The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

BOOK: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
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Copyright © David Epstein, 2013

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Epstein, David J.

The sports gene : inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance / David Epstein.

pages cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-101-62263-6

1. Sports—Physiological aspects. 2. Human genetics. I. Title.

RC1235.E58 2013

613.7'1—dc23 2013013443

For Elizabeth, my very own MC1R gene mutant






In Search of Sports Genes


Beat by an Underhand Girl

The Gene-Free Model of Expertise


A Tale of Two High Jumpers

(Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours)


Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever

The Hardware
Software Paradigm


Why Men Have Nipples


The Talent of Trainability


Superbaby, Bully Whippets, and the Trainability of Muscle


The Big Bang of Body Types


The Vitruvian NBA Player


We Are All Black (Sort Of)

Race and Genetic Diversity


The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting


Malaria and Muscle Fibers


Can Every Kalenjin Run?


The World’s Greatest Accidental (Altitudinous) Talent Sieve


Sled Dogs, Ultrarunners, and Couch Potato Genes


The Heartbreak Gene

Death, Injury, and Pain on the Field


The Gold Medal Mutation


The Perfect Athlete





In Search of Sports Genes

icheno Lawrence was a sprinter on my high school track team. The son of Jamaican parents, he was short and doughy and his bulging paunch poked at the holes of his marina, the mesh top that some Jamaicans on the team wore to practice. He worked at McDonald’s after school, and teammates joked that he partook too often in the product. But it didn’t stop him from being head-whipping fast.

A mini-diaspora in the 1970s and ’80s brought a stream of Jamaican families to Evanston, Illinois, which helped make track and field a popular sport at Evanston Township High School. (Consequently, our team won twenty-four consecutive conference titles from 1976 to 1999.) As outstanding athletes are wont to do, Micheno referred to himself in the third person. “Micheno got no heart,” he would say before a big race, meaning that he had no sympathy when vanquishing his competitors. In 1998, my senior year, he blasted from fourth place to first on the anchor leg of the 4×400-meter relay to win the Illinois state championship.

We all knew an athlete like that in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop, or she was the all-state point guard and high jumper.

Or were they? Did Eli and Peyton Manning inherit Archie’s quarterback genes, or did they grow up to be Super Bowl MVPs because they were raised with a football in hand? Joe “Jellybean” Bryant clearly
passed his stature to his son, Kobe, but where does that explosive first step come from? What about Paolo Maldini, who captained AC Milan to a Champions League title forty years after his father, Cesare, did the same? Did Ken Griffey Sr. gift his boy with baseball batter DNA? Or was the real gift that he raised Junior in a baseball clubhouse? Or both? In 2010, in a sporting first, the mother/daughter pair of Irina and Olga Lenskiy made up half of Israel’s national team in the 4×100-meter relay. The speed gene
run in that family. But is there even such a thing? Do “sports genes” exist at all?

In April 2003, an international consortium of scientists announced the completion of the Human Genome Project. Following thirteen years of toil (and 200,000 years of anatomically modern man), the project had mapped the human genome; all 23,000 or so regions of DNA that contain genes had been identified. Suddenly, researchers knew where to begin looking for the deepest roots of human traits, from hair color to hereditary disease and hand-eye coordination; but they underestimated how difficult the genetic instructions would be to read.

Imagine the genome as a 23,000-page recipe book that resides at the center of every human cell and provides directions for the creation of the body. If you could read those 23,000 pages, then you would be able to understand everything about how the body is made. That was the wishful thinking of scientists, anyway. Instead, not only do some of the 23,000 pages have instructions for many different functions in the body, but if one page is moved, altered, or torn out, then some of the other 22,999 pages may suddenly contain new instructions.

In the years following the sequencing of the human genome, sports scientists picked single genes that they guessed would influence athleticism and compared different versions of those genes in small
groups of athletes and nonathletes. Unfortunately for such studies, single genes usually have effects so tiny as to be undetectable in small studies. Even most of the genes for easily measured traits, such as height, largely eluded detection. Not because they don’t exist, but because they were cloaked by the complexity of genetics.

Sluggishly but surely, scientists have begun to abandon the small, single-gene studies and steer the scientific ship toward new and innovative methods of analyzing how genetic instructions function. Couple that with the efforts of biologists, physiologists, and exercise scientists to discern how the interplay of biological endowments and rigorous training affects athleticism, and we’re starting to tug at the threads of the great nature-versus-nurture debate as it bears on sports. That necessarily involves trekking deep into the bramble patches of sensitive topics like gender and race. Since science has gone there, this book will too.

The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: it’s both. But that is not a satisfactory endpoint in science. Scientists must ask, “How, specifically, might nature and nurture be at work here?” and “How much does each contribute?” In pursuit of answers to these questions, sports scientists have trundled into the era of modern genetic research. This book is my attempt to trace where they have gone and to examine much of what is known or haggled over about the innate gifts of elite athletes.

In high school, I wondered whether Micheno and the other children of Jamaican parents who made our team so successful might carry some special speed gene they imported from their tiny island. In college, I had the chance to run against Kenyans, and I wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?

After my college running career ended, I became a science graduate student and later a writer at
Sports Illustrated
. In researching and writing
The Sports Gene
I had the chance to blend in the petri dish of elite sports what initially seemed to me to be wholly separate interests in athleticism and science.

The reporting of this book took me below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, into contact with world and Olympic champions, and with animals and humans who possess rare gene mutations or outlandish physical traits that dramatically influence their athleticism. Along the way, I learned that some characteristics that I assumed were entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components, and that others that I figured were largely innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball batter or cricket batsman, might not be.

Let’s start there.


Beat by an Underhand Girl

The Gene-Free Model of Expertise

he American League team was deep in a hole, and National League slugger Mike Piazza was up to bat. So they called for the ringer.

Sauntering past a phalanx of the world’s best hitters, Jennie Finch strode toward the sun-drenched infield, her flaxen hair blazing in the clear desert light. For the previous twenty-four years, the Pepsi All-Star Softball Game had been an event contested by Major League Baseball players only. The crowd thrummed with excitement as the 6'1" Team USA softball ace reached the pitcher’s mound and curled her fingers around the ball.

It was a temperate day in Cathedral City, California; 70 degrees in the replica of one of America’s own sports cathedrals. The three-quarter-scale imitation of the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field was faithful in its ivy-covered outfield walls. Even Wrigleyville’s brick apartment buildings were there, in the desert at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains, depicted on near-life-size vinyl prints created from photographs of Chicago.

Finch, who in a few months would win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, had originally been invited only as a member of the American League coaching staff. That is, until the American League stars went down 9–1 in the fifth inning.

No sooner did Finch arrive at the mound than the defensive players behind her sat down. Yankees infielder Aaron Boone took his glove off, lay down in the dirt, and used second base for a pillow. Texas Rangers All-Star Hank Blalock took the opportunity to get a drink of water. They had, after all, seen Finch pitch during batting practice.

As part of the pregame festivities, a raft of major league stars had tested their skill against Finch’s underhand rockets. Thrown from a mound forty-three feet away, and traveling at speeds in the upper-60-mph range, Finch’s pitches take about the same time to reach home plate as a 95-mph fastball does from the standard baseball mound, sixty feet and six inches away. A 95-mph pitch is fast, certainly, but routine for pro baseball players. Plus, the softball is larger, which should make for easier contact.

Nonetheless, with each windmill arc of her arm, Finch blew pitches by the bemused men. When Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter of a generation, stepped forward to face Finch during pregame practice, the other major leaguers crowded around to gawk. Finch adjusted her ponytail nervously. A wide smile stole across her face. She was exhilarated, but also anxious that Pujols might hit a line drive right back at her. A silver chain dangled over his expansive chest, his forearms as wide as the barrel of the bat. “All right,” Pujols said softly, indicating he was ready. Finch rocked back, and then forward, whipping her arm in a giant circle. She fired the first pitch just high. Pujols lurched backward, startled at what he saw. Finch giggled.

She unleashed another fastball, this time high and inside. Pujols spun defensively, turning his head away. Behind him, his professional peers guffawed. Pujols stepped out of the batter’s box, composed himself, and stepped back in. He twisted his feet into the dirt, and stared back at Finch. The next pitch came right down the middle. Pujols uncoiled a violent swing. The ball sailed past his bat, and the spectators hooted. The next pitch was way outside, and Pujols let it go. The one after that was another strike, and Pujols whiffed again. With one
strike remaining, Pujols moved all the way to the back of the batter’s box and dug in, crouching low in his stance.

Finch rocked, and fired. Pujols missed, badly. He turned and walked away, toward his tittering teammates. Then he stopped, bewildered. Pujols turned back to Finch, doffed his cap, and continued on his way. “I don’t want to experience that again,” he later resolved.

So the defensive players behind Finch had good reason to sit down in the field when she entered the live game: they knew there would be no hits. Just as she had during the pregame practice, Finch struck out both hitters she faced. Piazza struck out on three straight pitches. San Diego Padres outfielder Brian Giles missed so badly on the third strike that his momentum spun him through a pirouette. And then Finch returned to her role as a ceremonial coach. She was, though, not nearly finished befuddling major leaguers.

In 2004 and 2005, Finch hosted a regular segment on Fox’s
This Week in Baseball
in which she would travel to major league training camps and transform the best baseball hitters in the world into clumsy hacks.

“Girls hit this stuff?” asked an incredulous Mike Cameron, the Seattle Mariners outfielder, after he missed a pitch by half a foot.

When seven-time MVP Barry Bonds saw Finch at the Major League All-Star Game, he walked through a throng of media so that he could talk trash to her.

“So, Barry, when do I get to face the best?” Finch asked.

“Whenever you want to,” Bonds replied, confidently. “You faced all them little chumps. . . . You gotta face the best. You can’t be pretty and good, and not face another handsome guy who’s good,” Bonds said, simultaneously flirting and unfurling his peacock feathers. Bonds then told Finch to bring a protective net when she was ready to face him, because “you’re going to need it with me . . . I’ll hit you.”

“There’s only been one guy who touched it,” Finch replied.

“Touch it?” Bonds said, laughing. “If it comes across that plate, believe me, I’ma touch it. I’ma touch it

“I’ll have my people call your people and we’ll set it up,” Finch told him.

“Oh, it’s on! You can call me direct, girl,” Bonds said. “I take my challenges
 . . . we’ll televise it too, on national television. I want the world to see, everybody to see.”

So Finch traveled to face Bonds—this time without fans and other media around—and the tune of his raillery quickly changed. Bonds watched several pitches fly by, and insisted that the cameras not film him. Finch shot pitch after pitch past Bonds, as his on-looking teammates pronounced them strikes. “That’s a ball!” Bonds pleaded, to which one of his teammates replied, “Barry, you’ve got twelve umpires back here.” Bonds watched dozens of strikes go by without so much as a swing. Not until Finch began to tell Bonds what pitches were coming did he tap a meek foul ball that rolled to rest a few feet away. Bonds implored Finch, “Go on, throw the cheese!” She did, and blew it right past him.

When Finch subsequently visited Alex Rodriguez, the reigning MVP, Rodriguez watched over Finch’s shoulder as she threw warm-up pitches to one of his team’s catchers. The catcher missed three of the first five throws. Seeing that, Rodriguez, to Finch’s disappointment, simply refused to step into the batter’s box. He leaned forward and told her: “No one’s going to make a fool out of me.”

For four decades, scientists have been constructing a picture of how elite athletes intercept speeding objects.

The intuitive explanation is that the Albert Pujolses and Roger Federers of the world simply have the genetic gift of quicker reflexes that provide them with more time to react to the ball. Except, that isn’t true.

When people are tested for their “simple reaction time”—how fast they can hit a button in response to a light—most of us, whether we are teachers, lawyers, or pro athletes, take around 200 milliseconds,
or one fifth of a second. A fifth of a second is about the minimum time that it takes for the retina at the back of the human eye to receive information and for that information to be conveyed across synapses—the gaps between neurons that take a few milliseconds each to cross—to the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain, and for the brain to send a message to the spinal cord that puts the muscles in motion. All this happens in the blink of an eye. (It takes 150 milliseconds just to execute a blink when a light is shined in your face.) But as quick as 200 milliseconds is, in the realm of 100-mph baseballs and 130-mph tennis serves, it is far too slow.

A typical major league fastball travels around ten feet in just the 75 milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina simply to confirm that a baseball is in view and for information about the flight path and velocity of the ball to be relayed to the brain. The entire flight of the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the plate takes just 400 milliseconds. And because it takes half that time merely to initiate muscular action, a major league batter has to know where he is swinging shortly after the ball has left the pitcher’s hand, well before it’s even halfway to the plate. The window for actually making contact with the ball, when it is in reach of the bat, is 5 milliseconds, and because the angular position of the ball relative to the hitter’s eye changes so rapidly as it gets closer to the plate, the advice to “keep your eye on the ball” is literally impossible. Humans don’t have a visual system fast enough to track the ball all the way in. A batter could just as well close his eyes once the ball is halfway to home plate. Given the speed of the pitch and the limitations of our biology, it seems like a miracle that anybody ever hits the ball at all.

Still, Albert Pujols and his All-Star peers see—and crush—95-mph fastballs for a living. So why are they transmogrified into Little Leaguers when faced with 68-mph softballs? It’s because the only way to hit a ball traveling at high speed is to be able to see into the future, and when a baseball player faces a softball pitcher, he is stripped of his crystal ball.

Nearly forty years ago, before Janet Starkes became one of the most influential sports expertise researchers in the world, she was a 5'2" point guard who spent one summer with the Canadian national team. Her lasting influence on sports, though, would come off the court, from the work she started as a graduate student at the University of Waterloo. Her research was to try to figure out why good athletes are, well, good.

Tests of innate physical “hardware”—qualities that an athlete is apparently born with, like simple reaction time—had done astonishingly little to help explain expert performance in sports. The reaction times of elite athletes always hovered around one fifth of a second, the same as the reaction times when random people were tested.

So Starkes looked elsewhere. She had heard of research on air traffic controllers that used “signal detection tests” to gauge how quickly an expert controller can sift through visual information to determine the presence or absence of critical signals. And she decided that conducting studies like these, of perceptual cognitive skills that are learned through practice, might prove fruitful. So, in 1975, as part of her graduate work at Waterloo, Starkes invented the modern sports “occlusion” test.

She gathered thousands of photographs of women’s volleyball games and made slides of pictures where the volleyball was in the frame and others where the ball had just left the frame. In many photos, the orientation and action of players’ bodies were nearly identical regardless of whether the ball was in the frame, since little had changed in the instant when the ball had just exited the picture.

Starkes then connected a scope to a slide projector and asked competitive volleyball players to look at the slides for a fraction of a second and decide whether the ball was or was not in the frame that had just flashed before their eyes. The brief glance was too quick for the viewer actually to see the ball, so the idea was to determine whether players
were seeing the entire court and the body language of players in a different way from the average person that allowed them to figure out whether the ball was present.

The results of the first occlusion tests astounded Starkes. Unlike in the results of reaction time tests, the difference between top volleyball players and novices was enormous. For the elite players, a fraction of a second glance was all they needed to determine whether the ball was present. And the better the player, the more quickly she could extract pertinent information from each slide.

In one instance, Starkes tested members of the Canadian national volleyball team, which at the time included one of the best setters in the world. The setter was able to deduce whether the volleyball was present in a picture that was flashed before her eyes for sixteen thousandths of a second. “That’s a very difficult task,” Starkes told me. “For people who don’t know volleyball, in sixteen milliseconds all they see is a flash of light.”

Not only did the world-class setter detect the presence or absence of the ball in sixteen milliseconds, she gleaned enough visual information to know when and where the picture was taken. “After each slide she would say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether the ball was there,” Starkes says, “and then sometimes she would say, ‘That was the Sherbrooke team after they got their new uniforms, so the picture must have been taken at such and such a time.’” One woman’s blink of light was another woman’s fully formed narrative. It was a strong clue that one key difference between expert and novice athletes was in the way they had learned to perceive the game, rather than the raw ability to react quickly.

Shortly after she received her Ph.D., Starkes joined the faculty at McMaster University and continued her occlusion work with the Canadian national field hockey team. At the time, the coaching orthodoxy in field hockey favored the idea that innate reflexes were of primary importance. Conversely, the idea that learned, perceptual skills were a hallmark of expert performance was, as Starkes put it, “heretical.”

In 1979, when Starkes began helping the Canadian national field
hockey team gear up for the 1980 Olympics, she was dismayed to find that the national coaches were relying on outdated ideas to choose and arrange the team. “They thought everybody saw the field the same way,” she says. “They were using simple reaction time tests for selection, and they thought it would be a good determinant of who would be the best goalies or strikers. I was astounded that they had no idea that reaction time might not be predictive of anything.”

Starkes, of course, knew better. In her occlusion tests of field hockey players, she found just what she had found in volleyball players, and more. Not only were elite field hockey players able to tell faster than the blink of an eye whether a ball was in the frame, they could accurately reconstruct the playing field after just a fleeting glance. This held true from basketball to soccer. It was as if every elite athlete miraculously had a photographic memory when it came to her sport. The question, then, is how important these perceptual abilities are to top athletes and whether they are the result of genetic gifts.

BOOK: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
11.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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