Q&A with David Epstein on “The Sports Gene”

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By David Monti
(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
May 31, 2013

(Editor’s note: LetsRun.com has reviewed David Epstein’s Sports GeneSports Gene By David Epstein: A Must-Read For All Coaches)

Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein explores the role of genetics in sports in his new book “The Sports Gene” (Current, 290 pages).  In the book, Epstein reviews the latest genetic science to try to unlock the secrets of human talent and how it can be developed into truly great sports performances through coaching and adaptation to training.  The book covers a wide range of sports, but there is a special emphasis on athletics (the author was a runner in college).  Epstein traveled extensively to meet with athletes, coaches, scientists and other researchers, and did reporting from Africa, Jamaica and even the Arctic.   Epstein sat down with Race Results Weekly last Saturday to talk about the book in an exclusive interview.

RACE RESULTS WEEKLY: How did you get the idea for this project?

DAVID EPSTEIN: The idea came way before I actually thought about doing a book itself.  It came from an article I did in 2010 in Sports Illustrated where I just wanted to find out (about genetics in sports). I just pitched to my editors, how about genetics in sports?  The human genome has been mapped now for almost a decade.  Let’s see what’s been found out, instead of what people have been saying, like I think it’s talent and I think it’s practice.

RRW: It sounds like you had been thinking about this for a long time.

DE: But really, I was just using this as a device to explore questions I started having when I was in high school, basically.  I went to a high school just outside of Chicago, and we sort of had a mini Jamaican diaspora in the 70’s and 80’s.  Track and field was a really popular sport in my high school because the Jamaicans were really enthusiastic about it.  They would come to these Tuesday night meets and get really riled up.  I would see these guys, and they were incredibly good because we had these amazing Jamaican runners.  So, we won 26 conference championships in a row.

RRW: What was the name of the high school?

DE: Evanston Township High School.  There was one guy in particular, Micheno Lawrence, who worked at McDonald’s near the high school after school.  He was overweight, probably about 5-7, always eating at McDonald.  He would show up once in a while and just torch the field, from 100 to 800.  I just started to think about what’s going on with these guys?  Some of these guys are so good, that this (Jamaica) is really an island of 2.8 million people.  Is there really something going on there?  Are they, like, importing some kind of sprinting gene?  You know, I was just curious about it.

RRW: What happened next?

DE: Then I went to college and I was just curious about it.  I was a distance runner and now, all of a sudden, I was running against all of these Kenyans, and noticing a similar body build, and how well they do.  I remember a guy from Iona and be in terrible shape, and work out for a month and be just trashing everybody.  I just started really to wonder about this interplay between nature and nurture.  Now, that the genetic science has come a certain distance, maybe it can actually bear on some of these questions, and figure out what you have to be born with, and what you don’t.  I just really wanted to answer my own questions.

RRW: What was the starting point for the research?

DE: That’s a good question. So there is one scientist who travels to Africa and Jamaica regularly to take DNA, basically, from the best athletes in the world.  So, I sort of connected with him.  We were like kindred spirits in a certain way.  We didn’t agree on everything, and I was critical of some of his science.  But, we both had a burning desire to see these questions answered.  So, once I connected with him and traveled to Jamaica with him to get DNA from, basically, all of the best-trained runners.  Since he’s not supposed to say exactly who they are, he says, “the likes of a Usain Bolt.”  Basically, he has, like, every living world record holder.

RRW: In general terms, what did you find out?

DE: So, I traveled with him and there was this theory.  When I was there, I asked the Jamaican people why do they think they have such good sprinters?  One of the big stories they have is that there is the big group of warriors who escaped slavery 100 years before emancipation and cloistered themselves in the mountains.  That’s where Veronica Campbell-Brown is from, that’s where Usain Bolt is from, that’s where most of the great sprinters are from.  So, they say that warriors, who were the strongest people, bred these athletes.  So, he started to collect DNA from these people in this small, autonomous region in Jamaica to see if they would make good sprinters.  It just fascinated me.

RRW: Without giving too much away from the book, what did you learn about how genetics connected to sport, or maybe didn’t connect to sport?

DE: Outside of track and field, one of the things that really surprised me was with baseball, for example.  I figured that guys with 100 MPH fastballs would have faster reflexes than the next person, and that turns out completely not to be true.  So, like Albert Pujols, who is the greatest hitter of a generation, when he was tested for his reaction time he was in the 66th percentile when compared to a bunch of college students.  So, like nothing special at all.  And, it turns out actually that it’s too fast for the human visual system to process something that quick (to react to a pitch).  So, your minimum reaction time is 200 milliseconds, or one-fifth of a second, so that’s half the plate path of a major league pitch.  So, you have to decide right out of the pitcher’s hand when to swing.  It turns out that guys learn, without even knowing it, they learn how to encode body patterns, body movements, which let them anticipate the ball way before it gets there.

RRW: Can that be proven?

DE: So, with innovative science, you can delete little parts of the pitcher, like his shoulder, and you can turn Albert Pujols into, like, you and me, instantly.  He needs certain visual information.

RRW: So that’s a learned phenomenon.

DE: That’s a learned phenomenon.  Actually, a lot of the sports literature says that talent is something that has to be there before somebody trains.  I think it’s very clear now that the genetic science shows that a huge proportion of talent, actually a huge proportion of talent, is the ability to physiologically adapt to training, not something that’s there before training.  It really changes your whole idea of talent as something that’s there before something that’s experienced to allow you to benefit from the same training as the next guy.  So, if you think about it, that’s what you see in every track training group in the world: ten guys on the same training program and you end up with ten different runners.

RRW: Did you look at the effects of doping?

DE: The first wave of genetic revolution was to see if people react to different drugs based on their genetics.  So now the American College of Sports Medicine says exercise is medicine.  And, I think that is perfectly apropos because we’re seeing that the exact same training affects everyone differently, that the genomes are different.  So, I think that eventually we’ll have personalized training based on the genome.

RRW: So, in broad strokes, where will the book take the reader?

DE: I have interviews with world and Olympic champions.  I reported from below the equator in Africa, above the Arctic circle in Finland where I tracked down a guy who was the best endurance athlete of his generation (he had an extremely rare genetic mutation which runs in his family).  I think it covers just about everything in the decade since the human genome was sequenced to tell us what genetics can, or cannot tell us, about sports performance.  Interviews with world and Olympic champions –lots of time with them– from Africa to the Arctic.  I think anyone who comes out of it will know at this point in time what genetics can tell us about athleticism.

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