Tag Archives: David Epstein

The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory” by Richard Moore

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man cannot be both academically bright and good at sports. This is why my student dorm-mate Dan Dan the Ladies’ Man was so infuriating. Not only did he play for multiple teams across several sports, but he was a straight-A student with aftershave-advert good looks to boot. As his nickname suggests, he had an easy manner with the opposite sex and was rarely without a girlfriend. He was charming too, and a genuinely nice man to be around. Bastard.

One day, my friend John and I hit upon what we called “The Deductive Method”. Following a marathon session of Championship Manager, we had the revelation that all men must be born with 100 points, which are then allocated to brainpower, looks, athleticism etc. In Dan’s case we realised that he had spent his points so highly in virtually all areas that there was only one inescapable conclusion. Below the waist, he had to be built like a Ken-doll.

In the case of Jamaican sprinting, the Deductive Method would suggest that being very fast is a trade-off for the disadvantages of poverty and violence that plague the island. However, others who are less familiar with my personal brand of pseudo-science believe that there may be another explanation for all those medals: drugs. In The Bolt Supremacy, Richard Moore (see review of his earlier book “The Dirtiest Race in History”) visits Jamaica to explore the running culture for himself and see if he can find evidence of cheating. He sets out with some understandable reservations about Jamaica’s success. The 10 fastest 100m times in history are held by 5 men – Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Johan Blake, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin. 3 of these are Jamaicans (Bolt, Blake and Johan), and of the 5 men only Bolt has never tested positive for banned substances. Some think that he has simply been better at beating the testers.

But is this the whole story? Both Blake and Powell claim they tested positive for stimulants found in supplements they believed were legal. Americans have typically tested positive for steroids or testosterone, which have more proven performance-enhancing benefits. The Jamaican media typically takes great offense at doping allegations and the publicity surrounding failed tests – of course they do. They excuse their runners by saying they are guilty of negligence and carelessness rather than deliberate cheating. The argument goes that this small impoverished island lacks the infrastructure for systematic doping, and that the teams around their athletes lack sophisticated awareness of the contents of sports supplements.

Whether you agree or not, the strong sense of national pride in its runners displayed by the Jamaican media provides some insight into the island’s success. This is a country where the Prime Minister was personally involved in bringing a young Usain Bolt from his rural village to the capital, Kingston. A country where athletics is bigger than football. A country where the biggest event in the sporting calendar is a high-school track and field championship.

“Champs”, as it is known, is the centre of Jamaican athletics. Schools from across the island compete over several days, and winners become national heroes and media stars. One school in particular (Calabar) has an extraordinary roll-call of alumni, including multiple Olympians and world record holders. Track and field is the equivalent of American high-school football; it is at the heart of many communities, and the coaches are professionals, not teachers leading physical education classes in their spare time.

One explanation of Jamaica’s “sprint factory” is therefore that it is a culture that celebrates athletics to an unusual degree. In The Sports Gene (see review), David Epstein suggests that in another country Bolt would have been funnelled into a career as a basketball player, but as a Jamaican he aspired to be a runner. Are there physiological explanations as well? Genes may also play a part in Bolt’s success. Many Jamaicans are descended from slaves, and one theory suggests that because only the toughest slaves survived the brutal journey from Africa, today’s Jamaicans have been self-selected for strength. In addition, Bolt, Blake and many other stars are from an area of the island where slaves revolted against their masters and successfully fought for their freedom. Some argue there are therefore “warrior genes” in this region’s population of just 78,000 that explain their physical prowess. Finally, a statistically significant and curious number of top sprinters are the youngest of several brothers. No-one is quite sure why this makes a difference, but it does.

Genetics and family history may therefore be a factor. However, world-class sprinting is a sport about individuals, and it is individuals who have brought about the island’s success. As much as anything, Moore’s book is a series of meetings with remarkable Jamaicans. There is a chapter where he interviews Bolt’s dad, and we learn that he used to police Usain’s school attendance and make sure he wasn’t skipping class and training to play video games (“I would strap him”). We meet Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, whose humble nature means she lacks the world-dominating profile of Bolt. Fraser-Pryce’s story is a genuinely touching one of determination and using her talent to pull herself and her family out of the ghetto…and opening a hairdressing salon in the process.

We also encounter the man who is perhaps the architect of Jamaica’s success. Dennis Johnson returned from a US college scholarship in the early 1960s and decided that he was going to teach Jamaicans how to run fast. Bizarrely, he got sponsorship from a cigarette company and drove around the country in his Rothmans van on a one-man roadshow to educate a generation of runners and coaches about technique and sprinting mechanics. Today’s two top Jamaican coaches – Stephen Francis and Glenn Mills – were both attendees. We learn a lot about the rivalry between these two men, including their uncanny eye for talent. Asafa Powell was not a strong performer at Champs, but Francis spotted his raw potential.

Bolt is an entirely different story, as his talent was evident from an early age. For those who think he sprang out of nowhere in 2008, Moore shows how Jamaica had been waiting for Bolt to make his mark for some time. He set records at Champs and the newspapers tipped him for great things. He struggled initially to make the transition from junior to senior, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the 2004 Olympics, and was heavily criticised in the press. Bolt looks happy-go-lucky, but there is a ton of work behind his performances. Realising that he was physically weak and gangly, he spent considerable time in the gym to build up his muscle mass. He spent hours working on his technique and would regularly do sessions that made him vomit. Whether Bolt dopes or not, his work-rate is undeniable.

The Bolt Supremacy is fascinating, and if I had one criticism, it is that after a while I found the constant questions about doping a distraction. Clearly something unique is happening in Jamaica. The comments from various scientists that Moore consults are illuminating. “They may not be training very effectively at all” says Yannis Pitsiladis, director of the sub-2-hour marathon project. Imagine how dominant Jamaica could be if more scientific precision was brought to training methods. Dennis Johnson says that Jamaicans are not actually running much faster than the sprinters of the 1948; the faster times can be attributed to improved tracks and kit. Pitsiladis thinks that there is nothing inherently “black” about sprinting, and there is no reason why white sprinters cannot run this fast if they trained hard. Interestingly, he thinks that the Dutch may be a rich gene pool for sprinting, and the recent success of Daphne Schippers would appear to support this.

The nature of Jamaican dominance will evolve over time. Moore meets some of the stars of tomorrow, and they are not 100m specialists. They are hurdlers and 400m runners, suggesting we may be on the verge of a great era for events that have not been in the spotlight. After all, when Bolt retires, it may take a while before anyone truly comes close to taking his place.

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“The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success” by David Epstein

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.

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