Telmo Zarra, overlord of Spanish futbol. Athletic Bilbao goal-harvester. Basque legend.
Book Review: David Epstein’s The Sports Gene
David Epstein’s The Sports Gene is a staggering tour through the scientific literature and related stories on the subject of athletic performance. The book catches us up on the large body of developing scientific research that probes the origins of athletic success: is it nature? nurture? or a combination of both? Epstein’s book is an indispensable read for anyone looking to become familiar with the basic questions, talking points, and tentative conclusions concerning the intersection of sports and science (perhaps more properly, sports and genetics).
For readers expecting a brave new world of mad scientists cloning athlete drones in sparkling white labs, Epstein’s basic thesis is a welcome letdown: “[A]ny case for sports expertise that leans entirely on either nature or nurture is a straw-man argument.” Epstein cleverly develops this thesis with his overview of sporting tales and scientific research that confound any account, which - too reductively - attributes athletic success purely to genes or purely to environment.
In Epstein’s narrative, what emerges instead is a delightfully complex interaction between genes and environment. In a key moment (when discussing athletes dealing with pain) that illustrates this idea, Epstein uses a metaphor that can be applied to the broader subject of athletic expertise, which, as he describes it “is a braid of nature and nurture so intricately and thoroughly intertwined as to become a single vine.” A braided vine. Perhaps not unlike that of a tree, like the ficus.
In this sense, The Sports Gene is a corrective to the Quixotic hunt for the “athlete gene.” The book’s title plays off this concept, but makes no promises of scientific pay dirt. Epstein baldly states his corrective to the “athlete gene” hunt at the end of a later chapter in the book:
"[A]ny notion of finding the ‘athlete gene’ was a figment of the era of wishful thinking that crested a decade ago with the first full sequencing of the human genome, before scientists understood how much they didn’t understand about the complexity of the genetic recipe book."
However, debunking the Quixotic hunt for the “athlete gene” doesn’t discount that at any given time, nature or nurture can play the more punctuated role within any single story of athletic achievement (e.g. the fascinating case of Finnish cross-country skiing legend and three-time Olympic gold medalist, Eero Mäntyranta, who embodies this interplay with his body’s shocking capacity to produce red blood cells and his Finnish environment in which he skied as a border patrol agent).
The power of Epstein’s narrative stems from his own story as a collegiate sprinter. He frames the book with the curious discrepancy he observed between himself and another sprinter, who simply seemed endowed with better genes, as his body always responded more quickly to training. This discrepancy - in bodily response to training - drives Epstein’s writing, as chapter-by-chapter he tackles territory in the wide world of sports that touches upon the athletic expertise debate.
For my money, The Sports Gene's strengths are two-fold: 1) the book is a sort of literature review of utterly fascinating research scientists around the world have done on athletic expertise and performance, 2) the book profiles stories of athletic performance that are compelling in their own right - the book could stand alone with just these stories - thanks to Epstein's journalistic nose for good material. He pulls no punches in framing the stories, baiting us readers in, then scrupulously linking these stories to the research questions at stake.
Although the stories are simply compelling in a narrative-sense, they are valuable because Epstein introduces (or reintroduces) athletes and sports that tend to get lost in the incessant current of mainstream American sports (the NFL, the NBA, or even MLB). For example, a big-name American athlete like Barry Bonds is mentioned, but as a sort of the butt of the joke that is the unhitable pitching of Jennie Finch (in the context of research about the “occlusion test”). Athletes like Chrissie Wellington, Anthony Sandoval, Lance Makey, Paula Radcliffe, Eero Mäntyranta, as well as many Kenyan Kalenjin and Ethiopian Oromo runners receive Epstein’s attention. How many of these names do you recognize? (I don’t know about you, but I have no excuse for not knowing of Sandoval, who is from the same general area of New Mexico I was born and raised.) In academic-speak, Epstein’s selection of stories/examples “valorizes” these overlooked athletes and sports. His book serves a key purpose in this sense alone.
Epstein’s treatment of these stories combines pathos with a sense of suspense - e.g. the story of Mäntyranta’s red blood cells almost reads like a detective tale (of cellular proportions!). More importantly, these stories help mark the contours of the human body’s frontier. In my mind, this marking is one of the most compelling features of sport; it’s one of the reasons I’ll “flip the game on” during a mid-week night - there’s always the hope of seeing a physical frontier broached.
Speaking of physical frontiers, Epstein’s survey necessarily collides with the political messiness and controversy that genetic research involves, especially when racial issues are involved - not to mention sex differences and biology. Chapter 9 “(We Are All Black (Sort Of)”) dives into race and genetic differences along with bits and pieces of the same subject chapter in other chapters (e.g. chapter 11), while chapter 4 (“Why Men Have Nipples”) tackles research on sex differences, biology, and athletic performance. In both chapters, Epstein comes off sensitive to the social and political controversies that accompany simply discussing this material (especially the attendant stereotyping and social consequences).
However, I’d argue that Epstein misses a golden opportunity with his treatment of the controversial stuff. Epstein glosses some of the troubled political and social waters, especially in chapter 11, yet without fully tackling the complicated history and racial oppression accompanying, say, race and genetics. For one, I would have appreciated a survey of the problem, as well as an investigation of what motivates the controversy. Given Epstein’s nose for compelling stories, I’m certain his treatment of this issue could have been fantastic.
In Epstein’s defense, discussing this issue falls outside the scope of his book; however, I’d argue the book’s scope bypasses the necessary social and political ground that should be covered about the consequences and risks this research inevitably involves. The Sports Gene would have been improved with a stand-alone chapter devoted solely to the political and social elements mentioned above, especially given how prominently race and genetics is featured in the book. I find the omission of this discussion puzzling.
Indeed, an uncharitable reader could accuse Epstein of, on the one hand, paying “p.c. lip service” to the race and genetics issue, while on the other hand hinting at the nuisance of social/political concerns in stymieing the progress of scientific research; e.g. at the end of chapter 11 when Epstein report that “[s]everal scientists” have purposely withheld key data on ethnic differences for fear of political repercussions. While I don’t doubt Epstein’s reporting, nor the unnamed scientists’ fears, I can’t help but wonder at how impoverished is our larger social conversation on racial issues.
Another missed opportunity in The Sports Gene, I believe, was a discussion on the impact the modern spectator (or fan) experience has on the science of extraordinary athletic performance. Simply put, without an audience watching these incredible athletes, none of this stuff matters. So I’d be curious to learn more about the expectations, cross-pressures, and demands fan cultures place on our athletes in relation to driving the boundaries of the human body’s frontiers. It’s not a coincidence that much of what we consider athletic achievement is closely correlated with the rise of professionalization in sports, which, naturally, coincides with the rise of the modern spectator/fan consumer, whose spending (someone’s gotta buy those cable TV packages!) mostly fuels the whole athletic industrial complex. Epstein only briefly touches on the impact fan cultures have on the athletic body; e.g. a couple fascinating moments in chapter 7 when he discusses the demand for certain body types or slowing of record-breaking in certain sports. I can’t help but think that - with spectators/fans - Epstein overlooked a key engine that drives and motivates his subject matter in profound ways.
However, I can’t really fault The Sports Gene too much for these two omissions. The book effortlessly stands on its own as a valuable moment in story of our love of sport. Epstein’s book is required reading for anyone who cares about what science is revealing (or not revealing yet) about the sporting human body. Epstein’s survey of the scientific literature catches us up on where things stand, while his selection and handling of individual athletes’ stories remind us that sport is so much bigger than our grinding mainstream American sporting scene and cycle.
As an almost life-long Dallas Cowboys fan, I often wonder if Cowboys fans have souls (yes, I believe in souls), and if, by extension, I have a soul. On absurd days, I attribute my own struggles of the spirit to my Cowboys fandom.
That crowd in Dallas has always been so tepid, like the cosmopolitan crowds in Chelsea, Arsenal, or Old Trafford in the English Premier League. Or Miami. A crowd of conspicuous consumers.
Friends have sometimes laughed in disbelief when I - cautiously — disclose being Cowboys fan: “Travis, how could you?” “Travis, that’s the most unhip team to love” “Travis, I thought you were cool.”
But I disclose. It’s truth. Sure, I’ll cloak it by wearing my long sleeve Seahawks tee on NFL game days, but under everything, sporting-wise, is my Cowboys fandom. Yes, fandom has always been mostly geographical for me (i.e. cheering for the team closest to me, spatially), which is how my Cowboys began, but I drag my Cowboys across the country with me - to D.C., Tallahassee, Seattle, and now Pittsburgh.
For two years, I’ve tried to write a piece about what it’s like being a Cowboys fan, which is tricky because I can’t really discern in what sense the Dallas Cowboys have fans - in the same that the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, or (ah, hell) the Philly Eagles have fans.
There’s a stub of an article sitting here in Tumblr with bones of words about being a Cowboys fan. Someday, the hook and heart of the article will become clear.
Specifics help. First, there’s S.L. Price’s profile on Tony Romo in Sports Illustrated from November. My first thought after reading this piece was picturing Tony Romo miming quarterbacking skills in his den during the “Epilogue” of some Arthur Miller play.
Next, there’s Shay in Irving, otherwise known as the supreme caller on The Dan Patrick Show. He cares.
Kyle Orton’s face after the losing interception.
I wonder if Tony Romo watched the game - under a haze of drugs - from some hospital bed somewhere?
At least he won’t be blamed this time.
My god, will the Cowboys ever win another “play-in” game at the season’s end?
Carry On, Mass Media Saturation …
Usually, big media stories seem to get played out and over-exposed so quickly. And usually, I just switch off the radio or close the browser tab. In the sports world, this effect is even worse, as sports-for-sports sake stories (e.g. “Is Tony Romo worthless?” “Is LeBron the greatest of all time?” etc.) or faux-moral stories (e.g. “Should Johnny Manziel be punished the NCAA?” or “Why the hell doesn’t Dez Bryant shut up?”) usually dominant our media channels. In one sense, this type of coverage makes sense, since it appeals to the broadest denominator (good ‘ol utility at work here), and it’s not like earth-shattering cultural stories pop up in the sporting world every day - although any close of Dave Zirin's stuff, like me, would disagree!
Every once in awhile, we get a sporting story that is deeply intertwined (or even generated by) with social and cultural issues that everyone has profound personal experience with. In these cases, the sporting story becomes a platform upon which we can have a “national conversation” about the given issue. Of course, these discourse moments are fleeting, but they happen. There’s still a space for conversations when the right kind of subject matter triggers an opening. For me, one of the chief power of sports has always been its ability to trigger such moments, thanks to its national and global reach. Although many have made this obvious point, it’s always worth making, sports happen during live time with live narratives during their seasons. Sure, you can DVR a sporting event, but nobody “binge watches” old NFL seasons (except for a few odd souls), like we do old HBO shows/seasons.
I say all this to set up my point: I hope the mass sports media stay saturated with the Incognito and Martin story. We need to talk about it. Especially us men with our crumbling sense of masculine identity and community. Because let’s face it, underneath this “locker room” story there’s a bigger story lurking - a story bigger than just Incognito and Martin, bigger than the NFL, or even bigger than myriad locker rooms around the country.
So Mike and Mike, Dan Patrick, Jim Rome, Colin Cowherd, SVP, ESPN, Deadspin, etc. keep talking about it. Keep taking those calls. Keep interviewing athletes about locker room culture. Keep the conversation going. Saturate us. Don’t let this unique opportunity for a national conversation pass, like so much else that’s fleeting in our cultures.
… sometimes, you just can’t find your pocket:
Arsene Wegner has never been more Arsene. At least this last sentence is the tempting utterance grabbed by my mind upon the occasion of seeing this love work of philosophical photography.
Wegner is man. Man lost. Man turning aside. Man playing air guitar. Man on Net Nanny. Man self-restricting his desire to spend gobs of cash on over-valued talent on the crack cocaine market that is the transfer market. Man lacking symmetry. Man lacking comfort. Man trying to do two things at once and failing. Man facing his futile existence. Man trying to get his hand inside his damn coat pocket.
Arsene, you are our canvas of humanity - a screen upon we play out our own loathing, desire, brilliance, derision, praises, and … well … everything really. Our souls commune with yours.
Arsene, you are our moving portrait.
A Resurrected Baseball Town?
Luckily, we moved to Pittsburgh - “The Burgh” - just as the Pirates were clinching a spot in the playoffs, thus ending 21 damn long years of American sporting futility. (Now the bricked walls of the old Forbes Field can safely turnover in their soil-graves.) And upon arrival, I’ve never seen a city so expressive in supporting its team. The excitement crested during the division series against the sacred St. Louis Cardinals, as thousands of Jolly Roger flags sprouted up on stoops, porches, window, flag polls, billboards, and cars all over The Burgh.
Yes, Jolly Rogers.
I was no different. We had a mini Jolly Roger going on the back porch. It’s no wonder Pittsburghers own the nation’s largest volume of the flags.
For a week, Steelers gear vanished (well, almost) and Bucs gear was worn by about half the population, it seems.
The gear, the gear. It was everywhere. Of course, I had my ballcap and a couple tees. Gotta fit in. Gotta self-signal my communal identity.
As buckets of red leaves fall off the trees, a few Jolly Rogers still linger on stoops and porches. But mostly the “Let’s Go Bucs” signs have been replaced with “Let’s Go Pens.” But the yellow “P” lurks around, reminding us of baseball’s death and rebirth in Spring. Meanwhile, I contemplate about what El Torro (Pablo Alvarez) and Cutch (Andrew McCutchen) are doing. Golfing? Fishing? Building model airplanes? Taking pottery classes?
I miss the 2013 playoff run party - already.
Now we have the looming winter of Steeler mediocrity and the exotic “other” that is Pens hockey. First world problems, folks.
I began following the Pirates from opening day when I knew we were moving to Pittsburgh.This lead up, before our move, gave me some time to catch up the Pirates narrative of former glory and present futility. I particularly enjoyed Diana Moskovitz's “Pirates Diary” series on The Classical. She personalized the narrative of Pirates disappointment and chronicled her own reactions to the Pirates’ surprising playoff run this season. So by the time we moved to Pittsburgh, I was well acquainted with the narrative of futility and faded baseball fandom in a town that I’ve heard people describe as an “old baseball town.” Knowing this narrative is necessary for appreciating the significance of what happened in Pittsburgh this summer and early fall.
As the playoffs began, it was not uncommon to hear strangers chatting about the Pirates at the grocery store, coffee shop, preschool, church, etc. And I don’t mean polite chatter like: “Good game last night. So happy the Pirates won. What did you do last night?” No, instead I heard stuff about starting rotations, the merits of sequencing the pitching rotation in certain ways, detailed analysis of specific play. Solid stuff that you’d have to actually watch a few damn baseball games to say.
I’ve said and read that sport is communal, especially in relation to the discourse of meaning is creates among fan communities. But good lord, have I never seen such a sport community on such a large scale in this respect.
Which leads me to wonder if Pittsburgh is - indeed - a baseball town (whatever that means) foremost?
I need to read up on this topic. I know the basics about some of the history of baseball qua baseball in The Burgh, but not the cultural-social meanings, issues, interactions, class dynamics, etc. Or about the relationship between baseball and football here. The more obvious tale is a “blue collar” working class city embracing the grittiness and toughness of football - in a way that reflected the kinds of industrial work that was so prevalent in Pittsburgh for decades. As for baseball - I just don’t know the whole narrative yet.
My hunch is that baseball is a sort of dormant force here. Hibernating. I say this, because, as I’ve been observing, Pittsburghers are rooted folks, who transmit their fandom down the family line, as they would an heirloom. And that’s precisely it - fandom is an heirloom here. It’s passed down to the kids in a renewing cycle, not to mentioned exported by the large numbers who’ve emigrated from The Burgh over the decades. Because of the tradition of rootedness here, baseball is an object hierloom to pass on. If only the Pirates would actually win some games … and the finally have. Perhaps, there’s a sort of returning to the “first love” (baseball!). Of the thing that was passed from parent to child for decades and decades - a thing that predates football’s popularity, of course.
In another sense, Pittsburgh is simply a sports city, like Philly or Boston. And good god is it a sports town in a proud, seasonal, committed way. So the emerging Pirates madness is also partially a symptom of the city’s wider love for sports, I believe. The Burgh simply does sports well. It knows how to cheer for team and decorate the front yard. Fandom itself is a tradition in Pittsburgh.