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The Sports Gene


The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, David Epstein

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

New York Times: As an 800-meter runner at Columbia University, David Epstein often tested himself against his training partner, Scott. Mr. Epstein was a walk-on who had clawed his way onto the varsity team. Scott, the son of two Canadian track standouts, had set a national age-group record in 1997, the same year David had taken up track as a high school junior.

Where Scott performed like a natural, David was a “talentless duffer” who would “chew through a crowbar” to gnaw a quarter-second off his time. “I just had to be tougher than him, I thought, because I didn’t have the talent,” Mr. Epstein writes.

But what exactly differentiated the two runners? Was Scott endowed with some gene for speed? Could David’s grit and determination overcome his apparent lack of innate ability? Where does the intersection between talent and practice lie?

These are the questions Mr. Epstein seeks to answer in this captivating book, which began as a feature in Sports Illustrated, where he is a senior writer. The book’s title misleads, since he forcefully argues that no single known gene is sufficient to ensure athletic success. His answer to the question “Nature or nurture?” is both.

If that sounds like a hedge, it isn’t: instead, it’s a testament to the author’s close attention to nuance. He approaches his subject like a scientist, stopping to examine the uncertainties and taking care not to overgeneralize.

The narrative follows Mr. Epstein’s search for the roots of elite sport performance as he encounters characters and stories so engrossing that readers may not realize they’re receiving an advanced course in genetics, physiology and sports medicine.

To illustrate that learned perceptual skills can trump innate reaction speed, for example, he revisits the slugger Albert Pujols’s humiliating strikeout against Jennie Finch, an Olympic softball pitcher who throws underhand. While investigating a theory that practice is what distinguishes professional athletes from amateurs, Mr. Epstein meets a golf novice, Dan McLaughlin, who quit his job to test whether 10,000 hours of practice — called the “magic number for true expertise” in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller “Outliers” — could transform him into a P.G.A.-worthy professional. (He started in 2010 and is less than halfway to 10,000 hours; by June, his handicap was 5.5.) Whether (and how fast) chumps can become champs depends on their baseline ability and how rapidly they improve — factors highly influenced by genetics. After months of identical training, some exercisers make almost no fitness gains, while others increase their aerobic capacities by 50 percent or more. Scientists have identified more than 20 gene variants that can separate high responders from low ones.

Mr. Epstein argues that we often confuse innate talent with spirit or effort. Even traits like desire may arise from DNA (see the Iditarod dogs selectively bred for enthusiastic pulling), but that does not mean they come down to any single gene. Whether it’s running faster, standing taller or jumping higher, multiple genetic pathways may lead there.

In a particularly fascinating chapter, Mr. Epstein investigates an old theory that purports to explain why one small country, Jamaica, produces so many Olympic sprinters. The notion is that strong Africans were selected as slaves, that the strongest of them survived the voyage to Jamaica, and that the strongest survivors eventually escaped slavery and cloistered themselves in a remote region to form an isolated “warrior” gene stock that now produces world-class athletes.

The Sports Gene  

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