Friday, May 23, 2014

The Sports Gene

by Drew Martin
When I returned to America in 1997 after living in Europe for five years, I got the first temp job I could. It was mindless remittance work in a windowless bunker of a place managed by a timecard system. I had one friend there, a Jamaican girl named Racquel. She had a Haitian friend there named Ricky. It came up in conversation between us that I was a runner. He laughed and said white guys can't run. "Oh really?" was my response, which led to a showdown.

I agreed to run against Ricky on his local track up in the Monsey/Spring Valley, New York area, which is home to two very different diasporas: Hasids and Haitians. They do not mix in any way and even have their own taxis to service their communities.

When I showed up on the track and dropped my sweatpants, he exclaimed "Oh shit, you've got cuts" (defined muscles). He got a bit nervous and looked across the track. Back at work we had bet $20 to race one full lap but all of a sudden he was reconsidering. "One lap is too long," he said, "Let's race 100 meters."

I was not expecting this, and Ricky was a muscular sparkplug with a real sprinter's body. I am a long distance runner so the quarter mile was the fastest I ever raced, and only occasionally to help out in a relay. Ricky was powerful but short, so I was confident I could beat him. 

We ran 100 meters and I beat him by at least 10 meters. He said he wasn't warmed up and wanted to run again so I agreed. The second race was even worse. He was probably 15 to 20 meters behind me.

Ricky shook his head in disbelief. "You cheated" he claimed. "How so?" I asked. "You have a longer stride!" he answered. He hung his head down low. We went to a gas station where he paid to top off my tank (this was when gas was under $1 a gallon) and bought a bouquet of flowers for the twenty dollars.

Ricky had a right to be cocky because he comes from the Caribbean, which is home of the best sprinters in the world, and he was unabashedly vocal about running talent being so black and white. Genetic superiority in sports is a hushed conversation in America so a writer such as Malcolm Gladwell is applauded for spreading the word about the 10,000-hour rule, which states being the best at whatever one does is really a matter of putting that much time into one's craft. That sits well in a world where we encourage everyone to give it a shot, and we cheer the underdog, but it does not answer the question of why so many Kenyans can run a marathon at a sub 5-minute-mile pace, and why Jamaicans dominate sprinting.

David Epstein, senior writer at Sports Illustrated, candidly takes this on in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Epstein argues that the 10,000-hours rule camp do not "address the existence of genetically based talent because their work begins with subjects of high achievement in music and sports. When most of humanity has already been screened out of a study before it begins."

The Sports Gene is probably not a book I would have picked up on my own. I only started reading it because the shoeshine guy at work gave it to me. He used to play soccer in Brazil and comes by on bad weather days to ask me whether or not I did my morning run. He always leaves shouting "You're crazy!" Fortunately, for me, Epstein was a varsity track runner at Columbia University so it is mostly a book about running, and much more detailed than what Gladwell, also a really good runner, dishes out.

Epstein talks about the hardware of baseball players, the wingspan of basketball players, and the aerobic capacity of runners, cross-country skiers, and sled dogs. It turns out that the stiffness of my Achilles tendons is a running advantage, and also the reason why I stitched both of them in training years ago. 

The Sports Gene, was hard to put down. Unlike Gladwell's style, which is to propose an idea and follow through with supporting case studies, Epstein is more thorough and structures the read better by building on his thesis as he takes you through it.

Pictured (top) here is me in the Fall of 1986 during my senior year, leading my high school cross country team on a race we swept. Pictured (middle) is an older exchange student from Kenya who dominated our running program and humbled us as runners. The caption on this photo in our yearbook reads, 
Caiphus Vilakazi wins the 5 mile run for the third year. Pictured (bottom) is a quick chart I made to illustrate a section in The Sports Gene about the decline in the number of US and UK runners who could break a 2:20 marathon, the increase in Kenyans who have been able to, and the steady stream of Japanese who can do so.