The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein

The Jamaican Sprinters Story

  • Anyone at all familiar with track and field will know that the island of Jamaica with a population of only 2.7 million produces an amazing number of elite sprinters. The gene pool contains genes from a number of Western African countries as a result of the colonial slave trade. There seem to have been two filters that lead to the slaves being big, strong, and fast. First was the process of selecting slaves to send the the Americas. Certainly the slave trade, which started with Africans who captured people from neighboring tribes, tended to select the best possible subjects in terms of athletic ability. The harsh conditions during the trip to the Americas was the second filter as the weaker captives didn’t survive. Once they were put to work on Jamaican plantations, the ones who escaped and formed a tribe on a remote part of the island were among the fastest, which represented yet another filer. The final piece to this puzzle is the Jamaican culture that prizes sprinting to the point where every child participates in sprinting and the best are culled out for training and competition. In a sense, there is an island-wide talent-spotting system.

The Malaria Effect

  • At the time slaves were being taken from Western Africa, malaria was common. It seems that two traits protected people against this disease. One was being a carrier of the sickle cell gene. Having two meant they had sickle cell anemia, but having one protected against malaria. The other was having low hemoglobin. Giving iron supplements to this population increased malaria. These two traits tend to produce more fast-twitch muscle fibers and prevent success in events that require endurance. The fast-twitch muscle fibers and the longer legs, however, made for athletes who would be ideal for short running and jumping events. Two interesting facts support this. 1) There hasn’t been a white corner back in the NFL in more than a decade. 2) The Jamaican record for the 10K would not have qualified for the 2012 Olympics.

Meanwhile in Eastern Africa

  • Across the continent in Kenya, there is little malaria due to the altitude, but there are also long legs to dissipate heat and a diverse gene pool. This meant the lower hemoglobin and sickle cell were disadvantages and were selected out of the gene pool for the most part. Altitude studies show that the 6,000 to 9,000 foot range is the sweet spot for making someone more efficient at transporting oxygen. Children of any ethnic group will develop larger lungs if they are raised at altitude regardless of their genetic make up. A look at top white American runners also proves this.
  • Most Kenyan children need to run for transportation. It’s not uncommon for six-mile runs to school. Their body types also feature thinner legs in addition to longer legs. With less mass from the knee down, less energy is required to swing this pendulum. They have a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers and a high capacity to transport oxygen (aerobic capacity or VO2). There are also controversial theories about how faster runners were more likely to reproduce more often.
  • Over 50 years ago, Kenya realized that it’s top students had a better chance of getting a scholarship to an American college if they could also run so they instituted a 1,500 meter running requirement as part of the resume for top students. Since 1968 Kenya has been dominant in middle and long distance running. This countered conventional racist beliefs that said blacks could sprint but couldn’t run longer races that required tactics, discipline, and training. Here are some amazing stats. 1) 17 American man have run less than 2:10 for a marathon. 32 Kenyans did so in one month during October of 2011. 2) Only five American high school students have run a mile under four minutes. A single high school in Kenya had four do so at the same time. 3) Wilson Kipketer held the world record in the 800 meters from 1997 until 2010, but he does not hold his own high school’s record. Like sprinting in Jamaica, running success in Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia is the result of genetics and culture.
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2 Responses to “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein”

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