What makes a great athlete? Being born with talent was the traditional answer, but like so many traditions, it is under attack.
In his first book, Sports Illustrated senior writer Epstein makes no secret of his debt to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008), in which the author famously argued that success owes less to inherited ability (i.e., genes) than to intense practice and circumstance (i.e., luck). While agreeing with many critics that Gladwell oversimplifies, Epstein admits that he is on to something and proceeds to apply Gladwell’s approach (many scientific studies and entertaining anecdotes; lucid, accessible prose) to athletic prowess. Genes definitely contribute to great performance. Jumpers benefit if born with a longer, stiffer Achilles tendon. Baseball players have superior visual acuity, and major leaguers see better than minor leaguers. Practice definitely helps, but, ironically, the ability to benefit from training is partly inherited, as is the will to train obsessively. However, even the most dedicated athlete is out of luck without genes that produce the right body type. Africans have longer legs and slimmer hips, allowing them to run faster. Caucasians are stockier, with thicker, stronger upper bodies. Of the 81 men who have run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, 80 are black, but sub-Saharan Africans have never won an Olympic weight-lifting medal. Epstein turns up no single sports gene. Hundreds exist, and researchers are nowhere near understanding their interactions. They seem more essential (but still not sufficient) for physical than intellectual achievement.
Readers may feel overwhelmed at Epstein’s avalanche of genetic and physiological studies, but few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.