Malcolm Gladwell On Human Biological Diversity In Sports


Shaquille O'Neal and

comic Kevin Hart

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Sports Gene by David Epstein.

Epstein's book is structured around an attack on Gladwell's 10,000 Hour Rule, so Gladwell's irate initial response last month was to imply that his fans who are true believers in his 10,000 Hour Rule are deluded. They just didn't read Outliers closely enough to notice the fragments of sentences where he admits that innate gifts matter as well as training.

Now, Gladwell is back to say, well of course human biodiversity, including racial differences, matters hugely in sports. Who can't see that? Then, Gladwell focuses in on the weak spot in The Sports Gene: the impact of performance-enhancing genes. 

Gladwell goes on to say that sports should allow doping to make up for hereditary inequality. Why should Kenyans win most of the distance races just because they are born with running advantages 

But he doesn't explain how that would make much difference. For example, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, PEDs mostly seem to augment racial differences. Up to 1989, East German chemistry wizardry made East German women competitive in the shorter races with women of West African descent. 

But since the end of communism freed Eastern European sports chemists to wander the world looking for work, it mostly seems to exaggerate previous racial differences. For example, EPO got to East African distance runners in the mid-1990s, making them even more dominant than they were since the 1960s.


In athletic competitions, what qualifies as a sporting chance? 

by Malcolm Gladwell 


Élite sports is a contest among athletes with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages.  


Toward the end of “The Sports Gene” (Penguin/Current), David Epstein makes his way to a remote corner of Finland to visit a man named Eero Mäntyranta. ... What’s most remarkable is the color of his face. It is a “shade of cardinal, mottled in places with purple,” ... 

Judging from pictures of the Finn online, Epstein's description is a little over-the-top.

Mäntyranta carries a rare genetic mutation. His DNA has an anomaly that causes his bone marrow to overproduce red blood cells. That accounts for the color of his skin, and also for his extraordinary career as a competitive cross-country skier. ... Mäntyranta, by virtue of his unique physiology, had something like sixty-five per cent more red blood cells than the normal adult male. In the 1960, 1964, and 1968 Winter Olympic Games, he won a total of seven medals—three golds, two silvers, and two bronzes ...

In “The Sports Gene,” there are countless tales like this, examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.

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. ... 

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. That’s why shaving even a few ounces off a pair of running shoes can have a significant effect. Runners from the Kalenjin tribe, in Kenya—where the majority of the country’s best runners come from—turn out to be skinny in exactly this way. Epstein cites a study comparing Kalenjins with Danes; the Kalenjins were shorter and had longer legs, and their lower legs were nearly a pound lighter. That translates to eight per cent less energy consumed per kilometre.

Thin calves was part of O.J. Simpson's explanation back in the 1977:

“We are built a little differently, built for speed—skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks.”

Gladwell continues:

... According to Epstein, there’s an evolutionary explanation for all this: hot and dry environments favor very thin, long-limbed frames, which are easy to cool, just as cold climates favor thick, squat bodies, which are better at conserving heat. 

Distance runners also get a big advantage from living at high altitudes... When Kenyans compete against Europeans or North Americans, the Kenyans come to the track with an enormous head start.

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? 

Games aren't really supposed to be a contest among equals since the idea is to find the best, not the most average. Almost all games have rules that inevitably make some animals more equal than other animals: disparate impact. The most egalitarian games, like state lotteries and slot machines, games where nobody has a natural edge, where hard work doesn't pay off, where strategies don't avail, are the most boring to people with three digit IQs and most exploitative of people with two digit IQs.

All games have to trade off various aspects against others. For example, most sports have separate divisions for juniors, seniors and women, as well as some kind of open division in which young men compete. Is it fair to the 128th best men's tennis player that he's not allowed to win the sizable women's first prize in the U.S. Open? Sure, just as male golfers get to make some more money when they hit 50 and can compete in senior tournaments. It may or may not be fair, but it's more interesting.

Successful games have rules that make the game sporting enough to be interesting. For example, basketball is immensely biased in favor of the tall. On the other hand, it's not simply a test of tallness.

Now, we could have a game consisting solely of players being measured for height and the tallest team wins (kind of like a State Fair contest to see who grew the biggest rutabaga).

In fact, in the 18th Century, King Frederick William I of Prussia saw himself as competing with the other kings of Europe to assemble the tallest soldiers, often having his agents kidnap tall men. His Potsdam Giants were the reigning champs at his chosen sport of being tall.

Large men make large targets, and Frederick William was content to obsessively drill his Giants on the parade ground rather than to risk them in battle. His son, Frederick the Great, didn't see much point in his father's game, preferring to play a more serious game on the battlefields of Europe, and let his father's Giants dissipate.

In interest, basketball falls in-between the father's hobby and the son's. The disparate impact of height on basketball is profound, but there's more to the game than just height.

Or, consider the America's Cup sailboat race (currently going on in San Francisco Bay), which has a rule that the winner of the last America's Cup gets to set the rules for this one. So, zillionaire Larry Ellison wrote the current rules to require new high tech catamarans so lively that they sometimes fly almost completely above the water for long distances. But Ellison's Rules are so expensive that few countries showed up for the 2013 competition. And one sailor has been killed so far.

Is this fair? Well, the America's Cup has always been a rich man's race, sacrificing access for a celebration of the extreme in big money sailing. But there is much concern that Ellison pushed the envelope too far this time. Will the exciting footage of boats skimming the waves in front of the Golden Gate Bridge make up for the thinness of the field? We'll see. No doubt, there will be intense arguments after this America's Cup is over concerning the rules for the next one.

During the First World War, the U.S. Army noticed a puzzling pattern among the young men drafted into military service. Soldiers from some parts of the country had a high incidence of goitre—a lump on their neck caused by the swelling of the thyroid gland. Thousands of recruits could not button the collar of their uniform. The average I.Q. of draftees, we now suspect, also varied according to the same pattern. Soldiers from coastal regions seemed more “normal” than soldiers from other parts of the country. 

The culprit turned out to be a lack of iodine. Iodine is an essential micronutrient. Without it, the human brain does not develop normally and the thyroid begins to enlarge.  ...

After the First World War, the U.S. War Department published a report called “Defects Found in Drafted Men,” which detailed how the incidence of goitre varied from state to state, with rates forty to fifty times as high in places like Idaho, Michigan, and Montana as in coastal areas. 

The story is not dissimilar from Epstein’s account of Kenyan distance runners, in whom accidents of climate and geography combine to create dramatic differences in abilities. In the early years of the twentieth century, the physiological development of American children was an example of the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” 

In this case, of course, we didn’t like the fantastic menagerie. In 1924, the Morton Salt Company, at the urging of public-health officials, began adding iodine to its salt, and initiated an advertising campaign touting its benefits. That practice has been applied successfully in many developing countries in the world: iodine supplementation has raised I.Q. scores by as much as thirteen points—an extraordinary increase. The iodized salt in your cupboard is an intervention in the natural order of things. When a student from the iodine-poor mountains of Idaho was called upon to compete against a student from iodine-rich coastal Maine, we thought of it as our moral obligation to redress their natural inequality. The reason debates over élite performance have become so contentious in recent years, however, is that in the world of sport there is little of that clarity. What if those two students were competing in a race? Should we still be able to give the naturally disadvantaged one the equivalent of iodine? We can’t decide. 

While perfect clarity is impossible, it's not that hard to logically distinguish between curing goiters by iodine supplementation and shooting up with steroids or EPO. The first involves rectifying a clear problem. There are major benefits in going from a sub-normal level of dietary iodine to a normal level, and few if any disadvantages. Moreover, there are no known benefits to risking your health by taking massively extra levels of iodine, so few do. Mainlining iodine right before you go on Jeopardy won't boost your IQ enough to win. So, iodine in salt is the textbook example of a health intervention without troubling tradeoffs, which is why I've been endorsing its spread since 2004.

In contrast, screwing around with your level of red blood cells, as endurance athletes are wont to do, can kill you. EPO doping needs to be regulated to keep cyclists from killing themselves in death or glory bids: Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the NYT in 2004:

In hindsight we can date the clandestine arrival of EPO with grim accuracy. ... Between 1987 and 1990, no fewer than 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from otherwise inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks. 

Gladwell continues:

Epstein tells us that baseball players have, as a group, remarkable eyesight. ... 

Eyesight can be improved—in some cases dramatically—through laser surgery or implantable lenses. Should a promising young baseball player cursed with normal vision be allowed to get that kind of corrective surgery? In this instance, Major League Baseball says yes.

Laser surgery on your eyes sounds pretty crazy, except that millions of people have had this operation by now. So, the negative tradeoffs are well-understood and fairly limited. On the other hand, at some point some mad surgeon might develop a technique that, say, offers a 95% chance of getting 20/5 eyesight at the risk of a 5% chance of permanent blindness. Would some jocks jump at this? Yes, so therefore we shouldn't assume that any and all eye surgeries will be okay for the rest of baseball history.

... Baseball is in the middle of one of its periodic doping scandals, centering on one of the game’s best players, Alex Rodriguez. ...

The other great doping pariah is Lance Armstrong. He apparently removed large quantities of his own blood and then re-infused himself before competition, in order to boost the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in his system. Armstrong wanted to be like Eero Mäntyranta. He wanted to match, through his own efforts, what some very lucky people already do naturally and legally. Before we condemn him, though, shouldn’t we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not? ... 

Perhaps because arms races in boosting the chance of sudden death should make us think twice?

Now, it could be that thanks to volunteer lab rats like professional cyclists, the medical profession will slowly learn more about safe dosing levels for various substances, which will generate advances in the general welfare.

Of course, secrecy in sports doping gets in the way of doctors learning from these maniacs. So, Gladwell endorses legalizing everything but requiring complete transparency. The New Yorker summarizes:

He argues that we should legalize performance-enhancing drugs and then regulate them, and imagines a world where athletes make their biological passports public: “What I really would like is to have complete liberalization and complete transparency. I would like to know about every single baseball player, track-and-field athlete, basketball player, precisely what they are on. And then I’d like to reach my own conclusions as a fan about how to evaluate their performance.”

But, the point of doping is not to advance medical science, but to get a leg up over the competition. So, secrecy is a competitive weapon, meaning that if cheating were legalized when it comes to taking drugs, athletes would continue to cheat when it comes to reporting drugs because they don't want competitors to know their secrets (nor would they want their mother's to be able to find out what hellish potions they are ingesting).

The testing system would quickly collapse if the goal was only to get the paperwork right. Imagine being the poor bastard who had to collect slugger Ryan Braun's urine, only to get publicly lambasted by Braun for purported incompetence in Braun's successful bid to weasel out of his first positive drug test. If the goal is not to catch the guy with the $100 million contract but instead simply to document whatever devil's brew he is imbibing, well, screw it. Life's too short.

Furthermore, the often suggested solution -- let the athletes cheat a little -- doesn't work. They already do get to cheat some because the sports' organizations incentives are more to avoid false positives than false negatives. Telling athletes they can now have X parts per million of MongoDynaRoid 9000Z in their urine but not X+1 parts just makes the testing process even shakier.

So, we'll stumble onward much like we do now.