By Paul Gardner
The study of genes -- where they are, what they are, and what they do has never been easy. We know they occur on the chromosomes, but even that ostensibly straightforward fact was complicated in the early days.
In 1921 an American researcher named Theophilus Painter, after much meticulous work -- using equipment that would now be considered primitive -- at last managed to count the number of human chromosomes. There were, he proclaimed, 24 pairs.
But in 1955 more accurate counting revealed that everyone had been working with the wrong figure for over 30 years. There were only 23 pairs.
As for the composition and structure of genes, that too had wandered off into a dead end because it was assumed that the genes were proteins. It took the combination of a brilliant young American, James Watson, and a confident but unfocused Englishman, Francis Crick, to light on the truth. Genes were not proteins, they were forms of DNA. “We have discovered the secret of life,” Crick told his friends in 1953.
For sure, genetics was getting serious, more solidly based as a science. And that meant that it was getting more complex. And why not, as the researchers seemed to working at the final undiscovered frontier of human existence?
Maybe the final “truth” about life was within reach with the news in 2000 that scientists were within weeks of coming up with a rough draft of the human genome, a sort of map that would place and identify all the individual genes. Science writer Matt Ridley let us know: “I believe it is the greatest intellectual moment history. Bar none.”
Ridley thought there would be between 60,000 and 80,000 genes to be identified. Others felt it would be at least 100,000. Another miscue. The number turned out to be much smaller, closer to 20,000. Genes rarely work alone, and their various differing combinations are numberless. The more questions that were answered about genes, the more complex were the new questions that arose.
Where is all this research taking us? Most of the discussion revolves around the decidedly upbeat notion of a new era of medicine, how specific genes responsible for specific diseases (and such genes, or gene mutations, have already been identified) can be countered. The darker side -- the possible genetic engineering of “designer” human beings gets less publicity.
And so to sports. Is there such a thing, and can we now isolate it, as a sports gene -- one that might account for the “naturals” -- the players who seem extravagantly gifted almost from the cradle?
The quest for such a gene is the subject of a wonderful book by Sports Illustratedwriter David Epstein -- “The Sports Gene.” When I describe this book as “wonderful,” I mean just that, a book full of wonders, a book that induces wonderment in the reader.
As you’ve read this far, you will know that Epstein’s title, using the word “Gene,” singular, is wrong. There won’t be just one gene. But, maybe, a gene for baseball? Nope. Well then, a gene for pitching? Possibly. And one for hitting, and one for catching, and one for base stealing? Possibly. But the chances are that, in each case, it won’t be just one gene.
Epstein wades deeply and bravely into this dauntingly detailed world and has lived to tell the tale. Or some if it. His telling makes for one of the most fascinating and intriguing and exciting sports books (if that is what it is) that I have ever come across.
Right at the start Epstein rebukes his own title by heading his Introduction “In Search of Sports Genes.” Plural. He acknowledges the complexity of genetics and lets you know that genes (i.e. nature) are important, but so too are environment and training (nurture). There will be no easy answers: “the broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: it’s both.”
Note that -- it’s alwaysboth. For my taste, Epstein gets off to a thundering start by tackling (and, really, exposing) the so-called “10,000 hours rule” -- a theory that has received enormous attention over the past few years. Not least because it seems to provide a scientific basis for ruling out any effect from specific genes. What counts, the only things that count, are will, determination and hard work.
Labor away, keep putting in the hours -- and this must be serious, challenging practice and training -- and you’ll get there, your dream will be reality. In any field of activity. Of course, that is a satisfying formula, one that reflects nothing but credit on the achievers. “Some achieve greatness ...” wrote Shakespeare. But he also wrote “Some are born great ...” That doesn’t go down nearly as well -- the idea that some people can become great without massive effort. There is, it seems, a deep-seated objection to the idea of “genius genes.” Genes are seen as deterministic, as taking away the human factor, canceling out the effect of free will. As some researchers told Epstein, they encountered a certain hostility, and usually found it better not to mention “the g-word.”
The 10,000 hours idea was born of a study of musicians, violinists, in Germany. Thirty of them were divided into three groups: 10 “best” students, 10 merely “good” students, and then “lesser” students. I’ll abbreviate the details, but you will already have guessed, that the top group was discovered to have done much more private practice time “alone with the violin.” The researchers investigated top pianists and found a similar pattern. All the top players had put in 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20.
From this work came a research paper that diminished (actually, “trashed” would fit) the role of genes, with the assertion that whatever genes might be necessary to be a top pro athlete -- or violinist or pianist -- are already present in all healthy individuals. Doesn’t matter who you are -- just drive yourself through those tedious, terrible training hours -- and all will be yours.
Epstein is a gentle debunker, but time and again throughout his book he makes it beautifully clear that this cannot be, at best, anything more than wishful thinking. Certainly it is not science.
For a theory of this sort, which is meant to apply to the whole world, to billions of human beings, fundamental requirements must be that the trial is big enough to form a representative cross-section of the human variations being tested; and that the group being tested is matched against a carefully selected control group. Consider: the 10,000-hour tale came from a group of only 30 people -- and all of them were already classified as at least excellent violinists.
So the trial starts with a minuscule group of exceptional musicians -- a classification that already rules out over 90% of the world. And the first question you’re going to ask -- I hope -- is this: do we have statistics for musicians who have put in 10,000 hours, or maybe 20,000 hours or more and have still not managed to be anything better than average performers? Without that information, the grand conclusions drawn from the trial are simply not justifiable. After all, we’ve all known someone whose off-key whistling or humming has driven us mad -- is he going to be Mozart if he simply keeps pushing the pedals?
This is where Epstein is so good. He has a tale for us, a tale of two high jumpers. One is the long and admirable tale of the Swede Stefan Holm, who -- from the age of 6 (with a lot of help from his father) -- devoted much of his time to becoming a jumper. When he was 28, the 22 years of jumping-devotion paid off -- Holm took the gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games.
There is much to say that Holm’s triumph was all down to hard work, because, at only 5-foot-11 he was not physically favored for high-jumping -- definitely on the small side.
Then came Donald Thomas from the Bahamas. In the 2007 World Championships, the high-jump final saw the bar get up to 7-feet, 8.5 inches. Holm had his three attempts -- but failed each time. Thomas needed just one try and cleared the bar. He was the world champion.
Thomas’s background in high-jumping was extraordinary -- because there was so little of it. Just over one year before his triumph he had been a basketball player. Responding to a wager, he tried a jump or two and cleared 7 feet with no trouble.
Thomas admitted to preferring basketball, said he found jumping “kind of boring.” Because he never had any training he had no style at all -- he had, in Epstein’s choice words, a “rigid form akin to a man riding an invisible deck chair backward through the air.”
The ugliness of Thomas’s action was too much for Johnny Holm, the father who had so patiently and devotedly coached his son Stefan. Johnny sounded off after the event, called Thomas a buffoon and “an affront to the sport.” And you know how he felt. After all those hours and years, to see his son effortlessly beaten by a man who didn’t seem to take the sport seriously, was a bitter pill.
But all of Stefan’s training -- maybe it was 10,000 hours, maybe more -- counted for nothing. Thomas was the winner because he was a natural, he had some innate gift that gave him a huge advantage.
A gift from his genes. Later tests on Thomas revealed two key things: his legs were abnormally long, relative to his height, and he had a super-long Achilles’ tendon. We’ll hear more of such physical advantages shortly. Suffice to say here, that they have absolutely nothing to do with training. You either have them or you don’t. In the high jump, Thomas’s nature -- his genes -- had way outleaped Holm’s nurture -- his training. Or, to use some of the sports gene jargon, the Thomas hardware proved superior to the Holm software.
Next time: Genes and Sport - Part 2. Jamaican sprinters, Kenyan distance runners, high-responders, and Alaskan huskies.
"The Sports Gene. Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance." By David Epstein. Current, 2013. $26.95.