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Book Review

‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstein

In “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein examines the role that biology plays in separating weekend warriors from elite athletes.

Erick W. Rasco

In “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein examines the role that biology plays in separating weekend warriors from elite athletes.

Talking with Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium, he is unfailingly polite and surprisingly ordinary in physical stature. Without pads, the 6-foot-4-inch quarterback appears smaller than expected in person, especially in a Patriots locker room filled with his broader, beefier teammates. His less-than-imposing presence inevitably raises questions about athletic greatness.

Does Brady possess special genes that help him see the field better and throw with more accuracy under pressure? Is he a product of 10,000-plus hours of training and determination?

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As sports become a bigger and bigger business, parents, players, coaches, general managers, and fans are endlessly curious about what makes some athletes Hall of Famers and others barely better than average.

In “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein considers athletic greatness and the nature-versus-nurture debate from a biological perspective, collecting an impressive array of scientific studies about athletic performance. The senior writer for Sports Illustrated also introduces a wide range of champions, from a gold-medal-winning Finnish cross-country skier with a rare, advantageous gene mutation to Iditarod-winning sled dogs bred for work ethic and desire. With experts and examples culled from around the world, the book makes a compelling, yet familiar, case that athletic achievement is a combination of nature and nurture, of innate abilities and practice time, of genes and sport-specific experience. By examining how far scientists have come in understanding the impact of genes on athletic performance and what remains undiscovered, Epstein adds another layer to the ongoing debate.

But beyond that, Epstein’s first book offers a different prism for viewing athletic performances or, at least, a welcome departure from now-popular number crunching. In a sports world increasingly worshipful of analytics, “The Sports Gene” provides a refreshing reminder of the many variables that impact and predict success. By discussing the way athletic physiques have become more specialized, the way genes affect muscle development, and the way some ultrarunners crave activity, Epstein may change how fans view their favorite players and challenge assumptions about athleticism.

And while more knowledge about “chunking,” visual acuity, and trainability may not win fantasy leagues, it might make you consider sports on a more personal level. In his coverage of trainability, the way athletes respond differently to the same training, Epstein, who ran track for Columbia University, reflects on his own college running career, though it’s one of the least compelling examples he shares.

Epstein slips quickly in and out of the first person — to discuss competing in the 800 for a few pages, or mention meeting an athlete at a train station, or digress into a discussion of Tay-Sachs disease. Sometimes this comes across as forced or distracts from the topic at hand. It seems the author wants to make sure the reader knows his unique qualifications, that he comes at the science as both a former college athlete and as a respected writer for Sports Illustrated. It also seems that Epstein wants to make it clear that he didn’t just gather studies, but traveled far and wide for the best material. He doesn’t need to go to such first-person lengths to prove he’s up to the task.

Epstein’s well-suited resume and active pursuit of good scientific information are evident in the book’s thoroughness, with chapters that cover everything from gender to race to geography to gene mutations that wreak havoc with the heart’s electrical signals. And even though some sections are filled with technical talk, he makes the science behind the studies easy to digest and accessible to both avid and casual sports fans.

“The Sports Gene” is most engaging when sections combine science with real-life examples and when anecdotes and athletes move away from popular American professional sports. The part about Lance Mackey and his sled dogs is one such highlight.

Some of the most interesting sections give the stories about great athletes room to breathe. And even the first-person narratives work when Epstein expands on his in-person interviews, as he does with his trip to the Arctic Circle to visit legendary Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mäntyranta.

In a chapter titled “The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting,” Epstein notes how the world’s small population of Olympic-medal-caliber sprinters makes large, comprehensive studies impossible. “Sports scientists have a tortuous path ahead to uncover many of the physical qualities that lead to elite athletic performance, much less the genes that undergird them,” he writes. And that statement gets at everything that’s fascinating about the athletes and anecdotes in “The Sports Gene” and that’s frustrating about all the scientific uncertainty that surrounds the subject.

Shira Springer is a sports reporter for the Globe.
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