Greatness isn’t so black and white after all

David Epstein starts by acknowledging the potential minefield he’s avoided.

The Sports Illustrated writer’s superb book, The Sports Gene, delves into the science behind athletic success, but references to the role of genetics in that success tend to get people lighting the fuse on accusations of racism.

Epstein was well aware of the potential for trouble: “Yes, and not only because it’s impossible not to be aware of it, but because there were cases of scientists who told me they didn’t want to talk about data because of that.

“In one particular case the head of a department in one university told me he had found differences — he’d studied the response to a certain dietary supplement among different exercisers, and he’d seen different responses among his black and white subjects — but he just wasn’t going to publish that.

“When you think about the history that would get him to that mental space . . . I was very aware of all of that, but I was also pretty confident that I’m not bigoted.

“I felt if I took it on from an academic perspective it would help, and certainly when I discussed malaria, for instance, there were dangers in ignoring some of those differences.”

Epstein stressed the objective differences rather than using value judgements, an approach which worked out well. He’s happy people have addressed the substance of his arguments rather than arrive with preconceptions.

“I took pains to point out that there’s no better or worse body type for sports, there are just body types that fit some sports more specifically than others. I hoped to use sport as a great stage to admire human diversity, and I hope that came through. The worst fear is to be cast in a very negative way, which didn’t happen.

“I think dealing with this in a book form gave me more leeway, more room to give background, in a way that would be more difficult in most other platforms. That was helpful.

“There was a section in the book where I left sports behind, really, and started talking about what race means from a genetic perspective, and when I was writing it I felt, ‘that’s a pretty big departure from a sport story’, but I felt it necessary to establish a tone where people felt comfortable discussing this stuff.”

As an example, Epstein has been stressing geography rather than ethnicity as a factor in athlete success.

“I’ve made the point that when people say ‘black athletes are better at running,’ I ask ‘who are you talking about?’

“Every man who’s been in the Olympic 100m final since the boycotted Games in 1980 has his ancestry in a very small area on the coast of west Africa, while east Africans dominate longer distances.

“While they have darker skin than me and you, they couldn’t be more physiologically different in many ways. It’s like they share certain attributes — long limbs, proportionate body size — but otherwise they’re hugely different. “Geographical diversity causes incredible variation in bodies: standing in Africa and saying ‘a black person’ isn’t giving you any information about someone’s genetics.

“Even a sub-tribe in Kenya, the Kalenjin, which accounts for all the great runners, they are at low latitude in a hot and dry climate, whereas the largest ethnic group in Kenya, the Kikuyu, happen to be in a more forested region with more moisture. They’re living pretty close to each other but small differences in ancestry and environment cause huge differences physically.

“Calling them ‘Kenyan’ or ‘black’? That doesn’t tell you anything.”

His focus on hard data means Epstein is on the cutting edge of data journalism, which relies on empirical evidence rather than opinion.

For instance, after crunching numbers in the NFL he found an extra 6.5 lbs in weight can mean $45,000 (€32,425) extra in income per year for a player. In terms of pure height, he also found that of the men genuinely seven-feet tall in the US male population, almost one-fifth of them were in the NBA. Not surprisingly, he sees a growth in the demand for data journalism.

“I think there is, but I don’t think the appetite for the other type of sportswriting, is necessarily diminishing either.”

Well, thank God for that . . .

“Exactly! But yes, I think the appetite for data journalism is increasing. So much in sports analysis is about those tiny, incremental increases and improvements, and science has really intersected with sport to a degree that wasn’t the case before.

“In addition, fantasy sports have made people look at numbers more in a sports context — but they’re also people who are now interested in sports medicine, say, to an extent that they wouldn’t have before because if they have a player on their fantasy team who’s injured, they want to know if he’s back in three weeks or four.

“Generally I think there’s an awareness and a welcome for stats and figures in sports coverage because they enter into so many people’s jobs anyway, which is on the increase. And the more people are educated in figures and stats, the more you’ll see it in sport.

Nate (Silver, of 538.com) has done a great job, particularly in ‘myth-busting’ about numbers.”

An interesting diversion the book takes is in discussing the famous 10,000 hour rule, which suggests that that amount of practice is required for mastery of a skill or discipline. Epstein points out that a little learning can be a dangerous thing.

“I can’t tell you how many times I see things like that, particularly in relation to diet. It’s like the public consciousness whipsaws because some small study has found something — extrapolating out can be dangerous.

“Take the Eriksson study (on which the 10,000 hour rule is based). Forgive the statistic-talk, but what happened there is you have restricted the range of your sample based on a restricted variable.

“What you’re trying to study is skill, but you start by restricting your subjects based on skill — that hopelessly biases the study against finding anything that would have made those people’s skills in the first place. And that’s what so much of sportswriting is. We restrict based on sports skills — we pick someone who’s already the best and work backwards, so the only things we come up with are the things they tell us, or the things we can see.”

There were surprises for Epstein as he researched the book. Take the chapter about motivation: “I’ve been writing about sports science medicine for quite a while, and I knew that training impacts the dopamine system, the brain’s pressure and reward system.

“But I didn’t realise it was well established that the reverse was also true — that differences in the dopamine system also drive their physical activity, something that can be bred very easily in animals.

“I knew nothing about that, and I guess it’s intuitive — if you train in a group you’ll know some people need to be managed more than others.

“I didn’t realise, though, that there were specific mechanics which explained why some people felt a compulsive need to train the way others feel a compulsive need to do drugs. That was very interesting.

“For a personal revelation, getting my own genetic testing done interested me for several reasons – for instance, it was interesting to find the baseline oxygen capacity has nothing to do with your ability to improve.

“That can be very profound when it comes to skill development, for instance, because it means if you think, ‘of this group this person is the best right now, so he has the most potential’ you may be totally wrong.

“Someone who started at a very low baseline may improve rapidly — in the right conditions.”

That focus on the need for data may be the most lasting legacy for Epstein.

“The major idea I walked away with was that there are a lot of things which we think are genetic, like reflexes, which may not be, while other things we see as acts of will, such as the drive to train, may have important genetic components. Until and unless we have information, though, we’re basing a lot on what we see and on our intuition.”

* The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein (Penguin, €12)

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