The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

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by David Epstein
     
 

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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 ofSee more details below

Overview

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 competitior’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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.” Agent: Scott Waxman, Waxman Leavell Literary. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“I can’t remember a book that has fascinated, educated—and provoked—me as much as The Sports Gene. Epstein has changed forever the way we measure elite athletes and their achievements.”—Malcom Gladwell

“Clear, vivid, and thought-provoking writing that cuts through science anxiety for rank-and-file sports fans.”

Bonnie Ford, Senior Writer, ESPN

“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.”

The Washington Post 

“Epstein’s rigour in seeking answers and insights is as impressive as the air miles he must have accumulated . . . his book is dazzling and illuminating.”

The Guardian

“Few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“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.”

Christie AschwandenThe New York Times 

“An important book . . . The Sports Gene is bound to put the cat among the pigeons in the blank-slate crowd who think that we can all be equal as long as we equalize environmental inputs such as practice.”

Michael Shermer, The Wall Street Journal

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for since the early 1960s. I can’t imagine that anyone interested in sports—particularly the fascinating question, ‘How do the best athletes become the best?’—will be any less enthralled than I.”

Amby Burfoot, (1968 Boston Marathon Champion), Runner's World 
 

“A must-read for athletes, parents, coaches, and anyone who wants to know what it takes to be great.”

George Dohrmann, author of Play Their Hearts Out

Library Journal
Epstein (senior writer, Sports Illustrated) presents a fascinating account of the latest discoveries in sports science. His conclusions are uncertain, however. He spends the bulk of the book focusing on genetic and anatomical differences in humans, and how these differences seem to help in making individuals, and groups of individuals, particularly skilled at certain sports. The evidence he presents thus leans heavily in favor of nature being the primary factor in the formation of athletes. Yet, he opens and closes his book by stating that nature and nurture are inseparable when it comes to the question of athletic performance. That is, training your body to do an activity is as important as having the raw ability to do that activity. From this, readers may understandably conclude that Epstein is suggesting one thing while stating another. Nonetheless, he should be commended for the clear and unbiased manner in which he presents his information, not in itself an easy task, especially when tackling controversial issues such as gender and race differences in athletic performance.

Verdict Fuzzy conclusions aside, this book is essential reading for sports fans interested in the science of sports, and for readers (not scholars) interested in the science of human differences.—Derek Sanderson, Mount Saint Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
What makes a great athlete? Being born with talent was the traditional answer, but like so many traditions, it is under attack. In his first book, Sports Illustrated senior writer Epstein makes no secret of his debt to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (2008), in which the author famously argued that success owes less to inherited ability (i.e., genes) than to intense practice and circumstance (i.e., luck). While agreeing with many critics that Gladwell oversimplifies, Epstein admits that he is on to something and proceeds to apply Gladwell's approach (many scientific studies and entertaining anecdotes; lucid, accessible prose) to athletic prowess. Genes definitely contribute to great performance. Jumpers benefit if born with a longer, stiffer Achilles tendon. Baseball players have superior visual acuity, and major leaguers see better than minor leaguers. Practice definitely helps, but, ironically, the ability to benefit from training is partly inherited, as is the will to train obsessively. However, even the most dedicated athlete is out of luck without genes that produce the right body type. Africans have longer legs and slimmer hips, allowing them to run faster. Caucasians are stockier, with thicker, stronger upper bodies. Of the 81 men who have run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, 80 are black, but sub-Saharan Africans have never won an Olympic weight-lifting medal. Epstein turns up no single sports gene. Hundreds exist, and researchers are nowhere near understanding their interactions. They seem more essential (but still not sufficient) for physical than intellectual achievement. Readers may feel overwhelmed at Epstein's avalanche of genetic and physiological studies, but few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101622636
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/01/2013
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
52,821
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“I can’t remember a book that has fascinated, educated—and provoked—me as much as The Sports Gene. Epstein has changed forever the way we measure elite athletes and their achievements.” —Malcom Gladwell

“Clear, vivid, and thought-provoking writing that cuts through science anxiety for rank-and-file sports fans.”
Bonnie Ford, Senior Writer, ESPN

“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.”
The Washington Post 

“Epstein’s rigour in seeking answers and insights is as impressive as the air miles he must have accumulated . . . his book is dazzling and illuminating.”
The Guardian

“Few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“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.”
Christie AschwandenThe New York Times 

“An important book . . . The Sports Gene is bound to put the cat among the pigeons in the blank-slate crowd who think that we can all be equal as long as we equalize environmental inputs such as practice.”
Michael Shermer, The Wall Street Journal

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for since the early 1960s. I can’t imagine that anyone interested in sports—particularly the fascinating question, ‘How do the best athletes become the best?’—will be any less enthralled than I.”
Amby Burfoot, (1968 Boston Marathon Champion), Runner's World 
 
“A must-read for athletes, parents, coaches, and anyone who wants to know what it takes to be great.”
George Dohrmann, author of Play Their Hearts Out

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