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The Sports Gene :

Inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance

David Epstein

Top tennis players or baseball batters aren't reacting to the delivery itself - simply not enough time, no matter how fast your reactions are. What they are doing is picking up micro cues from other player's body language which tells them ahead of time where the ball is going. They have a mental database of the player's previous deliveries, and that database takes time to build. (So when a strange female pitcher from softball threw to top baseballers, she completely fooled them, because they had no database to draw on for her unusual deliveries.) Novices look at the right place, but they don't yet have the data.

Matthew Effect: (from Bible For all those who have, more will be given ... but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away). In just about any field - sport or intellectual - when you measure novices, there is a performance gap. And what happens is that as they train, those with better initial abilities improved faster than others.

Study young tennis players. The children with the best all-round athletic ability (top at 30m sprint and start-stop agility tests) were ones who acquired tennis-specific skills most rapidly. Superior hardware was speeding up the download of tennis-specific software.

Eyesight is genetically determined (by cone density). Most people 100,000 to 325,000 cones per mm2. Ballplayers have to have great eyesight, and most test out at at least 20/15 (ie they can distinguish detail at 20 feet that average person can see only if 15 feet away). Some got down to 20/9, which is about as close to the theoretical limit of human vision. Superior vision, specifically improving depth perception, made you a better catcher.

Netherlands put lot of effort into measuring their young soccer players. Found that small differences at 12 matter - .02 secs faster at speed test difference between ones who go on to pro contracts and ones who stay amateur.

Pruning theory. Suggestion that our young brains have millions of neurons which get pruned in teen years - the ones needed for the skills we practice are strengthened; the unnecessary ones wither. So in book Why Michael Can't Jump, neurologist Harold Klawans says that Michael Jordan was never going to make a successful baseball career, because the neurons he needed to learn the appropriate anticipatory skills had been pruned while he was busy playing baseball.

Counter-intuitive idea that too much early specialization hampers development. Danish study found that they peaked too soon. The elites who went on to Olympic success only started serious practice after age 15, and by 18 were surpassing their near-elite peers in training hours. Suggestion that this is because the latter group were more naturally gifted, and so didn't have to train so hard early in careers. But in mid-teens they realize they have a future in sport and so start to put in the serious work.

We all start out as females (for the first 6 weeks of our embryonic life). At 6 weeks, a single gene on the Y chromosome, the SRY gene, cues the formation of testicles, and within them, the cells which make testosterone. The testosterone then triggers some genes to turn on, and others to turn off. Boys, while still in the womb, start to develop the longer forearm.

Male Olympic javelin throwers toss (a heavier) javelin 30% further than female Olympians. Record speed for woman baseball pitch is 65 mph, a speed routinely reached by high school boys. Some pro baseballers can throw at more than 100 mph. At all distances - from 100m to 10,000m, top men are 11% faster than top women.

So women are not catching up with men; they have in fact plateaued, and men are (very slowly) pulling away - their performances are gradually improving, unlike women's.

Left-handed athletes are rarer, so have a slight advantage because opponents have less complete database to predict their movements.

Mate selection: in zones like air and sea, which are difficult to patrol and physically defend, females get to choose, and so males develop attractive coloring or song. But on the land, the dominant male gets the most mates via head-to-head fighting. So for all primates, including Man, certain traits have been selected in males so that they could hurt or at least intimidate other men. Those who were most successful at hurting or intimidating others got to have more children.

At ten, boys and girls physically very similar - top running speed much the same. But then boys develop stronger arms and wider shoulders, and by 18 the average boy can throw three times as far as an average girl.

Double muscle: research into proteins that build muscle identified 15 genes, labelled GDF (growth differentiation factor) 1- 15. Mice missing any of these genes died, except for those without GDF-8. GDF-8 produces myostatin. If you don't have it, there's no signal to tell muscles to stop growing. Found naturally in a breed of cattle called Belgian Blues. They have also identified two little boys who lack the gene, and who are extraordinarily strong.

Fast twitch muscles give you sprinters, but soccer team study found very few at top level. Turned out they suffered injury problems on way up because they trained as hard as other players, and they often suffered hamstring problems - needed a lighter, more speed-oriented training schedule.

50 years ago, local sports clubs supported a large number of reasonably competitive athletes regularly racing each other. Then TV changed the rules, creating a 'winner-takes-all' market. Rewards for the very best have become very good, and so the best performers have become faster, stronger and more skilled.

Different societies. Usain Bolt was 6'4" tall and very fast at 15. But he had been born in the US, the most lucrative path would have been gridiron. (Calvin Johnson, a big fast wide receiver, got a $132m contract in 2012). In the same way, fast, athletic boys in NZ gravitate to rugby.

A single copy of sickle-cell mutation protects against malaria. But it is also associated with low hemoglobin levels. When the UN decided to improve nutrition by giving Africans iron supplements to boost hemoglobin levels, there was a sudden spike in severe malaria cases. So they had to backtrack on the supplements.

Rise of Kenyan distance runners helped by the rest of the world getting slower. Britain, US and Finland, the former dominant countries, were growing wealthier, fatter, and less likely to train seriously in distance running. From 1983 to 1998, the number of Americans who ran a marathon in under 2:20 declined from 267 to 35. Britain declined from 137 to 17 over the same period. Kenya went from a single sub-2:20 man in 1980 to 541 in 2006. For many there is little choice - no jobs available, and the rewards for the successful are well known.

"Help Americans compete in distance running: buy Kenyan kids a school bus."

Ironically, the kids of the Kenyan winners never excel - the resources their parents provide means they never have to run to school, and they are never desperate for success.

Sled racing. First guy to win the thousand-mile double: in both 2007 and 2008, won the thousand mile Yukon Quest, and then just weeks later, the other thousand-miler, the Iditarod. He did it by breeding dogs with an indomnitable work ethic. Geneticists found that the hardest working, the ones who just wanted to run, had significant DNA from Anatolian shepherd dogs.

Yao Ming, at 7'5" once the tallest active player in NBA, was literally bred from China's tallest couple - the government forced them to marry, to produce superstar progeny.

(New Yorker)

Toward the end of The Sports Gene, David Epstein makes his way to a remote corner of Finland to visit a man named Eero Mantyranta. Mantyranta lives in a small house next to a lake, among the pine and spruce trees north of the Arctic Circle. He is in his seventies. There is a statue of him in the nearby village. "Everything about him has a certain width to it," Epstein writes. "The bulbous nose in the middle of a softly rounded face. His thick fingers, broad jaw, and a barrel chest covered by a red knit sweater with a stern-faced reindeer across the middle. He is a remarkable-looking man." What's most remarkable is the color of his face. It is a "shade of cardinal, mottled in places with purple," and evocative of "the hue of the red paint that comes from this region's iron-rich soil."

Mantyranta carries a rare genetic mutation. His DNA has an anomaly that causes his bone marrow to overproduce red blood cells. That accounts for the color of his skin, and also for his extraordinary career as a competitive cross-country skier. In cross-country skiing, athletes propel themselves over distances of ten and twenty miles - a physical challenge that places intense demands on the ability of their red blood cells to deliver oxygen to their muscles. Mantyranta, by virtue of his unique physiology, had something like sixty-five per cent more red blood cells than the normal adult male. In the 1960, 1964, and 1968 Winter Olympic Games, he won a total of seven medals - three golds, two silvers, and two bronzes - and in the same period he also won two world-championship victories in the thirty-kilometre race. In the 1964 Olympics, he beat his closest competitor in the fifteen-kilometre race by forty seconds, a margin of victory never equaled in that event at the Olympics before or since.

(But M himself denied that genetics responsible for his success - he attributed it to having to ski long distances to school as a child, and working as a border guard where he was basically paid to ski all day. Author ponts out that M epitomises sporting success - genetics can give you a head start, a stronger foundation to build on, but you still have to put in the hours building skill and endurance.)

In The Sports Gene, there are countless tales like this, examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.

Epstein tells the story of Donald Thomas, who on the seventh high jump of his life cleared 7' 3.25" - practically a world-class height. The next year, after a grand total of eight months of training, Thomas won the world championships. How did he do it? He was blessed, among other things, with unusually long legs and a strikingly long Achilles tendon - ten and a quarter inches in length - which acted as a kind of spring, catapulting him high into the air when he planted his foot for a jump. (Kangaroos have long tendons as well, Epstein tell us, which is what gives them their special hop.)

Why do so many of the world's best distance runners come from Kenya and Ethiopia? The answer, Epstein explains, begins with weight. A runner needs not just to be skinny but - more specifically - to have skinny calves and ankles, because every extra pound carried on your extremities costs more than a pound carried on your torso. That's why shaving even a few ounces off a pair of running shoes can have a significant effect. Runners from the Kalenjin tribe, in Kenya - where the majority of the country's best runners come from - turn out to be skinny in exactly this way. Epstein cites a study comparing Kalenjins with Danes; the Kalenjins were shorter and had longer legs, and their lower legs were nearly a pound lighter. That translates to eight per cent less energy consumed per kilometre. (For evidence of the peculiar Kalenjin lower leg, look up pictures of the great Kenyan miler Asbel Kiprop, a tall and elegant man who runs on what appear to be two ebony-colored pencils.) According to Epstein, there's an evolutionary explanation for all this: hot and dry environments favor very thin, long-limbed frames, which are easy to cool, just as cold climates favor thick, squat bodies, which are better at conserving heat.

Distance runners also get a big advantage from living at high altitudes, where the body is typically forced to compensate for the lack of oxygen by producing extra red blood cells. Not too high up, mind you. In the Andes, for example, the air is too rarefied for the kind of workouts necessary to be a world-class runner. The optimal range is six to nine thousand feet. The best runners in Ethiopia and Kenya come from the ridges of the Rift Valley, which, Epstein writes, are plumb in the sweet spot. When Kenyans compete against Europeans or North Americans, the Kenyans come to the track with an enormous head start.

What we are watching when we watch elite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mantyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Elite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a "splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity." The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?

During the First World War, the U.S. Army noticed a puzzling pattern among the young men drafted into military service. Soldiers from some parts of the country had a high incidence of goitre - a lump on their neck caused by the swelling of the thyroid gland. Thousands of recruits could not button the collar of their uniform. The average I.Q. of draftees, we now suspect, also varied according to the same pattern. Soldiers from coastal regions seemed more 'normal' than soldiers from other parts of the country.

The culprit turned out to be a lack of iodine. Iodine is an essential micronutrient. Without it, the human brain does not develop normally and the thyroid begins to enlarge. And in certain parts of the United States in those years there wasn't enough iodine in the local diet. As the economists James Feyrer, Dimitra Politi, and David Weil write, in a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research:

Ocean water is rich in iodine, which is why endemic goiter is not observed in coastal areas. From the ocean, iodine is transferred to the soil by rain. This process, however, only reaches the upper layers of soil, and it can take thousands of years to complete. Heavy rainfall can cause soil erosion, in which case the iodine-rich upper layers of soil are washed away. The last glacial period had the same effect: iodine-rich soil was substituted by iodine-poor soil from crystalline rocks. This explains the prevalence of endemic goiter in regions that were marked by intense glaciation, such as Switzerland and the Great Lakes region.

After the First World War, the U.S. War Department published a report called Defects Found in Drafted Men, which detailed how the incidence of goitre varied from state to state, with rates forty to fifty times as high in places like Idaho, Michigan, and Montana as in coastal areas.

The story is not dissimilar from Epstein's account of Kenyan distance runners, in whom accidents of climate and geography combine to create dramatic differences in abilities. In the early years of the twentieth century, the physiological development of American children was an example of the "fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity."

In this case, of course, we didn't like the fantastic menagerie. In 1924, the Morton Salt Company, at the urging of public-health officials, began adding iodine to its salt, and initiated an advertising campaign touting its benefits. That practice has been applied successfully in many developing countries in the world: iodine supplementation has raised I.Q. scores by as much as thirteen points - an extraordinary increase. The iodized salt in your cupboard is an intervention in the natural order of things. When a student from the iodine-poor mountains of Idaho was called upon to compete against a student from iodine-rich coastal Maine, we thought of it as our moral obligation to redress their natural inequality. The reason debates over elite performance have become so contentious in recent years, however, is that in the world of sport there is little of that clarity. What if those two students were competing in a race? Should we still be able to give the naturally disadvantaged one the equivalent of iodine? We can't decide.

Epstein tells us that baseball players have, as a group, remarkable eyesight. The ophthalmologist Louis Rosenbaum tested close to four hundred major- and minor-league baseball players over four years and found an average visual acuity of about 20/13; that is, the typical professional baseball player can see at twenty feet what the rest of us can see at thirteen feet. When Rosenbaum looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, he found that half had 20/10 vision and a small number fell below 20/9, flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye, as Epstein points out. The ability to consistently hit a baseball thrown at speeds approaching a hundred miles an hour, with a baffling array of spins and curves, requires the kind of eyesight commonly found in only a tiny fraction of the general population.

Eyesight can be improved - in some cases dramatically - through laser surgery or implantable lenses. Should a promising young baseball player cursed with normal vision be allowed to get that kind of corrective surgery? In this instance, Major League Baseball says yes. Major League Baseball also permits pitchers to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of their throwing arm with a tendon taken from a cadaver or elsewhere in the athlete's body. Tendon-replacement surgery is similar to laser surgery: it turns the athlete into an improved version of his natural self.

But when it comes to drugs Major League Baseball - like most sports - draws the line. An athlete cannot use a drug to become an improved version of his natural self, even if the drug is used in doses that are not harmful, and is something that - like testosterone - is no more than a copy of a naturally occurring hormone, available by prescription to anyone, virtually anywhere in the world.

Baseball is in the middle of one of its periodic doping scandals, centering on one of the game's best players, Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez is among the most disliked players of his generation. He tried to recover from injury and extend his career through illicit means. (He has appealed his recent suspension, which was based on these allegations.) It is hard to think about Rodriguez, however, and not think about Tommy John, who, in 1974, was the first player to trade in his ulnar collateral ligament for an improved version. John used modern medicine to recover from injury and extend his career. He won a hundred and sixty-four games after his transformation, far more than he did before science intervened. He had one of the longest careers in baseball history, retiring at the age of forty-six. His bionic arm enabled him to win at least twenty games a season, the benchmark of pitching excellence. People loved Tommy John. Maybe Alex Rodriguez looks at Tommy John - and at the fact that at least a third of current major-league pitchers have had the same surgery - and is genuinely baffled about why baseball has drawn a bright moral line between the performance-enhancing products of modern endocrinology and those offered by orthopedics.

The other great doping pariah is Lance Armstrong. He apparently removed large quantities of his own blood and then re-infused himself before competition, in order to boost the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in his system. Armstrong wanted to be like Eero Mäntyranta. He wanted to match, through his own efforts, what some very lucky people already do naturally and legally. Before we condemn him, though, shouldn't we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?

"I've always said you could have hooked us up to the best lie detectors on the planet and asked us if we were cheating, and we'd have passed," Lance Armstrong's former teammate Tyler Hamilton writes in his autobiography, The Secret Race (co-written with Daniel Coyle; Bantam). "Not because we were delusional - we knew we were breaking the rules - but because we didn't think of it as cheating. It felt fair to break the rules."

The Secret Race deserves to be read alongside The Sports Gene, because it describes the flip side of the question that Epstein explores. What if you aren't Eero Mantyranta?

Hamilton was a skier who came late to cycling, and he paints himself as an underdog. When he first met Armstrong - at the Tour DuPont, in Delaware - he looked around at the other professional riders and became acutely conscious that he didn't look the part. "You can tell a rider's fitness by the shape of his ass and the veins in his legs, and these asses were bionic, smaller and more powerful than any I'd ever seen," he writes. The riders' "leg veins looked like highway maps. Their arms were toothpicks. . . . They were like racehorses." Hamilton's trunk was oversized. His leg veins did not pop. He had a skier's thighs. His arms were too muscled, and he pedalled with an ungainly "potato-masher stroke."

When Hamilton joined Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service racing team, he was forced to relearn the sport, to leave behind, as he puts it, the romantic world "where I used to climb on my bike and simply hope I had a good day." The makeover began with his weight. When Michele Ferrari, the key Postal Service adviser, first saw Hamilton, he told him he was too fat, and in cycling terms he was. Riding a bicycle quickly is a function of the power you apply to the pedals divided by the weight you are carrying, and it's easier to reduce the weight than to increase the power. Hamilton says he would come home from a workout, after burning thousands of calories, drink a large bottle of seltzer water, take two or three sleeping pills - and hope to sleep through dinner and, ideally, breakfast the following morning. At dinner with friends, Hamilton would take a large bite, fake a sneeze, spit the food into a napkin, and then run off to the bathroom to dispose of it. He knew that he was getting into shape, he says, when his skin got thin and papery, when it hurt to sit down on a wooden chair because his buttocks had disappeared, and when his jersey sleeve was so loose around his biceps that it flapped in the wind. At the most basic level, cycling was about physical transformation: it was about taking the body that nature had given you and forcibly changing it.

"Lance and Ferrari showed me there were more variables than I'd ever imagined, and they all mattered: wattages, cadence, intervals, zones, joules, lactic acid, and, of course, hematocrit," Hamilton writes. "Each ride was a math problem: a precisely mapped set of numbers for us to hit. . . . It's one thing to go ride for six hours. It's another to ride for six hours following a program of wattages and cadences, especially when those wattages and cadences are set to push you to the ragged edge of your abilities."

Hematocrit, the last of those variables, was the number they cared about most. It refers to the percentage of the body's blood that is made up of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The higher the hematocrit, the more endurance you have. (Mäntyranta had a very high hematocrit.) The paradox of endurance sports is that an athlete can never work as hard as he wants, because if he pushes himself too far his hematocrit will fall. Hamilton had a natural hematocrit of forty-two per cent - which is on the low end of normal. By the third week of the Tour de France, he would be at thirty-six per cent, which meant a six-per-cent decrease in his power - in the force he could apply to his pedals. In a sport where power differentials of a tenth of a per cent can be decisive, this qualifies as a deal breaker.

For the members of the Postal Service squad, the solution was to use the hormone EPO and blood transfusions to boost their hematocrits as high as they could without raising suspicion. (Before 2000, there was no test for EPO itself, so riders were not allowed to exceed a hematocrit of fifty per cent.) Then they would add maintenance doses over time, to counteract the deterioration in their hematocrit caused by races and workouts. The procedures were precise and sophisticated. Testosterone capsules were added to the mix to aid recovery. They were referred to as 'red eggs.' EPO (a.k.a. erythropoietin), a naturally occurring hormone that increases the production of red blood cells, was Edgar - short for Edgar Allan Poe. During the Tour de France, and other races, bags of each rider's blood were collected in secret locations at predetermined intervals, then surreptitiously ferried from stage to stage in refrigerated containers for strategic transfusions. The window of vulnerability after taking a drug - the interval during which doping could be detected - was called 'glowtime.' Most riders who doped (and in the Armstrong era, it now appears, nearly all the top riders did) would take two thousand units of Edgar subcutaneously every couple of days, which meant they 'glowed' for a dangerously long time. Armstrong and his crew practiced microdosing, taking five hundred units of Edgar nightly and injecting the drug directly into the vein, where it was dispersed much more quickly.

The Secret Race is full of paragraphs like this:

The trick with getting Edgar in your vein, of course, is that you have to get it in the vein. Miss the vein - inject it in the surrounding tissue - and Edgar stays in your body far longer; you might test positive. Thus, microdosing requires a steady hand and a good sense of feel, and a lot of practice; you have to sense the tip of the needle piercing the wall of the vein, and draw back the plunger to get a little bit of blood so you know you're in. In this, as in other things, Lance was blessed: he had veins like water mains. Mine were small, which was a recurring headache.

Hamilton was eventually caught and was suspended from professional cycling. He became one of the first in his circle to implicate Lance Armstrong, testifying before federal investigators and appearing on 60 Minutes. He says that he regrets his years of using performance-enhancing drugs. The lies and duplicity became an unbearable burden. His marriage fell apart. He sank into a depression. His book is supposed to serve as his apology. At that task, it fails. Try as he might - and sometimes he doesn't seem to be trying very hard - Hamilton cannot explain why a sport that has no problem with the voluntary induction of anorexia as a performance-enhancing measure is so upset about athletes infusing themselves with their own blood.

"Dope is not really a magical boost as much as it is a way to control against declines," Hamilton writes. Doping meant that cyclists finally could train as hard as they wanted. It was the means by which pudgy underdogs could compete with natural wonders. "People think doping is for lazy people who want to avoid hard work," Hamilton writes. For many riders, the opposite was true:

EPO granted the ability to suffer more; to push yourself farther and harder than you'd ever imagined, in both training and racing. It rewarded precisely what I was good at: having a great work ethic, pushing myself to the limit and past it. I felt almost giddy: this was a new landscape. I began to see races differently. They weren't rolls of the genetic dice, or who happened to be on form that day. They didn't depend on who you were. They depended on what you did - how hard you worked, how attentive and professional you were in your preparation.

This is a long way from the exploits of genial old men living among the pristine pines of northern Finland. It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference. Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.

More books on Sport

More books on Drugs

(Mike Atherton, in London Times)

I come from a sporting family. My father played professional football; his father was a professional boxer. My father and mother met playing tennis. My mother's father was a scratch golfer; her brother was a professional golfer. I've always believed I got lucky where sport is concerned.

On the other hand, I didn't totally luck out with other aspects of my genetic make-up. My father suffers from an auto-immune disease, which he passed on to me. One faulty gene - HLA-B27 - that has given me endless painful days. Not the worst thing to suffer from but a bit of a pain in the arse - on some days, literally so.

It is not fashionable to think, especially where sport is concerned, that genes matter. In the nature versus nurture debate, what David Epstein, in his new book The Sports Gene, calls hardware versus software, it is nurture that has been winning hands down. Recent books from well regarded authors such as Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code), Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and Matthew Syed (Bounce), all drawing heavily on the ground-breaking scientific work of K. Anders Ericsson, have frowned on the notion of genetic predetermination. Who needs good genes when we can all succeed by practising until our hands are raw?

That message has seeped through to such an extent that popular myth encourages the notion that sporting greatness is open to anyone. Dan McLaughlin is currently about 4,500 hours into an experiment to show that a commercial photographer, with zero golfing experience, can become a professional through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Currently, the Dan Plan sees him at a handicap of six.

Ericsson, actually, has slightly disowned those who have simplified his research, taken it to extremes and used it to push what is, after all, a very useful social message. Which one of us likes to believe that our choices in life are predetermined, and therefore that we have little influence over how things turn out? And indeed who could doubt that environmental factors or indeed one's own preferences and ability to practise, train and work, matter? Most professional sportsmen would, I think, be slightly bemused by the countless acres of trees that have been cut down to pontificate on what is, surely, a self-evident truth. That sporting success is a mysterious, complex business and is usually the result of the combination of any number of factors: natural ability, environment, opportunity, hard work, focused practice and luck being prime among them.

Most parents of young children on the weekend sporting treadmill would be equally suspicious of any attempt to override such complexity. Having spent a fair amount of time with my 11-year-old son and his friends, it seems obvious that the ability to catch a ball, move languidly, throw a ball at a target, say, are inherently present in vastly differing degrees of competence. Needless to say, also, given that cricket is an expensive, time-consuming game, it is a sport that mitigates against children who are either from less than well-off backgrounds, or from a one-parent family. Both talent and environment are critical pre-factors, before any character traits of children are taken into consideration.

Epstein's book does not try to simplify the argument, but it does provide a welcome corrective to those who have deliberately underplayed the notion that genetic make-up is relevant. Epstein, a writer from Sports Illustrated and a former athlete, delves into the science of sport and is not afraid to wade into areas such as race and genetics of which, because of political correctness, some scientists have fought shy.

Talent matters, as Epstein,who travels the length and breadth of the sporting universe to unravel the mystery, relates so well. In some sports this is more obvious than others. Take basketball, for example: it would seem obvious that height is an advantage, and height is genetically inherited. An American male adult between 6ft and 6ft 2in in height has a one in 200,000 chance of playing in the NBA; for an adult over 7ft these chances are increased to one in six.

Visual acuity would seem to increase the chances of succeeding in a moving ball sport, such as baseball, or indeed cricket. When my eyesight was tested some years ago, I was off the scale; when the baseball players of the Dodgers were tested in 1992, they too were off the scale, so that new eye charts had to be prescribed.

Stefan Holm was a high jumper who won Olympic gold in 2004. He lived, breathed and slept the sport. He might have been a poster boy for those who argue that practice is all that matters, a notion that Holm himself believed until he came up against Donald Thomas from the Bahamas, who after only eight months in the sport, beat Holm to take the World Championship in 2007. Analysis revealed Thomas’s genetic luck: his unusually long Achilles tendon, which acted as a giant springboard to propel him over the bar. (Interestingly, after Thomas joined the professional circuit, his performances did not improve at all, so that for him sustained practice was somewhat irrelevant.)

One of Epstein's most surprising findings concerned something that is essential to success in any walk of life, but that he felt was not likely to be inherited at all: work ethic. But then he went to Alaska to look into the hard-working huskies and scientific research that suggested that the hardest-working dogs had more DNA from Anatolian shepherd dogs. This research confirms what experienced mushers already knew, that 'work ethic is specifically bred into dogs'.

Epstein does not find the 'sporting gene' and he knows that nature and nurture are interlaced, but also that scientific study must evaluate how much each contributes to the mystery. I know that I inherited some sporting talent, that much has always seemed obvious. I realise too that my family history made it more not less likely that I would become interested in sport. My inherited environment steered me in a certain direction. I recognise, too, that my own work ethic contributed to success on the cricket field. I practised hard. Mind you, the days when I was too stiff and sore to bend, and 13 years of abuse of anti-inflammatory tablets, meant that I might not always have played as well as I might have done. What genes giveth, they also taketh away.

The impact of a tiny genetic variation

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