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So I don’t really have strong opinions on the whole controversy over women’s sports at the elite level…mostly because I have a really hard time following all the logic. For me the biggest problem seems to be that we have two categories, men’s and women’s, and there are those who are arguing that they’re actually nearly plastic catchalls…which then suggests to me we shouldn’t have two categories in the first place in competition at the highest levels.

With that in mind, D. J. Grothe points me to this prescient interview from a few months back, Hyperandrogenism and women vs women vs men in sport: A Q&A with Joanna Harper. Joanna Harper is a transwoman who is (was?) also a competitive racer and a sports scientist. This portion is where the facts stand:

I would also like to relate a two-part epiphany that I had after my transition. In 2005, nine months after starting HRT, I was running 12% slower than I had run with male T levels; women run 10-12% slower than men over a wide range of distances. In 2006 I met another trans woman runner and the she had the same experience. I later discovered that, if aging is factored in, this 10-12% loss of speed is standard among trans women endurance athletes. The realization that one can take a male distance runner, make that runner hormonally female, and wind up with a female distance runner of the same relative capability was life changing for me.

As they say, “read the whole thing.” It’s long, and detailed, and doesn’t offer easy answers. Ultimately the reality is that no “solution” is going to be fair to world-class athletes. But, it’s probably important to remind ourselves that it is also unfair to those of us without the genetics of world-class athletes, and we seem to be OK with that.

Compare and contrast with this piece from Let Caster Run! We Should Celebrate Semenya’s Extraordinary Talent. The title really captures the reality that it was pretty obvious that the author was going to come down on one side, and would make a lawyerly case. Rather disappointed with Nate Silver’s shop.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Science, Sports 
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512QZUX2sSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Over at The Genetic Literacy Project Jon Entine has a post up, Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold proves again why no Asian, white–or East African–will ever be crowned world’s fastest human. Fifteen years ago Jon wrote Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It, so he knows something about this topic.

Actually, I think Jon is wrong on this. Better drugs and biological engineering mean that I suspect at some point in the near future the fastest “human” alive is going to be non-African, and, if I had to bet, Chinese. But you know what Jon meant.

There is a lot of detail in Jon’s post because he knows a lot about this topic. But at the end of the day the specific details are less important than the general theoretical framework, which makes it unsurprising that a single group of humans who are genetically related dominate sprinting. Unlike figure skating, sprinting is entirely objective. All that matters are physical inputs. Second, unlike swimming, which is also objective, sprinting seems to have pushed very close to the boundaries of what non-modified or drug-enhanced individuals are capable of. To my knowledge there’s no expectation of a Fosbury Flop in sprinting.

Therefore, sprinting is selecting for raw ability. Training is not irrelevant, but the issue with training is that others can train too. What can’t be mimicked is raw ability due to one’s biological aptitudes and abilities (again, excepting bioengineering). Let’s assume that Olympic caliber sprinters are among the 10,000 fastest humans on the planet, because not all people with the aptitudes become sprinters. Assuming a normal distribution, that’s about five standard deviations above the human norm. I suspect I’m being conservative. Someone like Usain Bolt is probably a six standard deviation unit human. Google tells me that a fit human can run the 100 meter dash in 13.5 seconds. The world record is about 9.5 seconds. The absolute range here is not incredibly large. Small differences in the mean across populations suggest that when you select for extreme individuals those small differences will make all the difference.

If sprinting was less objective, then there would probably be more equality in outcome. I suspect judges would be biased for various reasons, and one set of nations or people of a particular ethnic background dominating a field can get quite embarrassing. But sprinting is rather objective, and the socioeconomic obstacles are low. Given basic nutrition, and the ability to huff it, you have a shot. What matters is the magnitude of your ability.

principlespopulationgenetics One peculiar thing population genetics teaches us that non-adaptive traits are more heritable. This is due to the fact that selection tends to remove variation, selecting for fitter individuals. Humans are good runners, there are entire evolutionary theories based around our biomechanical modifications and adaptations. But there’s really no benefit in running in bursts of 10.5 in the 100 meter dash vs. 9.5. We’re not that sort of ambush predator. There’s probably some heritable variation in burst ability, but it’s small, and not visible in any normal set of tasks among large groups of humans.

But modern competitive sports at the Olympic level is not selecting for normality, it’s selecting from outliers. It isn’t that West Africans were guaranteed to be the best sprinters, it’s just that a priori it shouldn’t be surprising that in such a non-adaptively beneficial trait as running a few seconds faster in the 100 meter dash some populations had the genetic die loaded in their direction.

Note that I’m not denying any sort of selective or adaptive argument. There’s a fair amount of evidence that there is some selection in favor of greater height in Northern Europeans vs. Southern Europeans, which probably explains why Lithuanians are more prominent in basketball in relation to their numbers than Italians. But the selection wasn’t for basketball, and the fact that there is heritable variation suggests that selection wasn’t that strong and unidirectional….

Humans vary. Populations vary too. When you select from the tails of the distribution, the differences between populations are going to be very noticeable. If a sport is objective, and pushing its limits, it will select from the tails of the distribution.

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity, Science • Tags: Race, Sports 
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The_Sports_Gene_Book_Cover_2013 Can everyone get stronger, bigger, and more fit, from resistance training? Well, not literally everyone, but the vast majority of people. In the comments Jason Malloy made a reference to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, where there is mention of people who don’t respond to strength (or endurance) training. I don’t doubt such people exist; I just doubt that they’re that numerous.

As it happens I have a copy of The Sports Gene. I haven’t read it because I have a lot to read (Consciousness and the Brain is as good as some readers reported!), and frankly the marginal return for me toward reading books on genetics as opposed to papers is often not that much. But I skimmed through The Sports Gene just now, and I have to say it’s very good. There’s a chapter on sex differences and it reports all the results I’ve been blogging about with amazement recently. If I’d read Epstein’s book I wouldn’t have been quite so surprised. He reports that men have 80 percent more upper body muscle mass, about 50 percent more lower body muscle mass, that our punches are twice as powerful, and that the average man has more upper body strength than 997 out of 1000 women drawn at random.

Screenshot from 2015-12-17 23:09:28But I was interested about the research Malloy pointed to. Probably the best paper was Variability in Muscle Size and Strength Gain after Unilateral Resistance Training. My intuition that you need to be pathological to exhibit no gains from strength training is probably too strong. As the distribution to the right shows ~5-10% of men and women seem to show no gains in muscle mass in the bicep after 3 months of training. The sample size was 585, and included men and women. But, the modal gain was ~25% for men and ~20% for women.

Screenshot from 2015-12-17 23:15:12 Out of 585 subjects, 232 subjects showed an increase in muscle size of between 15 and 25%. Ten subjects gained over 40%, while 36 subjects gained less than 5%. The distribution of gains in strength on the bicep curl motion were somewhat more erratic, but again, most men and women gained strength. For strength 232 subjects showed an increase of between 40 and 60%. Out of 585, 36 subjects gained over 100%, while 12 subjects gained less than 5%. Interestingly, women gained more in relative terms in relation to strength than men did.

In short, these results indicate that there’s about a 90% chance that you’ll see appreciable gains in size and strength with resistance training. The results will vary, but the average person seems to gain about 20 to 25 percent in mass. My on and off trainer (some postdocs have interesting past careers) always tells me to focus on myself and not all the jacked up monsters in the gym, but now that I have a sense of the average returns to normal amounts of resistance training it strikes me I’m about average in relation to gains in size and strength in the upper body. If this is genetic then it’s not surprising, as both my brothers have had periods of lifting (one of them pretty regularly through his life) and gain at minimum normal amounts of muscle mass.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Lifting, Sports 
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Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein has a new book out, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. The title strikes me as coarse and reductive, but I am aware that authors do not always have control over such things. I’ve corresponded with Epstein a bit over the past year, and he’s sent me some passages relating to human evolutionary genetics and paleoanthropology to me to make sure they don’t sound crazy. I haven’t had time to read the book, but judging from the interview I listened to on NPR it’s data rich and theory subtle. Though the title seems to imply that athleticism is a single gene trait where most of the variation in the population is due to genetic variation, Epstein denies this and instead presents the reality that athleticism is a complex trait which many dimensions, subject to numerous genetic and environment variables, and, interactions across those variables. That would make for a less sexy subtitle, but it would have had the attribute of being correct.


Epstein’s survey of the research touches on sensitive topics bound to be sensationalized (e.g., The Urgency—and the Challenge—of Connecting Sports, Race, and Genetics). But it seems likely that there are going to be plenty of “gee whiz” facts in the book judging from the interview. For example, he reports that 17 percent of men over the the height of seven feet (2.14 meters) between the ages of 20 and 40 in the United States are playing in the NBA! Obviously there is no gene which is guaranteed to make you an NBA star, but having the allelic profile which predisposes you to being seven feet tall obviously helps. It also illustrates the ridiculousness which the “10,000 hour rule” has been taken to in popular culture. Practice matters, and, talent matters. At extremely high levels of performance one often needs to have focus to engage in repetitive tasks over and over. But, one also likely needs a preternatural complement of genes. Most of the children of NBA players do not become professional basketball players, but the probabilities are far higher. Epstein outlines these sorts of facts in a breezy and concise manner in the interview, as well as dismissing the infantile disorder of genetic determinism which results in the purchasing of DNA kits which will tell you if your child is an athlete or not.

And yet despite the complexity one of the things that I take away from David Epstein’s description of his book is that there is a massive and robust scientific literature on what makes a great athlete. This seems reasonable because professional athletics is a profitable enterprise, and where there is money there is scientific inquiry. But it helps to reiterate the message now and then.

Addendum: A good place to mention James F. Crow’s 2002 essay Unequal by nature: a geneticist’s perspective on human differences

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Human Genetics, Sports 
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Over at Think Progress there’s a piece titled Why We Can’t Dismiss The NBA Labor Dispute As ‘Millionaires Versus Billionaires’, where the author argues that the players are fundamentally different than the owners in relation to the acquisition of their wealth. There’s a whole lot of prose there, but the first commenter really hit the nail on the head: Chris Rock solved this shit years ago (and you just read that in his voice) – “The guys on the court are RICH. The guy sitting up in the box is WEALTHY.” If you magically multiplied the players’ salaries by a factor of two all that would do is that push back the likelihood of bankruptcy by 5 years or so. An added cushion would take more time to burn through, but that would be compensated for the fact that signalling consumption would increase. In other words, instead of 8 cars in the garage, 16. Instead of an entourage of 6, 12.


Consider someone like Antoine Walker. He’s still trying to maintain a professional career when it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t have the skills due to his age. But he’s got to service his debts. Would doubling Walker’s salary have made a difference at the end of the day? I doubt it.

This isn’t an argument for paying professional basketball players any less. Professional sports teams seem more like a luxury consumption good for most owners (Donald Sterling excepted). Their consumption habits certainly have a stimulative effect, though it seems that financial mismanagement and fraud are extremely common events in the careers of these athletes. Because they lack sophistication the slickest and slimiest lawyers and accountants seem drawn to them. But it just seems foolish and evasive to admit that these individuals lack the basic skills to manage huge windfall incomes for a few years, and not propose any policy response if you think that their inevitable fates should be avoided. If you want to increase long term player well being then you’d want their contracts to be negotiated so that salaries would be disbursed over 20 or 30 years, with trustees who could release funds in case of an emergency (e.g., health costs, or expenditures in the face of immanent death). You’d need to go very paternal.

Greece, the American consumer, and our financial sector simply couldn’t handle massive capital inflows responsibly. We expect N.B.A. players who tend to exhibit high time preference to be saved by extra millions of dollars? Get real.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Sports 
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So It didn’t work out for LeBron this year. I suspect it will work in the near future. Remember that it took Shaq and Kobe four years to win their first championship. Talent doesn’t guarantee a championship, but it sure does increase the odds. For now though I’m savoring. Though perhaps not as much as the people in Cleveland.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: NBA, Sports 
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I think it is pretty irrational to bet on the Mavericks against the Heat in the NBA Finals. And since my Celtics lost I haven’t been following what’s going on closely, but I hope Jason Kidd gets his ring. He’s had some ups and downs, but I do remember being amazed by him when he was a freshman at Cal (though watching tape of Magic it was clear that he had the same panache when it came to assists):

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: NBA, Sports 
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Interesting article in Slate. This shocked me:

Out of all the big schools, NBA teams likely fall harder for Dukies because of their NCAA tournament success. In Stumbling on Wins, economists David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt find that players who appear in the Final Four the year they’re drafted get a boost of 12 draft positions. Berri and Schmidt believe that this boost is unwarranted. One of the “statistically significant factors … that lead to less productivity in the NBA,” they write, is “playing for an NCAA champion the year drafted.”

I’ll have to look at the model itself, but this is somewhat surprising if plausible. It makes intuitive sense, but NBA teams don’t normally take the draft lightly and do prep work. On the other hand, as the years go by I’ve become more skeptical about the ability of institutions to squeeze all efficiencies out of any given process (I suspect there’s a principal-agent problem; those who are making the final call are less likely to get fired if they select a “can’t miss” who they think is overrated if that prospect flops than if they get someone who they believe is underrated, and it turns out their assessment was in error).

Personally, I think the similarities between Duke and Indiana during the Bobby Knight years are telling, and Knight was a mentor of Mike Krzyzewski. Both schools seem to produce fewer stars on the professional level in relation to the success of their teams; but I think the group vs. individual dynamic is key. There are differences between the pro and collegiate level, and Duke and Knight’s Indiana teams were able to leverage group level efficiency and precision in collective action to make up for shortfalls in relative individual talent. When a team manages to win many games individual players are perceived to be better than they are. Take individuals out of that context and their more modest talent endowments become obvious. A college team which routinely makes it far in the NCAA tournament can regularly field what might be “role players” at best in the NBA.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Sports 
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Athlete Atypicity on the Edge of Human Achievement: Performances Stagnate after the Last Peak, in 1988:

The growth law for the development of top athletes performances remains unknown in quantifiable sport events. Here we present a growth model for 41351 best performers from 70 track and field (T&F) and swimming events and detail their characteristics over the modern Olympic era. We show that 64% of T&F events no longer improved since 1993, while 47% of swimming events stagnated after 1990, prior to a second progression step starting in 2000. Since then, 100% of swimming events continued to progress.

We also provide a measurement of the atypicity for the 3919 best performances (BP) of each year in every event. The secular evolution of this parameter for T&F reveals four peaks; the most recent (1988) followed by a major stagnation. This last peak may correspond to the most recent successful attempt to push forward human physiological limits. No atypicity trend is detected in swimming. The upcoming rarefaction of new records in sport may be delayed by technological innovations, themselves depending upon economical constraints.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Sports 
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There’s a strange post over at The New York Times titled Steelers Are a Highly Evolved N.F.L. Species. The author goes into Richard Dawkins’ The Self Gene to draw some analogies, but I don’t feel the characterization of Dawkins’ ideas are clear enough that the analogy even has a chance. But, there is a real set of facts to be observed. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins of any team, despite being consistently outgunned in terms of money due to the structural nature of the their local television market. The author above wants to suggest there is a particular organizational genius which the Rooney family presides over. I’m skeptical of this. I suspect that the “genius” is simply institutional stability. Before 1970 the Steelers sucked, and everyone felt sorry for the late Art Rooney. Since 1970 not only have the Steelers captured the most championships, but they have the best win to loss ratio of any professional football team. And it is since 1970 that the Steelers have been characterized by an incredible stability of coaches, only two between 1969 and 2007 (with Mike Tomlin being the third in the post-1970 period). If life is an expectations game then it is likely that individuals employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers might exhibit a longer time horizon simply because of the overall stability of the personnel. Not only might this result in more judicious decisions in terms of the long term health of the team (as their interests are more closely tied to those long term outcomes), but the stability in personnel may also generate and esprit de corps which may serve to substitute for the lost income that entails from remaining with the Steelers organization (naturally, the very reality of consistent winning may also mean that the Steelers can pay less for more since high quality talent does want to win by and large).

Of course, the random things do happen in sports. I always say sports writing is like political writing, way too many specific facts, but no real robust theoretical framework. It’s meant to entertain like historical fiction, not illuminate like a textbook (this is very evident in SportsCenter, where the reporting of facts are supplemented by a lot of entertainment). So there will always be people looking for “causes” for trends which may just be flukes. Consider the peculiar alternation between the ascendancy of the AFC and NFC since 1970.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Sports 
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Taller, heavier: the speedy evolution of the fastest people on the planet:

While the average person has gained about five centimetres since 1900, the height of champion runners has increased 16.2 centimetres, say Duke University researchers, Jordan Charles and Adrian Bejan, who studied the heights and weights of 100-metre world record holders.

”The trends revealed by our analysis suggest that speed records will continue to be dominated by heavier and taller athletes,” said Mr Charles, whose study was published last month in The Journal of Experimental Biology .

While Dr Norton dismissed those predictions, he believed that the laws of genetics, thanks to the habit of athletes marrying athletes – and possibly even the creation of athlete sperm banks – meant runners would continue growing taller, more powerful and faster.

Remember the “Little Hercules” with the myostatin mutation? His mother was very muscular, and reportedly there was a family history of mesomorphicity. One way population level quantitative trait mean value can shift through selection beyond the most extreme values of the original population without new mutation being necessary is simply to change the underlying allele frequencies enough so that originally unlikely combinations become common. Assortative mating is another variant of this dynamic, if people several sigmas from the mean mate, then new combinations are likely to emerge.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics, Sports 
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Alan Jacobs, GLADWELL’S GENERALIZATIONS:

Gladwell is always fun to read, but he invariably commits one of the sins we English teachers most warn against when we’re teaching freshman writing: he loves to make vast generalizations from one or two particular cases.

One obvious point is that a style of play which is effective at one level of athletics may not be as effect at another level, particularly a higher level. Consider the Option or Run & Shoot offenses in football. The Run & Shoot in particular was tried out widely in the early 1990s at the professional level, but most teams gave up on it. Quarterbacks who were statistical monsters in colleges which utilized the Run & Shoot were total busts at the professional level (most famously, Andre Ware and David Klingler from the University of Houston). It turns out that cornerbacks and safeties in the NFL are very fast and athletic, and many college Run & Shoot quarterbacks weren’t precise enough in their passing to get the job done.
Note: And yes, I’m not even taking into account the reality that professional quarterbacks are enormous economic investments, so there is going to be skepticism about risking such a valuable asset by running options all the time.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Sports 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"