Book Reviews

The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success – David Epstein – Book Review


‘The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success’ David Epstein – Review by Dan O’Neill

Born to Run

What makes an elite athlete ‘elite’? In the Nature versus Nurture debate, which is more important? Is there a ‘sports gene’, that means some athletes are born great, others moderate performers, and others, like this reviewer, happy to complete 10k around the hour mark – (make that extremely happy)? Can we ‘learn’ to run faster, jump higher and achieve greatness through applied training? Can you make yourself become and Olympian and if so, how? All these questions are up for consideration in David Epstein’s ‘The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success’. The answers are provided in a detailed and thorough account of what makes some of us become champions.

Epstein is a writer for ‘Sports Illustrated’, a publication best known in Europe for their ‘Swimsuit Edition’. But it is mostly a serious sports magazine and this is a serious investigation into what separates a good, but not great, athlete (like Epstein) from Olympic and World Champions.

the sports gene

‘The Sports Gene’ exists; but Epstein emphasises the importance of practice too. In his numerous case studies, two stand out; the sprinting ability of Jamaicans and the middle distance aptitude of
Kenyans. He provides a persuasive narrative as to how genetic adaptation – evolution, if you will, has meant that Jamaica and Kenya have punched enormously above their weight when it comes to medal tables and producing world-class athletes.

The downside to the ‘Nature versus Nature’ debate is where it seems like someone can be advocating a racial superiority based on genetic identity. You don’t have to be an Historian to see where this has brought us in the past. However, Epstein carefully manoeuvres his way through this minefield and his account avoids stereotyping or analytical crassness.

Epstein finds that a slow person can’t be trained up into a fast person. Training is the key to becoming an outstanding runner though. He not so much debunks the ’10,000 Hour’ maxim popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, but demonstrates that ‘good’ genes are usually required, in combination with practice, to reach the top. ‘The Sports Gene’ is a well written and forensically researched book that acts as a timely reminder that we can’t all be winners; we may just not have it in us.

‘The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success’ David Epstein, Random House

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