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.”