The Sports Gene by David Epstein

SportsGeneFrom Goodreads: We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they?

The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?

The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research.

In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle.


I picked this book mainly because I felt like reading some non-fiction. I follow sports in general, so the subject grabbed my attention. What a fun read it was. The book is packed with research and anecdotes. The information is presented in a very accessible way. I don’t know much about genetics or how the body functions on a molecular level, but I had no problem understanding the scientific discussions; the research is presented in easily understandable language. It was interesting and entertaining.

Epstein covers a wide variety of sports and people. From high jumping to baseball, from long-distance running to volleyball, Epstein explains how a person’s physique, the upbringing, and the surrounding culture can influence a person’s potential success as a super athlete. A slightly elongated Achilles tendon can make all the difference in high jumping and hurdles, and the wingspan of a basketball player can make up for not being as tall as the rest of the team.

Early on, Epstein warns that he will discuss gender and race, as would be expected in a book like this one. He does so very carefully and thoroughly, and I felt that he did a very good job covering the differences and similarities between men and women and people of different races. It was interesting to read about the challenges scientists who want to do research in these fields have to deal with.

In the end, this book presents a very good argument for how “hardware” and “software” work together. You need a certain body build to succeed as an athlete. If you are tall and wide-hipped, you won’t get far as a long-distance runner. At the same time, you need the training and support of your surroundings to take advantage of physical attributes. If you never get the chance or are never encouraged to run, then you won’t become a successful athlete, no matter how perfectly your body fits the requirements.

I think everyone who is interested in sports in general or who wants to know why some athletes simply dominate their discipline would enjoy this book. I certainly did.

I have several classic books at the top of my pile, so I will have a “classic December.”


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