Review: ‘The Sports Gene,’ on the science of athletic performance, by David Epstein

Donald Thomas was bragging to his pals on the college track team about his dunking skills on the basketball court. So they bet that he couldn’t clear 6-feet-6-inches in a high-jump contest. When Thomas sailed over a bar set at seven feet, the losers urged their coach to recruit him. Eighteen months later, he won the world championship.

Albert Pujols is one of the best baseball players of his age, but when facing Jennie Finch, a softball pitcher who threw underhanded, he struck out. Badly.

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Nature vs. nurture was probably a trending topic when sports fans exchanged text messages carved into clay tablets during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. It still is, and Thomas certainly reinforces the naturists. Turns out the guy has “a giant’s Achilles tendon” that acts as a huge spring when he jumps.

Pujols illustrates the counterargument. His “simple reaction time” is nothing special, but he has amassed a vast “mental database” about big league pitching that effectively enables him to “see into the future.” He guesses — no, he knows — exactly where and when a ball will cross home plate. But against Finch, he had no database. He was “stripped of his crystal ball.” So he whiffed.

In his fascinating book “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein — a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a former college runner — comes to a compelling if not surprising conclusion: Nature and nurture are both essential ingredients for athletic achievement. “The truth is, even at the most basic level, it’s always a hardware and software story,” he writes. “Sport skill acquisition does not happen without both specific genes and a specific environment, and often the genes and the environment must coincide at a specific time.”

Of course, software and environment can cover many factors — fair and unfair. Distance runners know, for example, that there’s a “sweet spot,” between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, “where the air is thin but not too thin.” Training at that altitude increases lung capacity in a legitimate way. But others, from cyclists to baseball players, have tried to enhance their “software” through drugs, not dedication, and policing those cheaters is a major problem for many sports. See Armstrong, Lance, and Rodriguez, Alex.

Many researchers and writers are reluctant to tackle genetic issues because they fear the quicksand of racial and ethnic stereotyping. To his credit, Epstein does not flinch. He reviews the best scientific studies and reports that, on average, black athletes run faster and jump higher than white ones.

But that’s not because of skin color. It’s because they are descended from tribes living in low, hot, dry climates. And over countless generations of natural selection, those Africans reproduced traits well adapted to their environment: long legs, short torsos, narrow pelvic bones. The same qualities also happen to make excellent power forwards and wide receivers. (Short-limbed Europeans and Asians, by the way, are better at weightlifting and gymnastics.) “So this is not strictly about ethnicity so much as geography,” Epstein writes. “Or latitude and climate to be more precise.”

Many other factors mix with genetic propensities, but they are much harder to measure. One small region of Jamaica has produced “an extravagant number of the world’s top sprinters.” Many are descendants of escaped slaves from Africa who created a fierce warrior culture in a remote corner of the island. Nature or nurture? Obviously both.

According to one researcher, Yannis Pitsilades, this is what happened. The “genetic stock” of those Jamaican sprinters started with the “strong people” seized and sold as slaves. Only the “strongest of those strong” were able to survive the “brutal voyage” to the New World, flee bondage and flourish in the wilderness. So genetics was enhanced by experience. For these Jamaicans, speed was essential — to escape, to hunt, to fight. Not everyone agrees with Pitsilades, but sprinter Michael Johnson, winner of four Olympic gold medals, does. “Slavery has benefited descendants like me,” he says. “I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”

Or take a less dramatic factor. Jamaicans worship sprinters the way Americans celebrate sluggers. So the top Jamaican athletes are self-sortedinto one narrow specialty, just as talented young Canadians play hockey and the best Brazilians focus on soccer.

Some of those traditional patterns are disintegrating under the impact of globalization, however. Sports are a huge business with vast profits at stake, and success at the most elite level demands highly specialized and hard-to-find body types — not just sport by sport, but position by position.

And the best specimens can now be recruited from anywhere. Natives of the Dominican Republic tend to have the perfect build for a major league infielder — short, slender, nimble. But few of them can block pass rushers or grab rebounds. The NBA has been “scouring the globe for giants” and has found them in Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania. Nigerian and Samoan names now dot NFL rosters, mostly as defensive backs.

“As the expanding universe of sports physiques has sped outward,” Epstein writes, “finding those increasingly rare bodies has fostered an increasingly extensive, and expensive, global talent search.”

A few questions emerge. Genetic testing for athletes? Epstein acknowledges the risks of discrimination but comes down in favor. Genetic mutations can cause enlarged hearts or increase the risk of head injuries. Testing can lead to better vigilance and greater safety. It can also identify athletes with certain traits or propensities, but Epstein warns that genetic makeup, by itself, is never a guarantee of success. Another quality is always necessary — passion, intensity, heart.

“Acknowledging the existence of talent and of genes that influence athletic potential in no way detracts from the work it takes for that talent to be transformed into achievement,” he writes.

Genetic selection? Epstein cites only one deliberate case among humans. The very tall parents of Yao Ming, the gigantic Chinese basketball player, were “brought together for breeding purposes by the Chinese basketball federation.” An intriguing footnote: Some of world’s best pure athletes are Alaskan sled dogs, and they have been heavily bred for one quality above all — not speed or strength, but desire.

I have only one complaint: The narrative slows down when the author shows off what he knows about the arcane details of genetic science. In all, however, this is a fine book with a moral message. “Each of us is like the hero in a Greek tragedy,” Epstein writes, “circumscribed by nature, but left to alter our fate within the boundaries.”

The fans at Olympus knew that. We should, too.

Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and is writing a book about immigrant athletes in America.

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Read David Epstein’s Outlook piece “Alex Rodriguez can’t beat Father Time.”

THE SPORTS GENE

Inside the Science of Extraordinary
Athletic Performance

By David Epstein

Current. 338 pp. $26.95

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