I’m not an Olympic athlete. (Surprise!!!)

I’m been devouring an audiobook the last few days– it’s called the The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Perfomance, and I’m hooked. The theme is one of my favorites in a long, nerdy list of nonfiction subjects that I gravitate toward: nature versus nurture. Plus, the sports topic makes is fast-paced and edgy, and touches on another one of my favorite subjects: my relatively sub-par athletic abilities and how to improve on them (or not).

Yes, I realize that some of you are rolling your eyes right now. [Stop it, btw! It’s not your best look! 😉 ] Yes, I did pretty well in high school sports, I have finished a small pile of triathlons, and I do all sorts of active stuff. I’m not saying that I’m a slouch… or a slug. But I also can’t run much faster than a nine-minute-mile and I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that at best I will be competitive, generally in my age group, in small and obscure sporting events. I ‘ll never have the speed to win even a local triathlon, and even in the world of obscure and extreme sports, it is almost certain that I will never be considered world class at any sport.

That is, unless I can stay super-fit until I’m in my 60s and compete at masters’ levels. That’s my only chance, and yes, I am starting to strategize the next 30 years of training…

But, anyway, back to the book… it starts by pushing back against the 10,000 hours principle (the idea that you can be sufficiently awesome in anything if you invest 10,000 hours, or 10 years, of high-quality training to do it), and instead looks and the scientific evidence (or lack of) that genes can play an important role in sports performance. It’s fascinating to hear the latest science, and simultaneously makes me very much want to and very much not want to get my genes tested.

I’m still not all of the way through the book, but here is a list of many traits that are influenced by genetics, which can also enhance sports performance (and which I generally lack, especially in any usable combination):

  • being tall (running and jumping sports, rowing)
  • long legs relative to torso (running)
  • slimmer calves and ankles (running)
  • narrow hips (running, swimming, gymnastics, others)
  • wingspan greater than height (basketball, swimming)*
  • arm proportionally longer above the elbow (throwing)
  • large mass (football, shotput)
  • amazing vision (baseball)
  • sickle cell trait and corresponding low hemoglobin (sprinting)
  • large VO2 max/ability to move air (sprinting, endurance)
  • double muscle gene mutation (sprinting, lifting)
  • super cartilage gene mutation (circus acts)
  • pain tolerance (pretty much any sport that seems interesting to me)**

Okay, I admit that most of the research done (or at least described in the book so far) mostly focuses on sports involving speed over short or long distances, jumping, or ball handling– all things where I clearly established a distinct lack of skill a long time ago. And, sure, someone from Luxembourg (50% of my genes) once won a gold medal in weightlifting… but that was in 1920.

Josy Barthel wins Luxembourg's only gold medal in 1952 (in the 1500 meters). It's a teeny country, so perhaps there's a chance I have a speedy gene afterall, right?
Josy Barthel wins Luxembourg’s only gold medal in 1952 (in the 1500 meters). It’s a teeny country, so perhaps there’s a chance I have a speedy gene after all, right?

And if you’re not convinced about reading (or listening to) the book yet, check this out for a preview.

*I may have this. I haven’t measured yet, but am pretty sure that I may have ape arms!

** There is something that’s super-hard to measure because if it’s subjectivity. I would self-rate myself as low-moderate in this group if I had to guess. During races, I generally choose to back off to avoid pain. During cyclocross races recently, I’ve definitely wondered whether the hard-core folk have a higher pain tolerance, and if it’s something you can train up. But that doesn’t sound like fun!

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