While we want sports to be fair, sometimes what we observe "is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages," Malcolm Gladwell writes at the New Yorker in a penetrating examination of David Epstein's book The Sport Gene.
[David] Epstein tells the story of Donald Thomas, who on the seventh high jump of his life cleared 7' 3.25" — practically a world-class height. The next year, after a grand total of eight months of training, Thomas won the world championships. How did he do it? He was blessed, among other things, with unusually long legs and a strikingly long Achilles tendon — ten and a quarter inches in length — which acted as a kind of spring, catapulting him high into the air when he planted his foot for a jump. (Kangaroos have long tendons as well, Epstein tell us, which is what gives them their special hop.) …
Why do so many of the world’s best distance runners come from Kenya and Ethiopia? The answer, Epstein explains, begins with weight. A runner needs not just to be skinny but — more specifically — to have skinny calves and ankles, because every extra pound carried on your extremities costs more than a pound carried on your torso …
What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a "splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity." The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?
Read Malcolm Gladwell's entire piece at the New Yorker.
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