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The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance Paperback – April 29, 2014
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“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.”
“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 Aschwanden, The 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
About the Author
David Epstein is an award-winning investigative reporter at ProPublica, and was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He earned All-East honors on Columbia University’s varsity track squad, and has a master’s degree in environmental science.
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Part of the story here is that genes play significant and important roles in athletic performance, but Epstein is careful not to overplay this. First, the target of his work here is extraordinary and elite performances. These are athletes that are already well off the curve. What he finds here isn’t going to necessarily translate back to the rest of us who live in the heart of the bell curve. Second, Epstein doesn’t want to disrespect or downplay the importance of the effort and hard work of these elite athletes. Yes, they often have amazing genetic gifts, but without the effort and practice, these gifts won’t amount to anything. (At the same time, the book looks at the genetic contributions for effort-taking and practicing.)
Another important theme of the book is that a better understanding of the genetic roots of performance can help us improve performance. The differences in our genetic propensities (our genotype) require, in many cases, different kinds of training and practice. Our bodies react to training and practice differently and so, to understand better how to improve our skills and outcomes, we have to understand better how we respond to the environment and training. One person’s strenuous cardio workout might be overkill (tragically quite literally in rare cases) for another.
Epstein doesn’t tackle the issue of genetic manipulation (or gene-doping) head on, but it certainly lurks throughout the book. Over the last century, the scientific and technological influence on training for athletic performance has increased immensely. As our knowledge of the human genome and genetic technology increases, will we see this influence extend beyond training into the athlete’s genetic makeup? Epstein’s tentative response is that, given the state of the science, there is just too much unknown at this point to do this in any extensive or effective way.
But that knowledge is coming; it is more of a when than an if. I am fairly certain that as the knowledge increases, so will the use of this knowledge to improve performance. Epstein is agnostic, ultimately, on the wisdom or morality of doing this. That wasn’t the point of the book, so it is no fault. But his work suggests much about this possible future. Personally, I think that, as with most scientific and technological advances, this will generally be a boon for human civilization and for sport. I am not utopian, though, and recognize that it will come with some harms and dangers. This is in part why it is important to get a better understanding of the science and learn more about how nature and nurture interact.
Another moral question not raised by Epstein, but suggested by his book, is how our understanding of the influence of our genes on performance affects our evaluation of doping. If some people have natural advantages conferred by their genotype, then is it really unfair for someone without those genetic advantages to use a drug to produce a similar effect? For example, Finnish athlete Eero Mantyranta has a genetic variation that makes his red blood count as much as 65 percent higher than that of an average man (274). His body is able to move oxygen to muscles much better than most and this (all other things being equal) gives him an advantage in endurance sport. This is quite similar to the effect of taking EPO as a performance-enhancer. If one of the goals in athletic competitions is a level starting point for athletes, then maybe we ought not ban EPO. That is, maybe, allowing EPO would level the field for athletes that do not have the benefit of genetic advantages. Is there a moral difference (putting aside for the moment the wrongness of the rule-violation) between someone who has a performance advantage from their genotype and someone who has a performance advantage from taking a substance? In more fundamentally, it begins to challenge the traditional concepts and evaluations of doping and performance enhancing.
While Epstein doesn’t deal with these issues, the book is good place to learn (in a non-technical way) about the scientific foundation for answering these kinds of moral and philosophical questions. For that reason alone it worth a read. But it is also quite interesting on its own terms.
Readers of David Epstein's "The Sports Gene" will get the latest scoop on what answers we now have to these questions about elite human athletes----and for Iditarod sled dogs and race horses, too. Laced together by scores of fascinating, sometimes heart-rending stories, Epstein examines what we know --and what we do not know, and what is conflicting evidence---about the roles of what we're born with (nature) & what we are like (often nurture).
Readers can expect considerable detail. For example,
"Actually, genes have been identified that appear to alter one's risk of blowing out a knee.....People with a certain mutation in the COLIA1 gene have brittle bone disease and suffer fractures easily. A particular mutation in the COLIA1 gene causes Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which confers hyper-flexibility..."
Though technical, "The Sports Gene" is wonderfully readable. The human stories are vividly told, the 18 chapters can be read in any sequence, and Epstein skillfully (as would be expected from a senior writer of an eminent sports magazine) weaves science and sports knowledge together. Further many of the questions such as influences of nationality, geography, gender and race one might ask about nature/nurture are discussed thoroughly.
Reader Alert: Understanding statistical concepts such as variability (statistical), central tendencies and "regression to the mean" are helpful in following the reasoning in much of the research. What is there seems sound, statistically speaking. However, there is no glossary or appendix explaining these terms at adequate length. Readers less familiar with statistics can still get a lot out of "The Sports Gene" but should be aware of this.
Highly---very highly---- recommended! The last chapter, "The Gold Medal Mutation," may be particularly inspiring for the elites and probably for us all!
If someone out there reading my comment, please read this in one big chunk because it’s beautiful information that if you read it right it can be more exiting than any action movie.
The book can be kind of depressing in that, if you are a competitive athlete, you'll have to accept that maybe you just don't have the right genes -- however, at the same time it is very inspiring, in that since it's fairly unclear still how environment affects gene expression, thus it's very possible there are many possibilities in individualization of training to achieve performances that just your dna sequence wouldn't reveal.