The Sports Gene


For many of us adults, we look back on our school years with memories of sports after school being foremost.  How many of you played soccer, rugby, tennis, athletics?  How many of you wondered as a 15 year old if you could make the Olympics, World Cup or what have you at the pinnacle of sporting endeavor?  A large percentage I am sure.  I remember using Franz Stampfl’s book as the bible as I trained every afternoon with “interval running”.  Alas, my knees gave out before I could pit myself against the top athletic crowd.  No gold medals for me.

However, David Epstein, a very astute writer for Sports Illustrated has taken it upon himself to investigate the roles of nature and nurture in the development of athleticism in his book, “The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the truth about Success” (ISBN 978-0-224-09162-6, Yellow Jersey Press, Random House, 2014).

The book has 16 chapters and an epilogue and copious notes at the end, but this is something to be expected.  Author Epstein has brought together several scientific studies and has been successful in collating the numbers, where the individual researchers have not had enough data to be positive in their results.  Epstein has found the correlations and has commented upon them.

The theme that runs through the book is genetics with the Human Genome Project featuring right from the beginning of the book.  He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that the 23,000 regions of DNA are not such that we can pick and replace at will.  Altering one sequence can have an effect on others!

He begins with looking at the work done by K. Anders Ericsson, whose research paper titled, “Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievement” in 2009 gave credence to the idea that excellence came from 10,000 hours of practice.  Nurture defeating nature.  Or does it?

Epstein has drawn upon the work of some sports scientists who have pointed out that genes are not rigidly determinate, as opposed to some commonly held ideas that they “…negate free will or the ability to improve one’s athletic station.”

Epstein reports that the Heritage research group has additionally found that there are 21 gene variants that can predict physical improvement with exercise.  Or otherwise.  Nature being decidedly difficult to get along with at times!

The back cover has the plaudits of other journalists, with quotes such as “Terrific”, “Endlessly fascinating”, “Powerful and convincing” and “Fascinating, thought provoking.”  To those I would like to add “terrifying”.  Epstein has scratched through the shell of our love affair with sports and medals, and has shown that nature and nurture are both involved – but genetic meddling is not far away as mankind delves deeper into the very threads of our own make-up, even to the point of blurring the distinction between male and female athletes.  Be warned, “Robo-Runner” is not too far away down the track.

At B. 495 on the Bookazine shelves, this book will please anyone with an enquiring mind and an interest in sport.  And if you are wondering when you should start training your offspring, the answer is 12 years.