David Epstein talks about his 2013 bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance and his recent Scientific American article "Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics."
David Epstein talks about his 2013 bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance and his recent Scientific American article "Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics."
Steve Mirsky:Welcome to Scientific American Science Talk posted on August 16, 2016. I'm Steve Mirsky. On this episode –
David Epstein: And what they found was about 6 out of 1,900 people had like 50 percent higher oxygen carrying capacity than was normal which is enormous. They looked basically like – you know almost like college – like trained college runners but had never trained before.
Mirsky: That's David Epstein. He ran track at Columbia University while getting an undergraduate degree in astronomy and environmental science. He went on to get a master's in journalism and environmental science from Columbia after which he did ecology research above the Arctic Circle and wrote some big investigative pieces for Sports Illustrated. In 2013 he published the best seller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.
And last week www.scientificamerican.com ran his article on performance enhancement entitled “Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics.” That one's available free on our website. To get up to speed on the fastest and strongest people on the planet I spoke with Epstein by phone earlier today.
David as you're watching the Olympics what do you see that maybe some of us who haven't paid as close attention to athletics and training and genetics would notice? What do you see that's escaping the rest of us?
Epstein: Well I guess one of the things I notice not just in track but in the Olympics in general is sort of I guess what I called in The Sports Gene the big bang of body types –
Epstein: which is this idea that you know early in mid-20th Century there was this feeling that the average body type was the best for all athletic endeavors: sort of medium height and medium weight and this well-rounded physique. And that's completely gone away as sports went global and became more scientific and in favor of bodies that are hyper-specialized for their particular niches in the sporting world.
And so you know athletes in sports where diminutive stature is an advantage have gotten smaller. The average elite female gymnast has shrunk from five feet, three inches to four feet, nine inches on average over the 30 years because it gives them a lower moment of inertia. So it's less resistance to rotating in the air basically. So Simone Biles at four feet, eight inches is only barely below average now.
And conversely in other sports where things like large size is prized we've seen athletes get bigger and down to all sorts of small details. Like I was talking a little bit about Helen Glover, a British rower who won gold with her partner the other day in the women's pairs rowing and she was identified based on physical characteristics by Great British Sport eight years ago and had never rowed before. And is now undefeated for the last five years having first rowed eight years ago.
Mirsky: It's really amazing. You talk in the book about basketball and you know to even the most disinterested party it's obvious that height is a great advantage in playing basketball. But you also talk about something I'd never seen before which is that even within these very tall people their wingspan – the length of their arms – is unusual.
Epstein: Yeah. That was actually a bit of a surprise to me. I got interested in that because I was listening to – You know just driving listening to an ESPN radio conversation in which the host was talking about how talented Lebron James is or isn't. And he said, "You know sure he's tall, but there are one million guys in America who are six feet, eight inches and you know most of them aren't in the NBA. And it kind of just made me wonder well I wonder how many guys there are in the United States who are six feet, eight inches.
And it turns out there aren't close to one million. There is actually like 250,000. And so it's actually quite rare. Height is really tightly clustered around the average. I think it's something like 60-some percent of men are just between 5 feet, 9 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches basically. And so you know I got interested in NBA player's bodies and found out that being 7 feet or taller is so rare that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 there's a 17 percent chance he's a current NBA player.
Mirsky: If he's 7 feet tall or more.
Mirsky: This goes back – You know I sent you this article I wrote I think in 1998 where I jokingly said at the top, "You know how close I came to playing in the NBA? Seventeen inches."
Epstein: Yeah so close.
Mirsky: If I'd been 17 inches taller I would've been 7 feet tall. And maybe I could've played in the NBA. And then I said I'm just kidding because obviously there's a lot more that goes into being a professional athlete. You have to have incredible coordination and other things. But then I read in your book that really it's like 1 in 6 American between 20 and 40 who are 7 feet tall is in the NBA. And it's a shocking statistic just how determinative it is.
Epstein: Right. And currently in the NBA – not like former players.
Epstein: Current NBA players. And as you mentioned there – It's not just their height either. It's their arm span. So a lot of them are measured before they come into the NBA. And so you know I always think of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man or that picture everybody knows with the man with his arms extended and equal to his height. And my arm span is about exactly equal to my height. That's actually a little bit small – so about 1.01-to-1 is normal. Usually people's arm span will be very slightly longer than their height.
But the average in the NBA is much higher. The average NBA player is about six feet, six and one-half inches with seven foot long arm span right? So the average NBA player would meet the diagnostic criteria for Marfan syndrome which causes elongation of the limbs – the average. And it turns out it is predictive of certain stats. So it's not just height. It's also length.
Mirsky: And you talk in the book about Michael Phelps. Now he's what – six feet, four inches?
Mirsky: But his inseam is only a little longer than mine and I'm five foot, seven inches.
Epstein: Yeah that's right. So that was one of the funny things I think I put in an epilogue of the book. I said you know in Rio 2016 look for the six feet, four inch swimmer who is walking in next to his five feet, nine inch countryman who runs the 1,500 meters. And you know there will be seven inches difference in height and wearing the same length pants.
Epstein: And I actually said that because that's the truth for Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer ever, and Hicham El Guerrouj, the man who holds the world record in the mile who is five feet, nine inches. You know in swimming you want a long torso and short legs. It's like the long hull of a canoe for speed going over the water. And in running you want exactly the opposite – basically you know some really long pencils with some lungs on top of it.
Mirsky: So if you're looking for possible future Olympians you can quickly gauge body types and that will give you some idea of potential. But what's going on at the genetic level is also really fascinating.
Epstein: Yeah and I should say because there's so much emphasis on Michael Phelps' physiology at the level that he's at it's not that abnormal. Like we can't describe his success only to his body because actually most of the guys at that level are like that to one degree or another 'cause that's what the filtering process has done.
Mirsky: Right. And they also train ridiculous amounts.
Epstein: Yeah absolutely. Well and that – And speaking of the genetic level one of the most interesting findings – I think maybe the most interesting finding – broadly in exercise genetics is that actually our genes heavily mediate our response to any given type of training. So you can have a group of people – And maybe we know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever had a training group you can have a group of people who are doing the same training or whatever on the same diet and you see people getting incredibly disparate results.
And it turns out that that's often due to the involvement of how genetics cause our bodies to respond to different types of training. So we really have to – You know sort of the art of athletic development is finding that training regime that best fits your completely unique physiology. And that's actually kind of unusual when we think about talent. You know normally we're used to putting everyone on the same training program. And if people – If it doesn't work for some people you kind of blame them, not the training plan basically.
Mirsky: Exactly. It made me feel sorry for all the people over the last century who have trained their hearts out and only reached a certain plateau compared with other people who have this incredibly sensitive response to training and get better and better with the same amount of work. And you know it's just innate and people have taken it personally.
Epstein: Yeah and I think it's a good time to sort of incorporate that into our thinking and say well if this diet that other people are on or this training program that other people are on isn't working the same for me but I'm doing it right well maybe it's not the right one for me. This guy JM Tanner, a British guy who was the world's – He passed away not long ago but he was the world's expert in body growth and development.
He was also a world class hurdler. He gave this quote I love: "Everyone has a different genotype. Therefore for optimal development everyone should have a different environment." So I think he sort of encapsulated it that if we really want to get everyone to their optimal development we have to consider that the exact perfect environment for that won't come from copying anybody else. It's not to say we can't take things from people who are not us and who are doing really well. But I think we need to keep in mind our individuality as well.
Mirsky: Absolutely. And this is not in any way to take away from the accomplishments of these extraordinary people.
Mirsky: But it has to be acknowledged that you know no matter how hard I trained I was not going to be a world class basketball player.
Epstein: Well one might argue that you didn't find the right training for you to respond to. But obviously based on being 17 inches under the 7-foot mark you were facing an uphill battle to begin with. [Laughter]
Mirsky: [Laughter] Right. My mother used to joke with me when I was a teenager and had sort of plateaued at about five foot, seven inches, that I should really play more basketball because they were all so tall. So if I played more maybe I'd grow. And she knew that she was posing a Lamarckian thesis there. But it's actually – It's not so crazy when you go into the book a little bit. You actually use that example in the book as something that's not true.
But then you set up the fact that your bones and muscles will respond to certain things which is obvious. I mean remember Rod Laver's left arm.
Epstein: Yeah. It's obvious but it's also kind of crazy. You know tennis players will have actually slightly longer forearms on their racquet side, even longer, and of course much wider elbow joints from more stress. I mean bone responds to stress like muscle. Not to the same degree as muscle obviously, but it responds to stress. I mean I got a chance to see in my book reporting bone density data for Cirque du Soleil performers.
Mirsky: Oh it must be amazing.
Epstein: It like defies all of medical wisdom that says from 30 onward basically you only resist deterioration of bone density as opposed to actually building more. I mean there were Cirque du Soleil performers who were coming up on 50 who hadn't started coming down yet. And so I think beyond sports there's a pretty important public health message there too.
Mirsky: And it must also help them if they take a fall. They don't break their bones.
Epstein: Absolutely. I mean maybe the kinds of falls their taking but yeah. No I mean they will – You know actually I think that really gets at something that has been bugging me a little as I've been watching these Olympics where I keep hearing on TV oh Michael Phelps is defying age at 31. That's just not true. I mean the fact is most swimmers and athletes have retired at younger ages because they're burned out maybe or they can't make a living.
Epstein: They're putting off the rest of their life. Many of them are taking training debt. And now in an era where some of them via endorsements and things like that can make a living you'll see them persist until their older. I mean Anthony Ervin who won the 50-meter freestyle last won the 50-meter freestyle in 2000.
Epstein: And then took a decade off and is 35. There's a 40 year old who was in the 100 meters who has run under 10 seconds. The ages at which we've seen athletes retiring is not indicative of the age at which physiology has to decline if they continue training.
Mirsky: Right. Didn't we have a woman – I think a British cyclist who was a day shy of her 43rd birthday won something?
Epstein: Oh an American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong.
Mirsky: Kristin Armstrong right.
Epstein: Yeah and so it's just – It's a mistake to think that what we've seen as kind of an average age in sports represents you know athletes stopping when they're done, when they can't perform anymore. It's primarily been other reasons. Michael Phelps could – If he felt like it he could totally come back in the next Olympics and win some things again.
Mirsky: Yeah I'm sure that a 60 year old Sandy Kaufax could still strike some guys out too.
Epstein: [Laughter] I bet you're right.
Mirsky: So you talk in the book – something else I found really fascinating – that the fit six – And this is this idea that there are people who do not do any kind of workouts, no exercise, but they're just innately incredibly fit. They have a great oxygen carrying capacity I think it was.
Epstein: Yeah, no that's exactly it, their ability to move oxygen through their bloodstream which is a really important indicator of endurance particularly below the elite levels. At the elite level everybody is really high. But it's also an important indicator of when you're going to die actually. And this was discovered by researchers at York University in Toronto who were basically doing just these physical examinations for people who wanted to be firefighters.
And one of those was an aerobic capacity test where you basically – You cycle or your run really hard until you can no longer increase the amount of oxygen that you're moving to your muscles. And what they found was about 6 out of 1,900 people had 50 percent higher oxygen carrying capacity than was normal which is enormous. They looked basically like – almost like trained college runners but had never trained before.
And it turned out that they just tended to have larger blood plasma volume. So not even the red blood cells that convey oxygen but just the plasma in the blood. And it causes more efficient filling of the heart. And so the heart actually pumps blood more efficiently through the body. So they called them the naturally fit 6. These were people who had no idea that they had that ability. And if you think about it 6 in 1,900 isn't that many. But it's certainly enough to count for every pro endurance athlete. So maybe what you want is someone who responds to training really well and starts with an advantage to begin with.
Mirsky: So how widespread is this kind of testing for specific traits in the U.S. and around the world for kids to get them started in competitive training programs to try to build future Olympians?
Epstein: Yeah most of the places that do it in kids actually is probably a little ill-advised partly because a lot of these traits don't actually show up until after puberty. So one of the problems we're actually having is you know these junior national teams will be stacked with people who are born early in the selection year because they're effectively a year older which is a big deal when you're 10, 11, 12, 13, of 14. And then that comes out – You know that goes away when everyone goes through puberty.
There is some early selection. I mean Chinese diving will look for – I saw – I'm not sure if they're doing it for this Olympics but I saw for a previous Olympics where they had kids holding their arms above their head. And Chinese diving is like the most dominant team in the history of anything. They were holding their arms over their heads. And if the kids' elbow joints weren't above the top of their head and couldn't fold in basically they would feel that they'd make too big a splash on the water 'cause they couldn't fold their arms in.
So they would say like, "Okay you out, out, out, go to gymnastics," basically.
Epstein: And I should add after I saw that I was like oh God they're going to lock them in padded cells or something. And that was not the case at all. I mean after that selection process they learned juggling. They had tons of fun. But you know they found a physiological trait that they think matters and started screening for it. And in the US we don't have as much of that partly because we don't have to be efficient in sports election because we have a huge population.
Epstein: So we have the same number of sports in sports or in the Olympics but with a huge population. So we tend to just do sort of more of the natural filter. And our college system is a huge advantage for keeping people in the pipeline that most countries don't have. So that's actually most of what happens here.
Mirsky: But if I was the dictator of a small country of let's say two million people I would launch into these kinds of testing programs to identify who I could turn into a world class athlete probably.
Epstein: Oh yeah I mean – And that's worked in Australia and Great Britain. They have shown some great examples of that. Again to go back to Helen Glover, this rower, who is with her partner you know just rewriting pairs rowing for women was identified in this talent – It was in Great Britain when they were awarded the 2012 Olympics they had these various talent searches. And the one that Helen Glover was selected in was called Sporting Giants where women who were at least 5 feet, 11 inches, had some athletic background but not rowing.
I think Helen had played tennis, done field hockey and maybe run cross-country – definitely field hockey and tennis. And they got her in and they saw she's tall, she has long levers, – you know long arms and legs but low brachial index, which means low ratio of her forearm to her total arm. So that's good for pulling things but conversely bad for throwing things. And then they just gave her a quick test and she's got that aerobic capacity. She was world class almost immediately.
Mirsky: That's amazing.
Epstein: And now she's undefeated for five years. We have no idea when this is going to end. They just won the gold medal in Rio.
Mirsky: Just incredible. So this kind of brings us to we have never met but we both share this affection for this Finnish cross-country skier. And you write about him at length in the book. You actually went to meet him – Eero. Talk about Eero and the issues he brings up.
Epstein: Yeah so basically I was reading these scientific studies about a man with incredibly high levels of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood – really important for endurance. And of course it was anonymous in the journals but it's like you know a three-time gold medalist from Northern Finland in these years so you could tell who he was.
Mirsky: Really. [Laughter]
Epstein: Yeah and this guy Eero Mäntyranta who was a three time gold medalist in cross-country skiing, seven time Olympic medalist won the 15 kilometer race in a margin never before or since equaled. And during his competitive career it was found that he had almost 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal competitor. And so it was assumed that he was blood doping in some undetected way.
And about 20 years after he retired and he became a reindeer farmer in the arctic which is where I met him a group of Finnish scientists found that a gene mutation ran in his family that caused his body to overreact basically to the presence of the hormone EPO which is like the one that Lance Armstrong famously was injecting. But we have that naturally. It cues your body to produce red blood cells. And for some people in the Mäntyranta family their bodies would go into overdrive and just keep making red blood cells.
They were basically missing the stop sign for red blood cell production. And so they had enormous oxygen carrying capacity. One of his nephews who had the gene mutation was also an Olympic gold medalist. A niece was a world junior champion. And people in the family who didn't have the mutation were not competitive ski racers. So it's kind of fascinating. It's very unusual to have a single gene that makes a large effect. So that's why it was kind of a fascinating case study to be able to pin it to one gene.
Mirsky: And these people basically – I mean you could look at it this way. They go into the race with three lungs.
Epstein: Yeah. [Laughter] It's something like that. You know it brings up these really interesting philosophical questions 'cause people have asked well if that's allowed then why do we frown upon people just injecting EPO to get to that level anyway. And I have my own answers to that but I do think it's a really interesting discussion point.
Mirsky: I think it's a fascinating discussion point and I cannot come to any conclusions. I haven't yet figured out how I think about it. So what do you think about it? You say you have some thoughts about it.
Epstein: Yeah I have thoughts but I also can understand – You know when somebody makes a reasoned argument to me that isn't in line with my thinking I totally understanding – to show how strong my thoughts are on this. But I mean I guess I feel like sports is about standardizing the rules as opposed to standardizing the genes. Otherwise we'd have identical twins competing against each other. And the fact is elite athletes always have some types of genetic advantages. The difference in this case is that it was so obvious and so easy to determine exactly what it was.
And there are other athletes who have really high hemoglobin red blood cell count and can prove that it's natural. They've had it over time and it's been consistent. It just can't be pinned to a single gene. And nobody says anything about those ones. I think it's part of you know life isn't fair, genetics aren't fair. All elite athletes have certain advantages and that's what it is. And I hope we enjoy it as an interesting look at human biological diversity.
Mirsky: Absolutely. I'm always wondering why certain things are okay and certain things aren't. I mean you talk in the book about baseball players' vision. And that's really amazing. The average major league baseball player has unbelievably clear vision.
Epstein: Right? And that's in a similar – It's interesting you mention that right after Eero Mäntyranta because – So the average major league baseball hitter they have to learn these perceptual cues that give away what's coming long before it gets to them.
Epstein: And the earlier they can do that – Many people can learn those cues but once you've learned them it's advantageous to be able to pick them up more quickly like the flicker of the pitch which is the flashing pattern the seams make when the ball spins. And so whereas I have 20/20 vision meaning I see from 20 feet away what the average person sees from 20 feet away major league baseball hitters have 12/12 vision on average. So they can't be tested with commercially available tests 'cause they see from 20 feet away what I have to stand at 12 feet to see.
A favorite story about that was Ted Williams – you know maybe the greatest hitter ever – was a really good duck hunter. And he would say that he saw ducks on the horizon before his hunting partners because he willed it to be so.
Epstein: And then when he had his World War II pilot's test he had 20/10 vision.
Epstein: I'm sure that also helped but we don't think of it in the same way as Eero Mäntyranta just because it's like – Well it's less known I guess but it's common. It's like the anti for the game and so we don't even think about it.
Mirsky: Exactly and it's not as important for a pitcher to have that kind of clear vision.
Epstein: That's right.
Mirsky: It really comes in when you're hitting the ball. And you know there was this recent documentary Fastball. I don't know if you've seen it. It's about the greatest fastball pitchers and the physics of throwing the fastball. And what's not in the documentary – I went to a screening and then spoke to the director afterwards and he told me that Rod Carew had told him – Rod Carew one of the greatest hitters of all time – that if he could see the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand he didn't care if it was coming in at 1,000 mph he was going to be able to hit it. And that dovetails with this vision thing.
Epstein: That's exactly right because it turns out that the ball is going fast enough already that they're not really reacting to it. They're picking up on cues before the ball is released and the instant it's released and that's when their decision is made basically. So you know that's why I thought it was kind of fun to open the book with this scene where a softball pitcher whose balls travel much smaller be it from a closer mound but the transit time of the ball is still longer confounds the very best major league baseball hitters.
It's not the speed. It's their ability to pick up on the cues.
Mirsky: Right the famous Jennie Finch and Alex Rodriguez refused to even hit against her because he didn't want to look like a fool he said.
Epstein: Yeah that's right. He saw what the other guys did and he made her throw a couple of pitches to one of their practice catchers and the guy missed two of them 'cause he was used to different cues himself – overhand pitching.
Epstein: And Alex just went, "Yeah, no. Nobody's going to make a fool out of me." And he refused to do it.
Mirsky: And Albert Pujols did not hit against her successfully.
Epstein: Oh yeah.
Mirsky: He tried.
Epstein: Yeah he didn't have as much of a choice to get out of it as Alex Rodriguez because when she pitched to Pujols it was in this charity all-stars softball game and he was up to bat. So he couldn't get out of it.
Epstein: So he got struck out.
Mirsky: Now she's 45 feet away throwing about 68 mph which is the equivalent of a 95 mph fastball from 60 feet, 6 inches. But again it's that ability to via many hours of experience watching pitches come in to see the ball come out of the pitchers hand that really affected these major league players' ability to hit her, not to mention it's a completely different delivery coming out underhand.
Epstein: That's right, totally different movements of the torso, different rotation of the shoulder. And we know those are things that hitters have to pick up on. And if you cover those things in various ways – called occlusion studies – you can turn great hitters back into complete novices. And of course you know Jennie Finch was an absolutely outstanding softball pitcher and a gold medalist. But the women she played against in softball would hit her sometimes. And the major league baseball players never did.
Mirsky: Right because they had the experience of facing her and had learned those cues.
Mirsky: But it brings up something – You know getting back to the genetic advantages versus natural ability versus doping. You know I always wonder why Tommy John surgery is okay.
Epstein: That's a good question and especially now that people – some young people are starting to have it sort of prophylactically.
Mirsky: Which is a mistake.
Epstein: Which is a mistake definitely especially because if you need a second one the rates of return to your previous performance are very low. From a first one it's very high. I'm not totally convinced it actually makes people better. I think it's hard to say. But I think we're starting to see – Actually I've just seen some of the first academic papers published on so-called surgical doping. And so I think that's a conversation that needs to happen like right now, especially because I think this signal of young people wanting Tommy John early tells us – is kind of a canary and tells us what we're in for. So we should be discussing that in earnest.
Mirsky: And on the very most basic level why are glasses or contact lenses or LASIK surgery okay?
Epstein: It's so – You know it's such a – Sports are the ultimate human contrivances.
Mirsky: Really right?
Epstein: It's take agreed upon rules and add meaning. And so it's really hard – To some degree it just comes down to like this emotional feeling of how do people react to it? And most people are like well they're familiar with glasses and contacts so you know that's cool. And you use it for everyday life and those sorts of things. But what about as – You know over the last decade the proportion of testosterone prescriptions for guys in their 40s has quadrupled.
And so that's becoming a lot more common too even if it's less talked about. So what about when we have athletes who are in their 40s but they're barred from that? It's a tricky discussion. And I think a lot of it just has to do with our emotional reaction. I mean there are things – Like there are hormones like DHEA that are banned in Olympic sports and the NFL allows them and things like that. You really can't draw any bright line that I can tell.
Mirsky: And you talk in the book about a mutation – a genetic mutation – that allows you to was it take testosterone supplements and not get caught?
Epstein: Yeah that's a tricky one. To make drug testing even more difficult the most common drug screen is called the T:E ratio test. So it tests for the ratio of testosterone to another hormone called epitestosterone. And most of us have about a 1:1 ratio. But it varies. And you can go up to 4:1 before it triggers further testing to see whether you were taking synthetic testosterone. The trouble is some people with a certain gene that affects excretion of hormones in their urine their T:E ratio either stays the same or goes down when they take testosterone.
So the screen is just not going to catch those people. And it turns out that that's actually – You know it's like – I think in the first study that found this ten percent of Swedes in the study had that gene. And like 60 percent – more than 60 percent of East Asians had that. So unless we're planning on genetically personalizing drug testing that's not happy for the anti-doping world.
Mirsky: I find this stuff endlessly fascinating. And again I don't know the answers to these questions. I just think it's worth bringing it up so that people who are really sure that certain things are absolutely okay and certain things are absolutely forbidden will just think about it a little more. I think it's worth thinking about because it's just a fascinating kind of ethical question. And I don't know the right answer. I always ask why was it okay for them to staple Curt Schilling's tendon to his anklebone.
Epstein: Totally, totally. And especially when you think of things like okay some of the anti-doping rules are justified as for athlete health right? So when does stapling the tendon to the anklebone come into play for athlete health or giving NFL players pain killers so they can go out? Like if I skateboard into a wall and ask a doctor for painkillers so I can do it again they'll say, "No. Don't skateboard into the wall." But if I was in – Or, "If you're going to do it do it at your own risk."
But if I'm in an NFL locker room suddenly it's like okay I understand why the athlete wants it but I don't understand why it's given. And these issues – I think you hit the nail on the head in that there are some of these issues that are really hard to have an opportunity to discuss in any context other than sports. And it brings up really issues of what do we want from sports and activities as a society? And what do we tolerate and why?
And I always come back to this because when I was reporting on drugs and sports I would ask myself these questions a lot. And I always come back to that Canadian philosopher Bernard Suit's phrase that he used to summarize the core of sports and games, which is the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles, which I love. And I think the question ultimately is which of those voluntarily accepted obstacles do we feel are core to whatever values that come out of the endeavor?
And that really gets at what we care about.
Mirsky: Well put. I'll keep that quote in mind as I watch the 110-meter high hurdles.
Epstein: There you go – very, very literal – voluntarily accepted hurdles.
Mirsky: This was great. I really appreciate talking to you. I greatly enjoyed the book and your article and I look forward to more of your stuff.
Epstein: It's my pleasure. Thanks for talking with me.
Mirsky: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site: www.scientificamerican.com where you can follow our coverage of the science of the Olympics. And follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is: @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.