The Sports Gene

Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

Epstein, David J.

(Book - 2013)
Average Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
The Sports Gene
We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they? The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training? The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research. In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence. Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components. Through on-the-ground reporting from below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, revealing conversations with leading scientists and Olympic champions, and interviews with athletes who have rare genetic mutations or physical traits, Epstein forces us to rethink the very nature of athleticism.
Publisher: New York, New York :, Current,, [2013]
ISBN: 9781591845119
Characteristics: xiv, 338 pages ; 24 cm


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Sep 26, 2013
  • ksoles rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Why, out of the 81 men who have run 100 meters in less than ten seconds, are 80 of them black? Why has a sub-Saharan African never won an Olympic weight lifting medal? And, more abstractly, what makes a great athlete?

In "The Sports Gene," Sports Illustrated senior writer Epstein begins with Malcolm Gladwell’s premise from "Outliers" (2008): success owes less to inherited ability and more to intense practice (the famous 10,000 hours) and circumstance. In lucid and accessible prose, he proceeds to apply Gladwell’s approach to athletic prowess, citing an array of scientific studies and entertaining anecdotes.

Epstein definitively concludes that "nature" contribute more to great performance than does "nurture." High jumpers benefit if born with a longer, stiffer Achilles tendon. Africans have longer legs and slimmer hips, allowing them to run faster. Caucasians are stockier, with thicker, stronger upper bodies. Of course, hours of dedicated practice help but even the will to train obsessively stems from inherited character traits.

The book provides a sometimes-overwhelming barrage of studies proving that hundreds of sports genes exist though researchers still don't understand their interactions. But ultimately, "The Sports Gene" intrigues and engages with its exploration of great athletic achievements.


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