the Arctic Circle.

Serena Williams, the most financially successful female tennis player in history.

Serena Williams, the most financially successful female tennis player in history.

Weaving together such disparate fields as genetics, biomechanics, exercise physiology, hematology and sports psychology, the author deftly reveals the state of the art in understanding superlative athletic performance, exploring why Jim Ryun was the greatest American high school runner of all time and how Dennis Rodman became an NBA Hall of Fame inductee despite the fact that he wasn’t good enough to play on his high school team.  More sports than science book, Epstein writes with the enthusiasm of a true sports fanatic, keeping this reader entertained throughout.

Towering at 90 inches (229cm), Yao Ming is the greatest basketball player in China's 4000 year history.

Towering at 90 inches (229cm), Yao Ming is the greatest basketball player in China’s 4000 year history.

The author doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, acknowledging that scientists have a long way to go to fully understand the “nature vs. nurture” dichotomy.  While anyone’s achievement in anything clearly relies on components of both, Epstein presents plenty of evidence that the genetic aspects of athletic performance might be more significant than previously realized.  I wish he had explored the ethical aspects of this issue a little more.  While we typically separate males and females into different categories of competition, what will happen as we learn more about other kinds of genetic advantages or disadvantages?  Athletes with inherited blood disorders that enhance their performance are often given a pass by the doping authorities.  Why is a genetically induced boost in red blood cells ethically superior to one stimulated by injected synthetic hormone when they lead to exactly the same performance benefit?  This book makes it clear that a brave new sporting world is upon us which will present numerous knotty ethical issues.  Maybe Epstein will open up that can of worms in his next book.

While it didn’t convince me to get my own genome sequenced, The Sports Gene is an eye opening look into the remarkable science of sports performance that might make you wonder where your natural born talents truly lie.  While not everyone can be a Usain Bolt or a Paula Radcliffe, it’s possible that you share some of the genetic aptitude that has propelled them to greatness.  Highly recommended for any and all sports fans.

— D. Driftless

Williams photo by Aleksander Osipov/Yao Ming photo by Keith Allison

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