Man And Superman

Malcolm Gladwell, writing for The New Yorker:

What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a “splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?

Fortunately, climbing isn’t popular or lucrative enough for performance enhancing drugs to be a big part of the conversation, but it is a sport where people’s physical differencesand the inherent advantages and disadvantages thereinare always on display to give you an excuse something to think about while your tall friend hikes your project.

Posted In: Asides, Off the Board

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15 Responses to Man And Superman

  1. j September 12, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Interesting things to consider from this article . . . dumb (genetic and cultural) luck plays significant role in athletic success. Artificial means of improvement could be looked at an attempt to level the playing field. Such practices are probably not common with elite climbers at this point,though will certainly become more prevalent. While I do not personally associate with many climbers at this level, even I know of at least one person who used steroids to improve his climbing, and it seemed to work. It probably occurs more than most climbers recognize. Most people likely believe this is not “fair,” but Gladwell asks us to consider is the gifts bestowed upon elite athletes are similarly “fair.” Probably not, but competition among humans in any realm (business, sports, relationships, etc.) is likely not fair in the very broad sense of the work. In a more narrow sense, where “fair” just means “using only what you were given at birth,” things like doping seems patently unfair. But on to a different point that watching Narc’s interview with Robinson made me consider . . .

    Both Robinson and Johnson echoed the sentiment that at least for many top US climbers, the sport is more about climbing outside at high levels, than winning formal climbing competitions. This alone sets climbing (at least in this incarnation) apart from many other sports, where there is ONLY competition. Many sports that inherently qualify as games are like this. You can’t really be a basketball player with competing against others in formal games. Same goes of course for football, tennis, and even bobsledding. Sports like skateboarding, surfing, and hang gliding are a bit different, in that one can just DO the sport without competing. That said, skateboarding (for example) is still relevantly different than climbing. A skateboarder might know that she is completing very difficult, high level, tricks, in an informal skate session, but without a formal competitive session where she is judged for the tricks she strings together, she cannot really know what level she is performing at. A climber, even in a non-competitive setting, can judge her performance, due to the (admittedly subjective) grading scale. If a climber flashes an established V15, even if no one is watching, that climber knows the performance is at a world-class level. This is actually a great beauty of the sport. Climbers do not need to compete in formal settings, pitting their skills against one another, to gauge the level of their prowess of the sport. This is why great climbers such as Robinson and Johnson can proceed with their careers without placing a great emphasis on participating in formal competitions. The same cannot be said for Rafa Nadal, Tom Brady, or Kelly Slater. Perhaps a high jumper could proceed as the climber, setting top-level person bests in informal sessions, but it seems that in most other sports, top performances “don’t count” when they are not done in sanctioned, official, settings. I’m very glad rock climbing is not like this. Yet another reason why this sport remains so unique, and great.

    -j

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  2. David September 12, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    I once sat in a college classroom in ’06 while the professor asked, “By a raise of hands, how many of you believe that anything can be achieved through hard work?”

    I remember that around 75% of the class raised their hands and I was astounded. I posed the following question to one of them right then and there, “If you believe that to be true, do you also believe that you could perhaps run a four minute mile if you trained hard enough?” Their reply was “yes”.

    It’s this kind of idiocy that makes me love Malcolm Gladwell’s ability to logically address these issues that modern society would have everyone believe don’t exist.

    I love hearing about the inherent genetic differences that play a role in between phenom and hard worker if for no other reason than people like to act like they play a smaller role than they really do in sports and any discussion of it just means you’re trying to make an excuse rather than entertain higher level discussion. For example, what so-so uber strong climber does for “training” generally doesn’t mean shit to you and your average physique/tendons.

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    • Dan September 12, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      Obviously genetic differences are very real, but climbing hard is also a very multifaceted activity, and plenty of those facets are not limited by physiology. I would say that in general, climbers overestimate the extent to which they are limited by genetics. And that mindset of “I can’t do x because I’m not y” is going to keep you from really pushing to find what you’re capable of. The person who thinks they can do anything may be delusional, but they will probably achieve more relative to their own potential than the person who just thinks about all the reasons they can’t do something.

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      • Narc September 12, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

        I think there is definitely something to your last point and I, unfortunately, feel like I often fall into the latter category.

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        • David September 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

          Recurrent or chronic injury breeds this disillusioned view in my experience…so you qualify ; )

          I wondered what you were thinking when you asked Paul/Alex about injury and they both basically replied “nope, never really been an issue.” Let’s face it, claiming “luck” is another way of saying “genetics” in at least one sense.

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          • Narc September 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

            True. I think there is actually a good reason why I have a lot of the injury issues I have, it’s just a matter of being smart about them (which I’m usually not).

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  3. j September 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Dan,
    I agree with your general point. That said, Gladwell’s discussion was more observational than practical. The claim that genetics play a huge role in athletic achievement and the claim that people will likely perform at their highest levels if they do not dwell on genetic limitations are of course not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of examples of “hard workers” in all sports who achieve high levels of success through grit, dedication, and determination, rather than .01 percentile genetic gifts. .
    -j

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    • David September 12, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

      Wes Welker

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  4. David September 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    Dan and J, you guys are both guilty of exactly what I’m talking about in that any discussion of genetics invariably leads to comments like “And that mindset of “I can’t do x because I’m not y” is going to keep you from really pushing to find what you’re capable of.” A discussion of genetics need not lead to a defense of hard work. If someones IQ is above 70 they should already know hard work gets a lot done.

    At no point did I or do I advise, being a big wimp with no willpower to crush yourself in pursuit of your individual potential. We all already KNOW hard work can do wonders. I’m not here to preach platitudes of obviousness to the wimps out there not willing to push themselves to accomplish something.

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    • j September 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

      David,

      I must respectfully offer that I’m not “guilty” of what you are claiming here. I joined into the second topic but did not initiated it.

      I agree that a discussion of genetic variability doesn’t require discussion of the separate topic of the positive aspects of hard work. As I said, Gladdwell’s standpoint is observational, concerns about mindsets for maximum performance are practical. The point I made in follow up to Dan is only asserting these are two distinct issues, which is essentially the point you are reiterating.

      I wrote: “The claim that genetics play a huge role in athletic achievement and the claim that people will likely perform at their highest levels if they do not dwell on genetic limitations are of course not mutually exclusive.”,

      This means that both claims can be correct and entails that they can be assessed separately. I would assume Dan recognizes this as well and simply wanted to discuss a more pragmatic issue relating to the general topic.

      -j

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      • David September 12, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

        You’re correct. I realized this after entering my post, but since I’m already blowing up these comments figured I just leave it knowing you would post an nice even keel response on the matter.

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    • Dan September 12, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      I am not at all guilty of the idea that you initially described and ridiculed, which was that a person can accomplish anything if they work hard enough. I was pointing out that it is usually more effective to dwell on the things you can change than the things you can’t.

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  5. douglashunter September 12, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    I can’t stand discussions of genetics in sports, and particularly in climbing. They often just serve as a way for people to try hang their preconcieved notions on something “scientific.” I am disapointed in the discussion around Galdwell’s book. Even the guy with an unusually high level of hemoglobin in his blood did not win every race. But Gladwell focuses on the one time he won by 40 seconds and acts as if that is more important than the times he didn’t win.

    When discussing “genetic advantages” in climbers the not-so-well-informed-numbers-chasers among us want to always focus on strength as if the only genetic difference between climbers is how strong they are; and as if strength isn’t highly succeptable to training for pretty much all of us. I’ve never heard anyone at the crag comment about another climber’s mortor processing speed, or any number of things that are important to climbing performance but most people are not aware of.

    Glawell seems to have unleashed a new wave of psuedo-scientific thinking about sports, something we already have too much of. Before we speculate about genetic advantages in climbing we need to know a lot more about climbing and what contributes to high level performance.

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  6. j September 12, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Douglas,

    I’m not clear as to why you are so resistant to considering the role of genetics in performance. I don’t see any hardcore moralizing in Gladwell’s observations. Rather, they are more of a “food for thought” thing. Also, these are of course generalizations and exceptions to generalizations always occur, yet do not necessarily refute the legitimacy of the original assertions. To substantiate that all this talk amounts to pseudoscience, you would have to refute some pretty strong empirical and commonsense evidence to the contrary.

    Genetic advantage talk tends to hit a sore spot with many people. But the underlying point isn’t the source of the advantage, but the fact that factors above and beyond effort affect and dictate performance. Genetics, culture, socio-economic status, and other things largely beyond the control of the individual certainly play a role in chances of success in various endeavors, ranging from sport to career success to longevity. This is just the way things are. Whatever conclusions we draw about how we should think about “fair” competition need further argumentation. The average size of a successful jockey is on the low end of 5 feet. There have been a few that have been taller, but this doesn’t refute that fact that is it quite advantageous to be shorter if you want to be a top jockey. If genetics do not largely control how tall one becomes, I don’t know what does.

    Why the sport of rock climbing would be immune to natural “gifts” that appear to affect performance in other sports is a question I would like to hear a solid argument for. Some may find the discussion boring or moot, but that doesn’t mean others find it interesting, for whatever reason(s). Strength to weight ratio, access to gyms/outdoor climbing areas, finances and time to partake in the sport, are plausibly all factors that affect the success of a given climber, and are largely not “up to us.” Whether or not more micro-factors such as tendon strength, ape index, etc., play a role is any open question, but to discount ALL these factors on the basis that they are beyond the control and/or yet to be empirically validated strikes me as dogmatic. I agree that it is reductive to focus only on strength, but I don’t see any debate (at least here) over just what are the key factors that affect climbing prowess. It’s certainly not something I wish to undertake here..

    Luckily, most of us here are given the opportunity to partake in climbing, establishing our own goals and doing our best to meet them, using whatever we bring to the table. The fact that others might be able to meet my own goals quite easily, and/or meet goals I could not even dream of ever satisfying, does not diminish this process for me. This holds true even if they are placed in a privileged position by Mother Nature. Back to one point I made originally, the beauty of climbing is that more than most sports, we are able to “compete” against ourselves, whenever we desire.

    -j

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  7. Francis Sanzaro September 13, 2013 at 8:52 am #

    Epsteins’ book was a great read for any athlete. Regarding the last statement from the Gladwell quote, “But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?” Athletics is not democracy, where each get a fair vote, and any teenager will admit to the fact that some people seem to be better equipped than others. The origin of the Greek Olympics was about spectacle, superhumanness, otherwordly feats, and the “physical culture” movements in which the modern Olympics were reimagined were squarely designed around the unequal. Early body builders and athletes were considered freaks of nature, hence why they were shown in circuses. Only in modern times where sports has become professionalized (in democratic countries), where one can make a living doing it have we come to expect equality in athletics, perhaps for the reason that sports is an “extension” of a job market where we expect to be considered equal. But, at least to me, it’s a myth, just as the American dream is a myth.

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