Malcolm Gladwell Isn’t Really Trying

Malcolm Gladwell’s writing doesn’t break a sweat. His game is taking complicated-seeming ideas and, over the course of a breezy tour, reducing them to fairly simple explanations. It’s a great skill and an act that takes lots of practice. Making hard topics accessible turns hard learning into enjoyable entertainment.
At the same time, in his latest piece in The New Yorker, “Man and Superman: In athletic competitions, what qualifies as a sporting chance?” he doesn’t really try. The essay is a thought piece based on two books he recently read. The first is the much-reviewed The Sports Gene by David Epstein, a book I’m currently reading, and Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race, which I read last year.
Gladwell’s style is winning. But if the facts don’t support his claims and undermine his conclusions, it’s hard to know why we should trust him, and if we can’t trust him, there’s little reason to read him.
As the subtitle and the books suggest, the article is going to question what is fair in sports. He starts with examples of genetic anomalies, and almost suggests it’s unfair to compete against these people, so great are their advantages.
His first example taken from The Sports Gene is the story of Finnish Nordic skiing great Eero Mäntyranta. Mäntyranta is alive, but almost fifty years past the peak of his athletic prowess. He possesses a genetic mutation that causes his bone marrow to overproduce red blood cells, at least compared to the normal person. With extra red blood cells, his blood delivers more oxygen to his muscles and as such, he can ski faster. He won seven medals in three different Winter Olympics.
His second example is of the Bahamian high jumper Donald Thomas, who first tried high jumping because of a bet, and became world champ at the discipline eight months later. He has long legs and unusually long Achilles tendons.
Gladwell concludes the section of genetic advantages by writing, “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.”
It’s a fascinating conclusion. Mostly because the book he gets his information from doesn’t seem to support it. The book actually contradicts the conclusion with both examples Gladwell uses, and in an epilogue called “The Perfect Athlete.”
First, Mäntyranta. Yes, he carried this gene. Yes, he won all those medals. But it wasn’t as if he merely got off the couch. Mäntyranta basically grew up on skis. He skiied to school. He skiied everywhere. He got interested in ski racing because he learned some results could win him an easier job skiing as a border patrol agent. And by the time of the 1960 Winter Olympics, he was 22 yet wasn’t the best skiier on the Finnish national team, and he only got to the Games because of a time trial in which he placed second. This guy was the embodiment of the “10,000 hours of practice” theory that Gladwell himself pushed in his book Outliers. And just to prove that the mutation wasn’t everything, Mäntyranta came out of retirement to take a stab at the 1972 Winter Olympics, and finished 19th. Interestingly, and further undermining Gladwell’s claim is the fact that Mäntyranta tested positive for amphetamines before the 1972 Olympics, and later admitted to having doped via hormones (which wasn’t illegal at the time) during his career. Reality indicates that Mäntyranta needed a boost, even with his magic mutation.
Second, Thomas. Yes, he had no experience in high jumping. But he was already jumping well as a basketball player, and his boasts about his dunking skills are what led to the bet. According to Epstein, “Thomas has not improved one centimeter in the six years since he entered the professional circuit.”  He hasn’t broken any world records. While he appears to have possessed an advantage, he hasn’t been able to build on it. He’s won only that single world championship. Maybe training is important; Thomas, despite his seeming advantage is not at all unbeatable—21st and 30th in two Olympic Games, 15th, 15th, 11th, 15th, and 6th in World Championships as well as golds on smaller stages: Commonwealth, Pan Am, and Central American and Caribbean Games.
Taken together, even if Gladwell’s claims weren’t undermined by reality, they demonstrate very little. Yes, the competitors he mentions seem to have advantages over the average person, but we don’t know if these advantages are shared by their competition, or if their  competition possess other advantages that negate much of the seeming advantage given by genes. All of which is to write that while these athletes seem to have something their competition doesn’t, it’s hard to know whether or not it is an advantage that makes the winning difference. And we’ll never know unless we can fully analyze all the competition and even then, we could be looking at the wrong traits.
Third, The Sports Gene‘s epilogue. Entitled “The Perfect Athlete,”  Epstein writes, “Instances in which a single gene has a dramatic effect, as in Mäntyranta case, are extremely rare, and finding athleticism genes is extraordinarily complex and difficult. But a present ability to pinpoint most sports genes doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and scientists will, slowly, find them.”  Of course, Epstein is overselling Mäntyranta, as has been demonstrated, and as he pointed out, the possibility that a single gene can account for dominance is rare.
Gladwell transitions from The Sports Gene to The Secret Race by bringing up baseball players, a subject addressed in the Epstein book. Specifically, their eyesight. When players from the Los Angeles Dodgers were tested years ago, they universally had amazing eyesight, some very near what is believed to be the theoretic limit of sight. From there, he brings up corrective lenses and surgery, and from there to Tommy John’s surgery that saved his career. And that allows him to pivot to discuss how Alex Rodriguez must have been surprised that elbow surgery is ok, but doping to recover from an injury is not.
“Maybe Alex Rodriguez looks at Tommy John—and at the fact that at least a third of current major-league pitchers have had the same surgery—and is genuinely baffled about why baseball has drawn a bright moral line between the performance-enhancing products of modern endocrinology and those offered by orthopedics.”
Both claims Gladwell makes to support this query don’t hold up. Gladwell tells us that “Tommy John surgery” improves pitchers. That is up for debate. The surgeon who pioneered the procedure doesn’t think so, though it arguably could restore them to their pre-injury form. Gladwell’s claim that A-Rod doped to recover from injury has not been proven. Yes, Rodriguez has suggested as much, but considering the interval of time he is accused of doping, it strains credulity to believe him—especially since many major-leaguers have made the same statement after having been revealed as dopers. It’s also worth pointing out that in sports governed by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) code, there is something called a Theraputic Use Exemption, or TUE, that often allows for the use of drugs that can help with certain kinds of recovery as well as the use of drugs for certain medical conditions.
And A-Rod knew the rules. Baseball is a game of rules, as are all games. Everyone knows a balk is wrong. No baseball player is surprised that a balk is wrong, even though it can appear to be a legit action if you’re not looking carefully.
But A-Rod as the unfairly attacked pariah is Gladwell’s segue to shift to Lance Armstrong. “He apparently removed large quantities of his own blood and then re-infused himself before competition, in order to boost the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in his system. Armstrong wanted to be like Eero Mäntyranta. He wanted to match, through his own efforts, what some very lucky people already do naturally and legally.”
This is another groundless claim. Not only is there nothing “apparent” about it, but Armstrong had already gotten himself to the elite level of the cycling world before he likely messed around with EPO drugs. Further, in his quest to be like Mäntyranta he was almost certainly genetically gifted. First, he had a relatively low natural hematocrit, which meant that he’d benefit more from the drug than those closer to Mäntyranta. Second, it is highly likely that he was a genetically high responder to several drugs—evidence strongly points to him being a high responder to anabolic steroids and having been able to assimilate cortisone injections. (though perhaps not perfectly; Armstrong’s doping doctor thought the steroids he had prescribed to Armstrong caused his cancer.)  Third, a passage Gladwell cites from Hamilton even has this gem, “In this, as in other things, Lance was blessed: he had veins like water mains. Mine were small, which was a recurring headache.”  Another genetic advantage racked up by Armstrong.
There’s this sentence from The Secret Race Gladwell shares demonstrating how “scientific” Armstrong’s and Hamilton’s doping doctor, Michele Ferrari was, “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.”  This was an eye-opener to Hamilton, as if he had never heard of these things previously. Only problem is the statement is largely hyperbole. Surely he had heard of all these things–cadence, intervals, zones, and lactic acid were already standard training metrics well before Hamilton got good as a racer—while looking into wattage, kilojoule, and hematocrit was relatively new, the study thereof and training programs based on at least wattage-based metrics had been going on for several years. Using these metrics along with a cheating regimen had been going on for easily more than a decade.
In case you don’t already see the issue Gladwell has, he tells it to you straight out. “Try as he might—and sometimes he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard—Hamilton cannot explain why a sport that has no problem with the voluntary induction of anorexia as a performance-enhancing measure is so upset about athletes infusing themselves with their own blood.”
This is dishonest. The brief Hamilton gave himself was not to explain why doping was wrong. On the opening page is a quote from Zola about burying the truth and how it will eventually destroy everything. Several years earlier, Hamilton darkly claimed there was a Mafia in cycling and prophesied he might someday write about.
And this is ultimately why Gladwell isn’t trying hard. He appears to trust all of two books to be complete and accurate and thorough. Yet, at the same time, it seems as if he has neither read both books nor has given the information much thought.
He asks, “Before we condemn him (Armstrong), though, shouldn’t we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?”
We should ask. But the answer isn’t going to be found in either book because neither book was positing any such hypothesis, nor offering insight on the matter, nor will it be found by wondering why, absent of accurate context, Tommy John surgery is ok while a doping routine is not. Coming into a subject you’re unfamiliar with, then doing very little research and using a few slivers of high shaded knowledge to conduct an extremely selective tour of an issue is not really an exploration.
There are answers out there. Gladwell could have found sports ethicists who would have been happy to opine. He could have called WADAand asked them. They actually review anti-doping rules on a regular basis, take drugs on and off the banned lists, and routinely examine what “the spirit of sport” is. Answers can be found, and could be more interesting than the exercise we were put through in reading the article.  
Considering how little effort Gladwell expended, it’s worth considering if he drew his conclusion before he read the books and then sifted carefully and elided when necessary to reveal instances that proved his conclusion right.
Making the facts fit your hypothesis is great when you’re presenting a college paper. It’s terrible you’re making a case for going to war with Iraq. Gladwell is neither a college student nor a member of the Bush administration. We read him because he presents himself as trustworthy and insightful. And ostensibly he’s published because his work has been proven truthful, not the least by editors and fact-checkers. But his value as an enightening entertainer is seriously compromised if he’s unable to tell the truth.
His expertise here is in omission.

Leave a Reply