BOOK REVIEW: The Sports Gene


Okay, so right up front I need to confess this isn’t specifically a cycling book. But, as the name suggests, it is about sport and it does have plenty of references to cycling including none other than Eddy Merckx and his hour record of 1972. Plus chess, there’s quite a lot of chess.

The author, David Epstein, is an American journalist who spent many years with Sports Illustrated. In some ways a lot of the content in this book isn’t exactly new – but the way Epstein has been able to aggregate such a vast amount of science, case studies and anecdotes into one intriguing book is nothing short of remarkable.

Some of the names and stories you may recognise. Many you possibly won’t, like the Olympic softball pitcher who had the MLB’s top sluggers totally bamboozled in 2004 with her underarm rockets. Regardless, virtually every page in every chapter is thought-provoking, with stories and examples to challenge the pre-conceived ideas we walk around with every day in regards to what the human body is and isn’t capable of doing. And why.

At the heart of much of Epstein’s book is the ‘hardware versus software’ argument. But here it isn’t really an argument anyway, rather an exploration of sporting performance from the perspective of history, chromosomes and socialisation. It looks at the impacts of factors such as sex, age, training volumes and experience. It asks if modern athletic performances are really that much better than 100 years ago. Plus a whole lot of other pretty fascinating stuff from the past, present and future of human sporting endeavour.

As you’d expect there are quite a few references to doping – “Seventy-five of the top eighty women’s shut throws of all time…came between the mid-1970s and 1990, predominantly from Eastern Bloc countries” – but it also covers things like why sex-testing is flawed (“why do men have nipples?”), how a high jumping novice can become a world champion and even Genghis Khan’s influence over the Asian gene pool.

There’s loads of science to back all this up if you like that sort of thing. But rest assured it’s written so as not to be mind-bendingly complex. Anyone with an interest in sport will be able to stick with it. I really enjoyed this one.

4 stars


This is worth a look too. It’s the author doing a TED talk back in March.

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