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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene is not just a book about athletes. It's also a thorough debunking of books such as Talent is Overrated. If you were to want to debunk that book, you'd want to do this starting with athletes. Pretty much everyone knows intuitively that no on 5' 2" and shorter is going to play in the NBA. The disadvantages that accrue from being shorter than all the freaks of nature playing in the NBA would just be too much for any amount of practice to overcome.

The book starts with Tiger Woods, whose dedication to golf is pretty famous and well-documented. What Epstein points out, however, is that few accounts of Woods' success points out that even at 6 months, Woods was capable of standing on his father's palm while his dad walked around the house! That's innate talent that wasn't taught and can't be taught.

The book then goes on to cover short distance athletes, marathoners, skiers, sled dogs, and ties it all together. What's great is that in the course of covering the genetics of performance, he also discusses certain questions that have always bothered me. For instance, if living at altitude is so beneficial, why aren't the gold medalist sprinters and marathoners from Tibet and the Nepal Himalaya instead of being from Africa? It turns out that there's an optimum altitude for hemoglobin creation (5000-7000'), beyond which it's difficult to train hard. Furthermore, the sherpas and other high mountain people developed a different genetic pathway towards altitude acclimation rather than the metabolically expensive hemoglobin creation.

There's also a great discussion of Superbaby, how the success of a breed of alaskan Huskies proved that even motivation has a genetic component (they bred a breed of dogs that just wants to run when harnessed!).

The author also studied the Australian Olympic program, which specializes in identifying which sports an athlete is uniquely suited for, and then grooms that athlete for those sports. In those cases, it's quite clear that gold medalists with talent can achieve in 4,000 hours what others without talent cannot do with 10,000 hours.

Epstein succeeds in making his points, though obviously doesn't answer any questions about the intellectual analogues to the skills/abilities he discusses. Along the way, you'll learn a few things about genetics and what types of bodies it takes to succeed in the various sports. The average reader might be disappointed that he doesn't discuss what ethical implications they may be, and how quickly genetic engineering is likely going to take over the sporting events. The days of unaugmented athletes being able to perform at the world level might very well be numbered.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and can highly recommend it.

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