In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?
We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they?
The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?
The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research.
In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence.
Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components.
This subject necessarily involves digging deep into sensitive topics like race and gender. Epstein explores controversial questions such as:
• Are black athletes genetically predetermined to dominate both sprinting and distance running, and are their abilities influenced by Africa’s geography?
• Are there genetic reasons to separate male and female athletes in competition?
• Should we test the genes of young children to determine if they are destined for stardom?
• Can genetic testing determine who is at risk of injury, brain damage, or even death on the field?
Through on-the-ground reporting from below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, revealing conversations with leading scientists and Olympic champions, and interviews with athletes who have rare genetic mutations or physical traits, Epstein forces us to rethink the very nature of athleticism.
Are Tiger Woods, Jim Ryun, Serena Williams, and Michael Jordan natural athletes whose success in their own sports would have occurred whether they developed their gifts or not? Are some individuals genetically disposed to some sports, while others lack the genetic predisposition to succeed at the same sports? Sports Illustrated senior writer Epstein probes these questions in a disjointed study. Drawing on interviews with athletes and scientists, he points out that "a nation succeeds in a sport not only by having many people who practice prodigiously at sport-specific skills, but also by getting the best all-around athletes into the right sports in the first place." Epstein observes that some scientists and athletes confirm that the so-called 10,000 hours of practice produces quality athletes, while others assert that the number of hours spent in practice matters little if a team has not already selected superior athletes in the first place. Epstein comes closest to scoring a home run in his provocative and thoughtful focus on the relationships between gender and race and genetic determination why do male and female athletes compete separately, and are there genetic reasons to do so? and why do the best sprinters always come from Jamaica and so many long-distance Olympian runners hail from Kenya? While he helpfully leads readers into the dugout of modern genetics and sports science, his overall conclusions challenge few assumptions. In the end, he concedes that "any case for sports expertise that leans entirely either on nature or nurture is a straw-man argument."
Must read for the sports romantic and scientist alike
Epstein explores complex genetic questions that reach far beyond sports in a way that is both understandable and entertaining. He somehow figures out a way to make scientific reading for the layperson feel comfortable. Through most of the book, the reader feels almost as if Epstein is sitting in the same room answering questions as he astutely anticipates your confusion and breaks it down with clarity and confidence. Maybe most importantly though, he finally takes on the 10,000 hour expertise theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell with solid evidence and conviction.
But away from the science, it's just a must read for sports fans. The questions I have had my whole life playing sports are explored in a way that is engaging and witty. His stories conjure up vivid images for the reader while tracing a pretty consistent narrative in a book that could easily otherwise be all over the place. If you follow Epstein's columns in Sports Illustrated, you won't be able to put this one down.