My great-great-great uncle William Cayley was a country doctor, infamous for once riding up on his horse to a patient’s house. Peering through the window from his saddle, he intoned to the man’s wife that “he will be dead in 3 days”, before galloping off into the distance. I come from a long line of such consummate medical professionals, so you would think that science and medicine would be in my blood. However, I am the black sheep of my family, the rest of whom all work for the NHS. Somewhere along the line my genetic inheritance took a funny turn, and I ended up being a history geek with a terrible grasp of basic anatomy.
I therefore approach any popular science book with a sense of trepidation, anxious that it will highlight my feeble understanding of the subject. So I do not say it lightly when I pay The Sports Gene the highest compliment in my arsenal: This book is so compelling it will even make you care about Alaskan dogsled racing.
As a jumping-off point, David Epstein takes the current nature vs nurture debate. A number of writers, most notably Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, have popularised the idea that when it comes to sporting or artistic success, practice is a far more significant factor than innate talent. In particular, the concept of a ‘10,000 hour’ rule has taken root, this being deemed (based on one small study of violinists) to be the approximate amount of time required to master a skill at a world-class level.
Epstein doesn’t dismiss the importance of rigorous practice and the right environment, but his book investigates the other side of the question: is there such a thing as innate talent, and what are the genetic markers for it? While there is no single sports gene that makes someone a talented sportsperson, there are a number of genes that make people more disposed to excel at particular sports.
For example, he tells the story of Donald Thomas, a student from the Bahamas, who took up high-jumping at university for a dare, and within 8 months won gold at the World Championships. Thomas has a particularly long and springy Achilles tendon, something determined by a particular combination of genes.
There are all sorts of astonishing facts in the book. If an American man is 6’2” there is a 5 in a million chance that he plays in the National Basketball Association. If he is 7 foot tall, it drops to 1-in-6. Or how about this: 17 American men in history have run a sub-2:10 marathon; 32 Kalenjin men from Kenya went under that threshold in October 2011 alone.
One point that boggled my mind is that there is often more genetic diversity in single African populations (e.g. the Maasai) than the rest of the world combined. This is almost certainly because non-Africans are mostly descended from a small group that left the continent around 90,000 years ago. This has huge implications for sport. The sheer amount of genetic variation means that Africa is very likely to contain the extremes – the outliers – in a given athletic activity. Africa is potentially where you will find both the best AND worst at any sport – the fastest marathon runner and the slowest.
And the Alaskan dogsled racing? The Iditarod is a 1000-mile race across some of the harshest conditions on earth. In 2007 the sport was revolutionised by a simple discovery; if you breed huskies for their work ethic (i.e. their willingness to pull a sled all day and night) rather than their speed, the race could be won in 9 days rather than 14. Huskies that were pulling at 7mph could beat those that pulled at 15mph, something which previously had seemed counter-intuitive. There’s something vaguely comforting about this; somewhere out there is a sport for me that would reward my ability to grind out the miles, even though I am not the fastest greyhound in the pack (although I was robbed of the senior men’s road title, I tell you, robbed!).
Alas, I am missing the crucial genes. I’m not a dog.