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August 7, 2013

Maybe They're Born With It

Author David Epstein examines what genes control in athletics—and what they don't.

Michael Gluckstadt

What makes a great athlete? Is it someone who's won the genetic lottery and been endowed with natural gifts? Or could it be anyone who's just put in the effort and the time—say, 10,000 hours—to reach the height of their craft?

David Epstein
"If you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 and at least 7 feet tall, there's a 17% chance he's in the NBA right now."

David Epstein

According to Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein, the answer is not that simple. "To me, 'great athlete' implies someone who has found the right nurture that fits their inimitable genome," he tells Gelf. In his new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, Epstein explores the many ways genetics shape athletic achievement and behavior. And in order to understand what traits make a certain athlete stand apart from the pack, he dives into physical questions of what it means to excel in a particular sport.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Epstein tells Gelf whether or not LeBron James would make a good tight end, why the "10,000 hour" theory is mostly bunk, and why writing this book was a dream assignment.

Gelf Magazine: In his blurb for your book, Daryl Morey says it "blows up the notion that 10,000 hours is all that's required for dominance in a sport." Did you set out to challenge any widely held beliefs? What was your goal in writing the book?

David Epstein: I didn't. The 10,000-hours discussion that takes place over the first three chapters wasn't in my book proposal. But when I started reporting, I realized that there was a school of thought that was becoming massively popular that says that genetic variation has no influence on athletic success. K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State psychologist who did the work (on 10 violinists who had already been highly prescreened) that eventually led to the popularity of the 10,000-hours notion, has written that the genes required for expertise are contained "within all healthy individuals' DNA," and that these "dormant genes" are selectively activated by appropriate practice. I co-organized a panel at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in 2012 and invited Ericsson and others, including Claude Bouchard, the most influential exercise geneticist in the world. Bouchard said at the panel that this notion of dormant genes didn't even make sense to a geneticist, and he has now shown that gene variants predict why some people will improve their endurance massively while others will not improve at all from the same exact training. Just as medical genetics has shown us that, for example, my version of a gene involved in the metabolism of acetaminophen may be different from yours and thus my one Tylenol may not be as effective as your one Tylenol, exercise genetics is showing us that the new notion of "talent" must include the biological setup that allows one person to profit more from a given amount of training. Because Ericsson's ideas had been influential with the public, and much more widely known than anything in sports genetics, I felt that I had to discuss those ideas and where they originated before I could even begin to talk about when and why genetics are important. As you can see in the book, I also encountered scientists who told me that the popularity of the 10,000-hours theory has led to overspecialization that harms athlete development in certain sports. One researcher told me it has made the idea that genes even matter taboo among some of his peers, so when he submits grant proposals for genetic work he leaves out the word "genetics," and says "molecular biology and protein synthesis" instead. Of course, it's the same thing. Making serious topics taboo in science can be really harmful. Gelf Magazine: To some people, any talk about race and genes can be fairly dicey. Were you at all worried about your work being misconstrued by people who are quick to cry racism, or by actual racists?

David Epstein: I nearly backed out of writing the book because of it. How could I not worry about it? But then I encountered a head of a kinesiology department at a major research university who confessed to me that he was withholding data about ethnic differences from one of his studies. His work was on the response of exercisers to a dietary supplement, and he'd found differences in his black and white subjects and felt that publishing it could open him up to criticism that he was somehow implying innate intellectual differences, even though his work had absolutely nothing to do with that. What upset me was that ignoring genetic differences that result from peoples' unique geographic and familial histories can have deadly consequences.
One example I describe in the book is when the United Nations charged the world with reducing dangerous anemia in Africa, and so healthcare workers descended on Africa with iron supplements to hand out. They didn't consider that the low hemoglobin levels of many Africans in malarial regions are connected to genetic conditions that protect them from malaria. So when iron supplements were given, cases of severe malaria and deaths from malaria increased. In 2006, the World Health Organization had to issue a cautionary statement about giving out iron supplements in high-malaria areas. If we judge the hemoglobin and iron levels of Africans from certain regions by European standards—if we pretend there are no innate biological differences—we can really put people in danger. And there are other examples of this.
In my mind, human biological diversity is a beautiful and wonderful thing, and the only way to differentiate which ethnic differences are real and important from those that are pure pseudoscience—and to understand how biological variation interacts with environments and experiences to produce the best possible outcomes for all people—is with more peer-reviewed science on thorny issues. In any case, I didn't want to hide what I had learned, and I made sure to present it through the work and voices of some of the most renowned geneticists in the world, like Yale's Kenneth Kidd.

Gelf Magazine: Is there such a thing as just a "freak athlete"? If there is, who might be a classic example?

David Epstein: "Freak" often implies something bad, whereas I take this to mean someone good! In the early 20th century, physical education researchers had the mistaken idea that the "average" body type was the best for all sports. That was before the "Big Bang of body types" that I describe in the book. Now we want freaks! It's a great compliment. I don't want to give the entire story away, but I would point to the Finnish reindeer farmer in the last chapter in the book who has a single, rare gene mutation that basically causes him to have naturally what generations of athletes have doped in order to try to attain. Even something as simple to measure as human height is now known to be influenced by vast networks of genes, so to find someone with a single gene mutation that can have such a massive influence is truly rare. The same goes for "Superbaby" from Chapter Six. A mutation on a particular gene gave him twice the muscle of his infant peers.
I would say, though, that any seven-footer is a bit of a "freak." When I combined the CDC data on the height of Americans with measures of NBA bodies from the pre-draft combine, I came up with the estimate that, if you know an American man who is between the ages of 20 and 40 and is at least seven feet tall, there's a 17% chance he's in the NBA right now. That sort of seems like the definition of "freakish."

Gelf Magazine: I imagine some NBA players would be surprised to hear that stat you just mentioned. Have you gotten any feedback from athletes about your work?

David Epstein: I'm just starting to get feedback from athletes about the work, although I let a few read it prepublication. In terms of the basketball body types, Mark Cuban was surprised to read that and became really interested in the book. He's really interested in anyone who can talk to him about science and how it might be applied to pro sports.
As far as the athletes, it's sort of funnyépro athletes seem to be the most amenable to the idea that—while a massive amount of work is required to be elite—genes also matter a great deal. I was actually video-chatting with a group of Olympians the other day, and one theme that resonated with them was the idea that each of us has a genome unique in the world, and thus for optimal performance, we should each have a unique environment or training plan. Many of them found their ways to their sports and then to their favorite training regimens through sort of trial-and-error and paying attention to what works for their particular biology. I think that's a theme for successful athletes, and it actually shows up among youth soccer players who go on to be pros in the Groningen Talent Studies I write about: They don't do particular training just because they're told; they grope to find what works for their unique bodies, mentalities and skills.

Gelf Magazine: Given what you've found out about what traits make certain athletes excel at one sport, what sports do you think would have the best chance of a player crossing over between them? Do you think LeBron would have been an unstoppable tight end?

David Epstein:Yes, I do think LeBron would have been an outstanding tight end. I believe he was an all-state wide receiver as an underclassman in high school.
Football is somewhat unique in the sense that it accommodates an incredibly wide range of body types and skill sets. You can literally have almost the extremes of the human physique on the field at one time, so I think the sport lends itself to talent transfer. If a coach can find phenomenal athletes, he can often find some place to plug them in. There is so much flexibility not only with positions but also with game plans that football offers a really unparalleled opportunity to just find a spot for someone with transcendent athleticism. Sprinters, soccer players, and wrestlers have been successful football players. The 49ers recently signed Lawrence Okoye, a British Olympic discus thrower who had never put pads on before. The same was true for Ziggy Ansah, the fifth pick of the NFL draft. He hadn't donned pads until he came to BYU. LeBron probably has as much or more football experience, and he compares very favorably from a size and athleticism standpoint. Having looked at Ansah's track-and-field times from college, and his combine performance, I think LeBron would likely outperform him on every measure. Vertical jump is one decent proxy for explosiveness—though it alone can't entirely account for explosiveness—and Ansah jumped 34.5 inches at the combine from a standstill. Based on pictures of him with his forehead at or above the rim, LeBron must have a short approach jump of at least 41 inches. He's 20 pounds lighter but three inches taller than Ansah. Both Okoye and Ansah are defensive ends, so perhaps that's an easy position for talent transfer, so maybe that's where I'd try LeBron first. LeBron is, I think, what you get when you have the best athlete who also develops the best sport-specific skills. (And he's 6'8", which is far more rare than we realize. There are only 20,000 American adults of NBA age who are at least 6'8". That's like a population the size of Rolla, Missouri.)
In any case, part of the reason Australia did so well when it hosted the Olympics—earning 10 times as many medals relative to population as the US—is because of its talent-transfer programs. They found athletes who were good but not great, and got them in sports where they could be great. It worked. If you haven't watched the YouTube video of sprinter Carlin Isles playing rugby with the US national team after just a month of practice, I suggest taking a look at that for an idea of how successful talent transfer can be!

Gelf Magazine: Are advances in genomics close to allowing the creation of "designer" athletes?

David Epstein: We still don't know what most genes do, and that's aside from most genes that influence athleticism. There are methods of gene-doping—essentially giving people a version of a gene that is made in a lab—that are straightforward enough that they could be done fairly easily. And, as I write, athletes have shown themselves to be willing to try this, even though it's not necessarily safe. That said, traditional methods of doping are so incredibly effective, and drug-testing is generally so easy to beat if you're sophisticated, that I'm not sure why athletes would even bother moving on to gene-doping. All that said, there are known genes involved in, for example, your body's production of red blood cells. And we know a version of that gene that causes an overproduction of red blood cells. So, in that case, altering a single gene might cause a massive alteration in athleticism.

Gelf Magazine Are laws keeping up with scientific advancements?

David Epstein: I'd say it's a mix. The legal environment for genetic modification wasn't something I spent much time focusing on, but I think it's a patchwork. As is often the case, I think the science is going to get ahead of the laws. I mean, it's only been a few years that we've had a law preventing discrimination by an employer against an employee based on the employee's genetic information—so, today, the Bulls couldn't try to force Eddy Curry to get a genetic test. That protection—which took a decade to work its way through Congress—still doesn't extend to providers of life insurance and disability insurance. The science is going to continue to progress rapidly, and unfortunately I think the laws will often come in response to sticky situations, and I'm not sure the heat of the moment is the best incubator for important laws.

Gelf Magazine: Is it possible that the world's greatest natural athlete is working in a diamond mine somewhere in Sierra Leone? Or is that not really how it works?

David Epstein: No, it's not, because to me "great athlete" implies someone who has found the right nurture that fits their inimitable genome. Not just the potential, but the actual realization. That said, in the book I interview Justin Durandt, manager of the Discovery High Performance Centre at the venerable Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He scours the country looking to unearth rugby diamonds in the rough. He told me that the fastest runner he ever tested was a 16-year-old boy who came from a rural area and didn't have a day of formal training in his life. Durandt said the boy ran 40 meters in 4.68 seconds, which converts to the 4.2 range for the NFL-style 40-yard dash. That's on par with the fastest NFL combine runs ever. So do I think there are hidden talents out there? Tons of them. The fact is, most countries don't care about most sports, and aren't looking for the talent. And there are huge numbers of people who simply grow up without any real access to, or knowledge about, the sport that might best suit them. Durandt told me he was unable to convince the boy to come for training.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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