Malcolm Gladwell Sorts Out Athlete Drug Blame Game with Two Books
The Sports Gene vs The Secret Race: Which Side are You On?
Genes Confer Unfair Advantage, Doping Restores Fair Competition?Nice piece in the Sep 9 2013 issue of the New Yorker has Malcolm Gladwell reviewing a book called The Sports Gene (Penguin) by one David Epstein which makes it very clear that genetic variations generate very different athletic results. One man he quotes had 65% more red blood cells than normal adult males. This unusually red faced Finn called Eero Mantyranta proceeded to win a double handful of gold and silver medals in cross country skiing in the early sixties with a lead in the 15 kilometer race of forty seconds which has never been equalled before or since. Gladwell pairs the book with “The Secret Race” by Tyler Hamilton who confessed to breaking the drug doping rules in cycling when he was part of Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Service team, and who implicated Armstrong in testimony which eventually led to Armstrong’s downfall and the loss of his medals. His tale of how hard they had to work to hide their boosting methods is impressive as testimony to the effect that such assistance is not for the lazy, bot for the very determined and dedicated. Comparing the two books ie the two sources of great differences in performance – Gladwell reasonably asks whether this is fair. Should random, freak variations in physical makeup be allowed to make the difference in athletic events while athletes are called frauds if they boost their performance with sometimes grueling regimes of drugs which demand painful adjustments and training changes which are a lot more disciplined than normal, ie depended on “how hard you worked, how attentive and professional you were in your preparations,” as Hamilton writes. However the issue is decided in the end – possibly in a way that makes Lance Armstrong less of a villain and ore of an athlete ahead of his time – both books sound fascinating. Apparently world record high jumper Donald Thomas had unusually long legs and a ten and a quarter inch Achilles tendon which catapulted him into the air like a kangaroo (kangaroos also have long tendons). Long distance runners in Kenya benefit from skinny calves and ankles which weigh less (runners also shave their shoes for the same benefit) by nearly a pound compared with Danes, which translates to eight per cent less energy required per kilometer, says Gladwell. The best runners from Ethiopia and Kenya come from the Rift Valley, which is ideal for producing extra red blood cells (too high is not better, because the air is too thin for proper workouts). Similarly elite baseball players have remarkable eyesight of 20/10 or even below 20/9, approaching the limit of the human eye according to theory. (That means they can see as clearly at 20ft as we average mortals can at ten feet or less). The average for major and minor league players is 20/13 according to ophthamologist Louis Rosenbaum who tested 400 players.
Would you agree that pitchers be allowed to have laser eye surgery or lenses implanted to improve their normal eyesight? Major League Baseball allows it, and allows pitchers to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in their elbows with a tendon taken from a corpse or elsewhere in their body. The operation allowed pitcher Tommy John who had it done in 1974 to win far more games than before and to retire at the unusually advanced age of 46.Tyler Hamilton says that his and Lance Armstrong’s blood swapping and boosting and use of the naturally occurring hormone EPO (erythropoietin aka “red eggs”) didn’t feel like cheating to them at the time and they both would surely have passed any lie detector test. And the book explains what an extraordinary complicated process tuning up a modern cycling performance is, with “more variables than I had ever imagined”.
Here’s an excellent interview with Epstein on NPR (text):