To become an elite sportsperson, you need to win the genetic lottery

A review of The Sports Gene by David Epstein


Winners, it is said, are not born but made. That, however, is not the whole truth, as David Epstein, an investigative reporter with Pro Publica, shows in his book The Sports Gene.

In recent decades, the role of genes in causing diseases has been elucidated time and again. So it should not be surprising that they must also play a role in creating gifted individuals. And, yet, the science to support the latter hypothesis is limited and more recent. The reason for this disparity is not because we don’t have the tools to find evidence for that hypothesis, but because the message it supports is not one that society is ready for.

Epstein make his case through many examples. These are not just of rare individuals with extraordinary achievements. He also looks at physiological characteristics of all players at the international level across various sports. Consider, for instance, the average male basketball player. Had he lived at the time, he would not have made a good candidate for Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. That is because a professional basketball player won’t fit in da Vinci’s circle—the length of the player’s outspread arms is greater than his height. Those two measures were considered to be equal in an “ideal human”. But Epstein’s calculations show that if you want to be an internationally successful basketball player, you need to be an exception—you need to be tall and have longer arms still.

This phenomenon is true of other sports. Be it sprinting, where those endowed with the ability to draw more oxygen from the air than the average are more likely to win. Or be it high jump, where rare jumpers with excessively long Achilles tendon end up succeeding. Or be it marathons, where most winners come from within a single tribe in western Kenya. The story is clear—to sculpt an elite athlete, the roll of nature’s dice must be played in their favour.

Teasing apart the role of genes on complex human traits is no simple task. But recent studies have identified a handful genes that can make or break an athlete. Take the EPOR gene, for instance. Those who have the gene, also tend to have exceptionally high haemoglobin levels in the blood. This improves the efficiency with which oxygen is consumed, creating some remarkable athletes if they choose that path. Or take the HCM1 gene. It causes one of the chambers of the heart to grow in size without any apparent symptoms. This puts an athlete with HCM1 at the risk of falling dead on a track without a warning. On average one such athlete dies every other week in the US.

In general, however, the interaction of genes that creates such remarkable athletes is too complex to breakdown. For instance, hundreds of genes are involved in determining someone’s height. So, even if genetic engineering is available today, a designer baby can’t be created to make an “ideal athlete”. But, to be sure, neither can the natural bounty of genes alone ensure great athletic feats. And, yet, there is no doubt that Epstein’s thorough analysis raises uncomfortable questions for the long-held view—recently made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule—that talent is nothing and practice is everything.

The nature vs nurture debate is not new, but genetics is providing the tools to take the debate forward. The evidence, as Epstein puts it, appears to be that the contribution of both is equally important.

Nurture alone is not going to turn a Pygmy into an NBA player, and that is not a fact that we must shy away from. If anything, genes could help people find which sports would be a good fit for them. Society must not fear these inherent differences. Rather, such inequalities make human life interesting and worth living.

Image credit: piers_nye, CC-BY-NC

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