You are on page 1of 3

A CRITIC AT LARGE

MAN AND SUPERMAN
In athletic competitions, what qualifies as a sporting chance?
BY MALCOLM GLADWELL

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. Mäntyranta lives in a small house next to a lake, among the pine and spruce trees north of the Arctic Circle. He is in his seventies. There is a statue of him in the nearby village. “Everything about him has a certain width to it,” Epstein writes. “The bulbous nose in the middle of a softly rounded face. His thick fingers, broad jaw, and a barrel chest covered by a red knit sweater with a stern-faced reindeer across the middle. He is a remarkable-looking man.” What’s most remarkable is the color of his face. It is a “shade of cardinal, mottled in places with purple,” and evocative of “the hue of the red paint that comes from this region’s iron-rich soil.” 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. In cross-country skiing, athletes propel themselves over distances of ten and twenty miles—a physical challenge that places intense demands on the ability of their red blood cells to deliver oxygen to their muscles. 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—and in the same period he also won two world-championship victories in the thirty-kilometre race. In the 1964 Olympics, he beat his closest competitor in the fifteen-kilometre race by forty seconds, a margin of victory, Epstein says, “never equaled in that event at the Olympics before or since.” 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

is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people. in Kenya—where the majority of the country’s best runners come from—turn out to be skinny in exactly this way. are “plumb in the sweet spot. which are better at conserving heat. which. the Kalenjins were shorter and had longer legs. which are easy to cool. catapulting him high into the air when he planted his foot for a jump. squat bodies. How did he do it? He was blessed. with unusually long legs and a strikingly long Achilles tendon—ten and a quarter inches in length—which acted as a kind of spring. just as cold climates favor thick. there’s an evolutionary explanation for all this: hot and dry environments favor very thin. Epstein cites a study comparing Kalenjins with Danes. among other things. Thomas won the world championships. and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas. who carry around in their blood.” When Kenyans compete against Europeans or North Americans. the Kenyans come to the track with an enormous head start. the ability to finish forty . (Kangaroos have long tendons as well. long-limbed frames. by dumb genetic luck. The best runners in Ethiopia and Kenya come from the ridges of the Rift Valley. begins with weight.) Why do so many of the world’s best distance runners come from Kenya and Ethiopia? The answer. mind you.) According to Epstein. look up pictures of the great Kenyan miler Asbel Kiprop.grand total of eight months of training. which is what gives them their special hop. That translates to eight per cent less energy consumed per kilometre. The optimal range is six to nine thousand feet. Not too high up. Epstein writes. the air is too rarefied for the kind of workouts necessary to be a world-class runner. Distance runners also get a big advantage from living at high altitudes. then. A runner needs not just to be skinny but—more specifically—to have skinny calves and ankles. In the Andes. who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. (For evidence of the peculiar Kalenjin lower leg. Runners from the Kalenjin tribe. a tall and elegant man who runs on what appear to be two ebony-colored pencils. where the body is typically forced to compensate for the lack of oxygen by producing extra red blood cells. That’s why shaving even a few ounces off a pair of running shoes can have a significant effect. Epstein explains. for example. What we are watching when we watch élite sports. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train. Epstein tell us. and their lower legs were nearly a pound lighter. because every extra pound carried on your extremities costs more than a pound carried on your torso.

We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. as Epstein puts it.” The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. a “splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity. Élite sports supply.seconds ahead of their competitors. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals? . But it has also burdened highlevel competition with a contradiction.

Related Interests