The Sports Gene (2011) by David Epstein is a superb non-fiction book on the interaction between genetics and sport. Even if you’re not interested in sport the book is very much worth reading because it is so well written and because of how the subject of the book extends further than sport. The book looks at how small areas of the world produce great results in particular sports and how the sporting world has been changing over time.
Epstein is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He was an athlete at high school and college and introduces us to the issues covered by the book with a narrative about how he saw some people he ran with performed. It gives the book a narrative that allows us to build a mental framework for the facts and the thesis he puts forward.
The book takes us to West Africa and Jamaica looking for sprint talent, to Finland to look at the Eero Mäntyranta the amazing cross country skier, to Kenya to look for long distance running talent and all over the US to look for what makes particular dimensions of bodies so good for various sports.
The sections on anthropometry are fascinating. The way that height and span are so important in basketball is remarkable. The book does concentrate more on athletic sports than on team sports where particular physical attributes are not as important such as soccer which does suggest that some sports may be more able to be played at a high level by a larger percentage of the population than others.
The coverage of genetics and what various types of athletes have is really excellent. The complexity of genetic ability and response to training is nicely done. It’s great to read a geneticist remark that if you want to test your kids for particular sporting ability the best test is often done with a stop watch.
The book is as good as a Michael Lewis or a Simon Winchester book. It’s non-fiction of the highest calibre that provides entertaining personal stories with a subtle and deep view of a subject. For anyone interested in sport this is a must read, for people who don’t like sports it’s still very much worth a look.