Can 'sports gene' make you a champ?

NATURE OR NURTURE: David Epstein probes whether elite athletes like (from left) Sergey Shubenkov, David Oliver and Andrew Riley are naturally gifted, or whether they had to slog to excel.
Can 'sports gene' make you a champ?

CAPTIVATING: Epstein wrote The Sports Gene: The Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.


    Aug 15, 2013

    Can 'sports gene' make you a champ?

    AS AN 800m runner at Columbia University, David Epstein often tested himself against his training partner, Scott.

    Epstein had clawed his way onto the varsity team. Scott, the son of two Canadian track standouts, had set a national age-group record in 1997, the same year Epstein had taken up track as a high-school junior.

    While Scott performed like a natural, Epstein was a "talentless duffer" who would "chew through a crowbar" to gnaw a quarter of a second off his time.

    "I just had to be tougher than him, I thought, because I didn't have the talent," Epstein wrote.

    But what exactly differentiated the two runners? Was Scott endowed with some gene for speed? Could Epstein's grit and determination overcome his apparent lack of innate ability? Where does the intersection between talent and practice lie?

    These are the questions Epstein, a Sports Illustrated senior writer, seeks to answer in a captivating book, The Sports Gene: The Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

    The book's title misleads, as he argues forcefully that no single known gene is sufficient to ensure athletic success. His answer to the question "Nature or nurture?" is both.

    What he has found is that whether (and how fast) chumps can become champs depends on their baseline ability and how rapidly they improve - factors highly influenced by genetics.

    Despite months of identical training, some people make almost no fitness gains while others increase their aerobic capacity by 50 per cent or more.

    Scientists have identified more than 20 gene variants that can separate high responders from low ones.

    Epstein argues that we often confuse innate talent with spirit or effort. Even traits like desire may arise from DNA, such as the Iditarod dogs selectively bred for enthusiastic sled-pulling.

    In a particularly fascinating chapter, he investigates an old theory that purports to explain why one small country, Jamaica, produces so many Olympic sprinters.

    The notion is that strong Africans were selected as slaves, that the strongest of them survived the voyage to Jamaica, and that the strongest survivors eventually escaped slavery and cloistered themselves in a remote region to form an isolated "warrior" gene stock that now produces world-class athletes.

    This convenient story is belied by the DNA research of biologist Yannis Pitsiladis at the University of Glasgow, who finds no genetically distinct subgroup of Jamaican sprinters.

    It appears that Jamaica churns out sprinters because almost everyone on the island tries the sport. Recent positive drug tests from two prominent sprinters may also help explain Jamaica's dominance.

    In the light of the research on trainability, Epstein has revised his own history. He and his college training partner ran the same workouts and pushed themselves to the point of vomiting, so perhaps Scott wasn't more talented after all. They were simply born with different gifts.

    Epstein speculates that he had low baseline ability but a rapid training response that allowed him to improve quickly, while Scott began with a high level of baseline talent but less potential to improve.

    In the final chapter, we meet Eero Mantyranta, a Finnish cross-country skier and three-time Olympic gold medallist born with a genetic mutation that gives him an extraordinarily high red-blood-cell count.

    Though the geneticist who discovered the mutation insisted that it confers a significant advantage by allowing one's blood to carry more oxygen, Mantyranta, now 75, could not be convinced.

    It was his "determination and psyche" that made him a champion, he said - his blood had nothing to do with it.


    The Sports Gene: The Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is available on