Sporting gene-ius or genius?
London – On June 27, 2009, his 30th birthday, commercial photographer Dan McLaughlin quit his job in Portland, Oregon, to become a professional golfer.
You might think Dan was a promising amateur, but actually he’d only ever visited a golf course twice. Dan was inspired by the so-called ‘10,000-hour Rule’, popularised by the bestsellers Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
The idea behind the ‘rule’ is that 10,000 hours of practice at any sport will make you one of its elite: it’s not innate talent but practice that makes perfect.
The problem for Dan – now four years into his voyage to greatness, and struggling – is that the ‘rule’ is based on a scientifically flawed 1993 study of 30 violinists at a Berlin Music Academy. The study overlooked that all the participants were already streamed from the ordinary population by virtue of having made it into a top music school. What’s more, data on their lifetime practice relied on them remembering accurately the hours they’d put in since starting as small children. As sports journalist David Epstein’s endlessly fascinating book shows, sporting prowess is, in fact, usually down to your genes, plus plenty of practice to maximise their effect.
Take sprinting. All the finalists in every men’s Olympic 100 metres from 1984 onwards have been black. Not only that, but all had their family origins in sub-Saharan West Africa, whose inhabitants are genetically programmed to run fast. Speed over short distances comes from fast-twitch muscle fibres which contract twice as fast as slow twitch. Calf muscles of elite sprinters have 75 per cent fast twitch. Half-milers have 50-50 fast and long-distance runners mostly slow.
Although slower, they can endure longer, which is why Jamaica produces fast sprinters such as Usain Bolt (pictured), but no long-distance stars. The fastest Jamaican 10,000-metre runner wouldn’t have qualified for the London Olympics.
The stars of long-distance running come from the other side of Africa, mainly Kenya, Ethiopia or, like Mo Farah, Somalia. Like sprinters, long-distance runners have long legs and very slim ankles. Because of the pendulum effect, the heavier your ankles, the more energy you use running. The Kenyan stars also grew up on the rim of the Great Rift Valley, up to 9,000ft above sea level, and the high altitude means their bodies are fantastically adapted for maximum oxygen efficiency.
Nurture plays a part, too. In a rural environment, with schools few and far between, many Kenyan children have a six-mile journey to school. Too poor to own cars and with no public transport, they run, resulting in a 30 per cent greater aerobic capacity.
What suits one sport doesn’t suit another. Male sprinters are 2in taller than average, with all the extra height in their legs. Top swimmers are 1.5in taller than sprinters but have shorter legs. Aquatic superstar Michael Phelps is 6ft 4in but has a shorter inside leg measurement than Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj, who is 5ft 9in. A long body, more in contact with the water, increases swimming speed.
Genes can be both blessing and curse. Take Paula Radcliffe, the greatest female marathon runner of all time. Between 2002 and 2008 she ran ten marathons. The eight she won were all in cool or temperate conditions. The two she lost — at the Olympics in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 — were in summer. In the first she collapsed, in the second she came 23rd.
The reason? Radcliffe is 5ft 8in tall. The Athens winner was 4ft 11in. Shorter people have a greater skin surface area relative to body volume, so sweat more and cool better.
The key for all aspiring sports people is to find the right sport for what your genes gave you. No amount of practice will overcome a genetic deficiency. As one sports scientist puts it: ‘I’ve tested over 10,000 boys and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.’ – Daily Mail