On Genetic Advantages, Doping, and Sports

Malcolm Gladwell, in my opinion, has published the best piece he’s written this year in “Man and Superman.” The central question he posits: do genetic advantages make sports (in particular, cycling) unfair compared to those who choose to dope? Paraphrased: what qualifies as a sporting chance in athletic competitions? He goes through a brief comparison of elite athletes in skiing, long-distance running, but his primary focus is on cycling.

When Hamilton joined Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service racing team, he was forced to relearn the sport, to leave behind, as he puts it, the romantic world “where I used to climb on my bike and simply hope I had a good day.” The makeover began with his weight. When Michele Ferrari, the key Postal Service adviser, first saw Hamilton, he told him he was too fat, and in cycling terms he was. Riding a bicycle quickly is a function of the power you apply to the pedals divided by the weight you are carrying, and it’s easier to reduce the weight than to increase the power. Hamilton says he would come home from a workout, after burning thousands of calories, drink a large bottle of seltzer water, take two or three sleeping pills—and hope to sleep through dinner and, ideally, breakfast the following morning. At dinner with friends, Hamilton would take a large bite, fake a sneeze, spit the food into a napkin, and then run off to the bathroom to dispose of it. He knew that he was getting into shape, he says, when his skin got thin and papery, when it hurt to sit down on a wooden chair because his buttocks had disappeared, and when his jersey sleeve was so loose around his biceps that it flapped in the wind. At the most basic level, cycling was about physical transformation: it was about taking the body that nature had given you and forcibly changing it.

“Lance and Ferrari showed me there were more variables than I’d ever imagined, and they all mattered: wattages, cadence, intervals, zones, joules, lactic acid, and, of course, hematocrit,” Hamilton writes. “Each ride was a math problem: a precisely mapped set of numbers for us to hit. . . . It’s one thing to go ride for six hours. It’s another to ride for six hours following a program of wattages and cadences, especially when those wattages and cadences are set to push you to the ragged edge of your abilities.”

Hematocrit, the last of those variables, was the number they cared about most. It refers to the percentage of the body’s blood that is made up of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The higher the hematocrit, the more endurance you have. (Mäntyranta had a very high hematocrit.) The paradox of endurance sports is that an athlete can never work as hard as he wants, because if he pushes himself too far his hematocrit will fall. Hamilton had a natural hematocrit of forty-two per cent—which is on the low end of normal. By the third week of the Tour de France, he would be at thirty-six per cent, which meant a six-per-cent decrease in his power—in the force he could apply to his pedals. In a sport where power differentials of a tenth of a per cent can be decisive, this “qualifies as a deal breaker.”

A must-read if you’re at all interested in sports, genetics, and the doping as cheating debate.

This sentence in the concluding paragraph is telling:

It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference. 

Malcolm Gladwell Responds to Critics of the 10,000-Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell came into mainstream prominence with his explanation of the 10,000 hour rule. While Malcolm Gladwell didn’t invent the rule, he instantly popularized it via his best-selling book Outliers. The principle actually dates to a 1993 study (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”; PDF link), though in that paper the authors called it the 10-year rule.

In the latest piece for The New Yorker, Gladwell is back in the spotlight, but this time he is on the defensive. Here, he eviscerates the simplification of the 10,000 hour rule:

No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

Malcolm Gladwell goes on to reference David Epstein’s new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance:

I think that it is also a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand-hour idea applies to every domain. For instance, Epstein uses as his main counterexample the high jumper Donald Thomas, who reached world-class level after no more than a few months of the most rudimentary practice. He then quotes academic papers making similar observations about other sports—like one that showed that people could make the Australian winter Olympic team in skeleton after no more than a few hundred practice runs. Skeleton, in case you are curious, is a sport in which a person pushes a sled as fast as she can along a track, jumps on, and then steers the sled down a hill. Some of the other domains that Epstein says do not fit the ten-thousand-hour model are darts, wrestling, and sprinting. “We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” Epstein quotes one South African researcher as saying, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.

It appears Gladwell is accepting of the challengers:

It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly [than 10,000 hours]

Malcolm Gladwell’s elaboration is important: it’s not just about taking in the time to practice, it’s also the efficacy of practice that matters. Preparation beats innate talent, but there is a limit.

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Further reading:

1) “Your Genes Don’t Fit: Why 10,000 Hours of Practice Won’t Make You an Expert”

2) “The Sports Gene and the New Science of Athletic Excellence

How To Win The New Yorker Caption Contest

Robert Mankoff offers two tips on how to win The New Yorker’s Caption Contest:

  1. Be funnier.
  2. Enter more.

Since there are approximately 5,000 entries per every contest, your probability of winning is modeled by this simple equation:

X = 1-(4,999/5,000)^n

Where X is your chance of winning over time, and n is how many times you enter. If you enter the contest for 1,000 times, probabilistically speaking, your chances of winning the contest at least once go up to 20%.

This was a surprise to me, however:

By the way, contrary to conventional wisdom, your odds will also be better if you’re a woman. While some research, using college students as subjects, showed that men were marginally better at generating funny captions than women, for our contest it goes in the other direction. Yes, guys do enter more frequently; eighty-four per cent of all entrants are men. But only seventy-seven per cent of the winners are. For gals, the figures are sixteen and twenty-three per cent. Sisterhood is powerful in our contest, at least marginally so.

Mankoff clearly is invoking the “Gladwell principle” of 10,000 hours here:

While entering more, man or woman, helps, you’ll need an extra element to realistically have a shot. Which brings us back (and about time, too) to No. 1: being funnier. Interestingly, entering more helps you on that score as well. Why? Because if you have any talent for anything, and that includes captioneering, you get better by doing more of it. That was certainly true for Roger Ebert, who finally won after a hundred and seven tries, and although the evidence is only anecdotal, being pretty much restricted to the anecdote you’re reading, I see the more entries/higher level of funniness trend throughout the contest.

So, do more work, both by entering more contests and by spending more time generating captions for each contest. Interviews with winners show that they often do just that, by devising lots of captions for each contest, then tweaking, editing, and finally culling to submit the best one.

Now, shouldn’t you be thinking of more captions?