The Genetics of Basketball Part 1

The Global Game

Tepantitla mural, Ballplayer B CroppedChichén Itzá Goal

For the Mayans of Ancient Mexico, sport really could be a matter of life and death. After a Mesoamerican Ball Game, a losing team was sometimes ritually sacrificed to the gods.

Other cultures are weird, and are weird in surprising ways. But there is something even more surprising about the Mesoamerican Ball Game which is not weird in the slightest.

Players divide into two teams, which attempt to keep control of the ball, and compete to direct it through a hoop, high above the ground. In other words, it is a lot like basketball.

Independent Invention

This ought to come as a surprise because basketball was invented by James Naismith in Massachusetts in 1891. He almost certainly had no idea about the Mesoamerican Ball Game. People from two very different cultures had created remarkably similar games.

They are far from identical, of course. In the Mesoamerican Ball Game (above left), the players employ their hips, thighs and shoulders to control the ball. And the hoop (above right) is vertical rather than horizontal. But, if there is too much focus on the contrasts and not the commonalities, there is a danger of slaying curiosity on the altar of novelty.

Even the extreme approach to dropping players differs only by degree from countries with a tabloid press. Many an England football manager has been sacrificed to the Sun.

Ancient Greek Football PlayerOne Hundred Children in the Long Spring-crop

Football itself has many parents. The Greek and Chinese versions of game (above) were surely independent, while variants of football or rugby have also been devised by people as far flung as Inuits in Canada, Georgians by the Black Sea, and Australian Aboriginals.

I could go on: forms of field hockey have developed everywhere from Ireland to Chinese Inner Mongolia; canoe races have always been a feature of life in the Polynesian islands and Senegal; and almost every country of the world has its own style of folk wrestling.

Sport is a cultural universal. There does not appear to be any society which has never had games of physical skill. This reveals something fundamental about human nature.

The Sports Instinct

Evolutionary psychologists study the ways that natural selection has shaped our genes but, to the surprise of many, they are far more interested in the similarities than in the differences. A core idea which drives much research is the “psychic unity of humankind“.

Language is an excellent example of this. For evolutionary psychologists, language is a product of evolution, which can explain the unexpected parallels between the world’s languages. But evolution does not explain why Austrians speak German or Brazilians speak Portuguese. That is a cultural question and it is better understood by historians.

There is reason to believe that sport is part of our evolutionary heritage but it is equally unclear that there are genetic differences between groups. Sport is highly psychological and even its more physical aspects are at least as genetically complex as cognitive traits.

Over the next few weeks, I shall explore the question of genetic differences in sporting ability, using basketball as an example. I shall ask whether the relative strength of some nations is explained by genes, or if we should believe in the sporting unity of humankind.

Next week: The genetics of height in Europe and the effect it has on basketball success


Strange Geography

Review of the week: 16 – 22 November 2015

Grégory Gaultier with US Open Trophy

Men’s World Open Squash

Gregory Gaultier of France won his first title at the age of 32, having lost in the final on three previous occasions. He had won the British Open and the US Open (above) but the global title was the one which he needed in order to properly reflect a successful career.

In a sense, therefore, it was a poor tournament for Egypt. Ramy Ashour failed to retain the trophy, Omar Mosaad was beaten by Gaultier in the final, and No 1 seed, Mohamed El Shorbagy, was shocked at the quarter-final stage by James Willstrop of Great Britain.

On the other hand, of 16 Egyptians in the draw, 12 reached the second round, 8 reached the last 16, and 4 reached the quarter-finals. Egypt’s success at the posh English sport of squash never ceases to amaze but the reign of the men from Africa looks set to continue.

Premier 12 Baseball

Squash was beaten by baseball in its bid to be included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and, this week, baseball tried to strengthen its claim, with a brand new 12-team tournament.

South Korea, which won the last Olympic gold medal, in 2008, claimed another victory. The crucial game was the semi-final against Japan, which hosted the final stages of the tournament. South Korea came back from 3-0 down in the very last inning, to win 4-3.

As usual, the major leagues in the United States and Japan did not release their players, a problem which affected the outcome, and could continue to plague Olympic baseball.

Novak Djokovic O2

ATP World Tour Finals

Novak Djokovic (above) just keeps making history. He became the first person to win the final event of the season four years in a row, on top of his three grand slam titles in 2015.

The tournament also saw a mini revival for Rafael Nadal, who finished a disappointing year on a high by beating Murray and Wawrinka, before a semi-final defeat to Djokovic.

World Weightlifting Championships

The first weekend of the world championships featured the lower weight classes which, in recent years, have been the domain of North Korea. Om yun-chol did not disappoint in the 56kg class, setting a world record in the clean and jerk and taking the overall title.

Om’s fellow Olympic and world champion, Kim un-guk, was less successful, and had to settle for overall silver, but he did claim a victory in the snatch component of the event.

There’s something exotic about North Korea and it is tempting to reach for explanations like genetics or doping to explain its success. The latter is plausible – it is exactly the sort of heavily controlled regime where state-doping might take place – but genetics is very unlikely to be the answer. The short stature of North Koreans is the result of a poor diet.

But the Egyptian example offers another possibility. Few people suggest that there is a squash gene, and doping is not a widespread problem in the sport. Egypt may even have room for improvement, as squash is a rich man’s game, but it still succeeds through hard work. If Egypt is doing it, then maybe others, including North Korea, are doing the same.

Next week: The European Curling Championships, more weightlifting, and trampoline

Channel Hopping

When Great Britain played Belgium for the Davis Cup

British and belgium davis cup teams, 1904

Very little is known about Catherine Anne Doherty, a teacher in Wimbledon at the turn of the twentieth century but, in one sense at least, she was the Judy Murray of her day.

Two of her sons, Reggie and Laurie Doherty, were the strongest tennis players in Great Britain, and formed the core of the team in the 1904 Davis Cup Final, against Belgium.

Triumph Over Adversity

The Doherty brothers were plagued with health problems throughout their short lives but their apparent fraility was deceptive. Their performances on court were rock solid.

They had taken the Davis Cup while on a trip to the United States the previous year and, in a final show of power, Laurie had reigned supreme at the US National Championship, the predecessor of the US Open. He had been the first non-American to lift the trophy.

Reggie (above, top left) had won four Wimbledon singles titles and two Olympic gold medals, with one to come, while Laurie (above, top right) had three Wimbledon titles, with two to come, and two golds. Wimbledon finalist, Frank Riseley, was the third man.

They Should be Famous Belgians

One of their Belgian opponents was Paul de Borman (above, bottom right) and the other was the gloriously named William le Maire de Warzee d’Hermalle (above, bottom left).

It was a golden age for men’s tennis in Belgium. De Borman had reached the semi-finals of that year’s Wimbledon and de Warzee the quarter-finals. In 1909, five Belgian players would blaze a trail in the men’s singles draw, at a time when overseas entries were rare.

De Borman was a vital figure in his country’s tennis history. In 1898, he co-founded the tennis section of the Royal Leopold Club, which would later produce many of Belgium’s shining stars, including Justine Henin. In 1946, he would become president of the ITF.

The Dohertys in America, 1902

Despite this energy, Great Britain extinguished the threat, winning in three rubbers and losing just 14 games. The Dohertys began the decisive doubles match with a 6-0 victory in the first set, inflicting a bagel upon the country which is better known for its waffles.

De Borman was perhaps disadvantaged by his cap, which he apparently wore on court.

Where Were the Americans?

Belgium and France were the first continental European nations to enter but the United States did not take part, despite having created the event. Dwight F Davis, the donor of the cup named after him, had played against the Dohertys in 1902 (above, bottom right).

In those days, a trans-Atlantic journey was a huge undetaking, but it may also have been the case that the competition did not inspire the patriotic fervour which it does today.

It was not yet called the Davis Cup but instead was described as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. In its reporting of the decision not to participate, the New York Times referred to the British team throughout as the Dohertys. It was as if, rather than being representatives of a nation, the US saw its recent conquerors as just a pair of brothers.

Next week: The start of a series on genetics in sport, focusing on basketball in particular

Don’t Forget the Heroes

Dick Pound

Corruption is everywhere. This week, Russia was suspended from athletics by the IAAF after an independent WADA report confirmed systematic state-sponsored doping. The IAAF itself is likely to be drawn in, as French prosecutors investigate whether its former president, Lamine Diack, and other officials, were given bribes to postpone doping bans.

Meanwhile, Kenyan police are investigating claims that another IAAF member, David Okeyo, embezzled funds received from Nike, and there have been separate allegations of more doping cover-ups, in exchange for bribes, by Kenya’s national track federation.

Positives and Negatives

Along with the FIFA scandal, it is enough to destroy all trust in the leaders of sport, but caution is required. There is a natural tendency to focus on the villains of the piece and pay less attention to the heroes, many of whom are sports administrators themselves.

Vitaly Stepanov, a former official at the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, was one of the key whistleblowers to alert the German investigative journalist, Hajo Seppelt, to the story.

And Dick Pound (above) was the author of the damning WADA report. Pound has been an IOC member for nearly forty years and was twice vice president during the reign of its most controversial president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. He is testament to the fact that it is possible to be an insider without sinking into the murky quicksand all around.

In Kenya, another IOC member, Kip Keino, has been an outspoken critic of his country’s attitude to anti-doping. That he can be so open, without fear of munching on a polonium sandwich, suggests that the situation in Kenya is somewhat different to that in Russia.

More Officials Not Less

This matters because anti-authoritarianism is an understandable response but can lead so easily to the wrong conclusion. Simon Jenkins makes bizarre claims about the UK Prime Minister deciding the funding of athletes, and a conspiracy to bankrupt Olympic host cities, but his hopelessness would lead him, even more absurdly, to permit doping.

Anti-doping needs more funding and, whether we like it or not, more officials. Russia’s corrupt lab must be shut down but, in Kenya, a more probable solution is to open one.

Therefore, let’s celebrate the men and women who have served their roles with honesty and rewarded the trust placed in their hands. Let’s hope for plenty of others like them.

Petra Kvitova Fed Cup 2011 Winner

Fed Cup Final

Petra Kvitova was photographed with the Fed Cup in 2011 (above) but it could equally have been taken in 2012, 2014 and 2015, as the Czech Republic claimed another victory.

The final was a thrilling encounter with Russia, decided in the last set of the last rubber. Russia’s woes elsewhere were matched on the court as Maria Sharapova was denied the title, despite beating Kvitova in their singles match. Russia has lost 3 of the last 5 finals.

Sitting Volleyball and Boccia

Russia lost another final, this time to Ukraine, in the European women’s championship of sitting volleyball. And in the boccia test event in Rio, it came last out of four nations in the team competition, which Brazil won to make it the likely favourite for next year.


The only consolation for Russia was in the fighting sport of sambo, where it topped the medal table at the world championships by an enormous margin, with 13 golds in total.

But even here, the champions must feel a twinge in their unrealistically large muscles. Because, for many years to come, whenever Russia performs well, a doubt will remain.

Next week: The world championship in men’s squash and Premier12 baseball in Japan

Mystery of the Ages

Review of the week: 2 – 8 November 2015


Under 17 Football World Cup

Nigeria is the best football nation in the world, or at least it is at U17 level, for it won its fifth World Cup this week, 2-0 against Mali, in an all-African final. Its trophy cabinet also boasts gold and silver medals from the Olympics, where most players are aged under 23.

Nwankwo Kanu (above) has won both competitions and appeared in three senior World Cups. But the Super Eagles failed to catch a wind and have never reached the last eight.

Kanu has been accused of lying about his age and age cheating is a common explanation for this failure to build upon youth success. While the practice is certainly rife, I am not convinced. FIFA introduced bone scans in 2009 to curtail dishonesty and this has done nothing to clip the wings of the Super Eaglets, who have won a second U17 title in a row.

Why Do They Lie?

The reason for blurring the truth is the key to the mystery. There are many academies in Nigeria for young players, set up by European clubs or by speculators, hoping to profit by selling them on. Even Kanu owns one. But nobody wants to sign a Nigerian in his 20s, however talented. Development opportunities for older players are much less common.

The domestic league is weakened by corruption, and competition from English football, and only some make it to Europe. For other Nigerian hopefuls, access to good coaching falls off a cliff by the age of 21, and their international careers soon come tumbling after.

Hosszú Katinka 2013

Swimming World Cup

In the final round in Dubai, South Africa dominated the men’s event, as Cameron van der Burgh won the overall title and Chad le Clos was second. For the women, Hungary took the honours, with Katinka Hosszu (above) in first place and Zsuzsanna Jakobos in third.

Just behind Jakobos was breaststroker, Alia Atkinson, of Jamaica. Unfortunately, her favoured distance of 50m is not part of the Olympic programme but, in the 100m, there is a strong possibility that she could win the first ever swimming medal for her country.

Wheelchair Doubles Masters

The Dutch dominance of women’s wheelchair tennis had been broken in the last two editions by Jordanne Whiley and Yui Kamiji. But this year, the Netherlands reasserted themselves, as Jiske Griffioen and Aniek van Koot defeated Whiley and Yui in the final.

In the mixed quad tennis event, Nick Taylor and David Wagner of the United States won for the ninth time. The Paralympic champions look very likely to retain their title in Rio.

Next week: The Fed Cup Final between the Czech Republic and Russia, and boccia

The Greatest Rivals

Cristiano Ronaldo - Ballon d'Or (cropped)

Whatever Thierry Henry might say, the Spanish league is the best in the world. It has an exciting present and a fascinating past. In the second part of my preview of the London Sports Writing Festival, I review a biography of Cristiano Ronaldo by Guillem Balague and “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” by Sid Lowe. They will discuss them on 13 November.

Click here for ticket details and information about the other events on the programme.

From Madeira to Meringue

The enmity between Real Madrid and Barcelona was once defined by a pig’s head. The pig’s head has now acquired even less savoury associations, and the clasico has become a symbolic duel between the world’s best players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Guillem Balague’s biography of Ronaldo (above) covers his childhood in Madeira and his time at Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United. But almost half of it is dedicated to his spell at Real Madrid since 2009, with Barcelona and Messi being his main adversaries.

Balague has also written a biography of Messi which caused controversy with its claims about Ronaldo, and he admits that no account of the player is ever likely to be objective.

Instead of objectivity, Balague strives for curiosity, a curiosity which seeks out the facts while avoiding the blinkered partisanship of the fan, for complexity rather than balance.

So, while Balague criticises for Ronaldo for what he sees as his arrogance and his desire to control his image, he also praises him for his hard work and his generosity in donating money to flood relief on Madeira. Both his admirers and detractors will enjoy this book.


Before Ronaldo and Messi, there were many other debates about who was the greatest, such as the one between Alfredo Di Stefano and the Hungarian refugee, Laszlo Kubala (above). These and much more are explored in Sid Lowe’s superior history of the rivalry.

Rather than trying to pack in every moment in the lifetime of the two clubs, and leaving them underanalysed, Lowe makes the wise decision to focus on the key moments which define the rivalry between them. These include a 1943 match won 11-1 by Real Madrid in an intimidatory atmosphere, and the alleged poaching of Di Stefano from Barcelona.

This allows for a forensic approach which shatters some famous myths, particularly about the role of the clubs during the Civil War. Lowe shows that Madrid was just as opposed as Barcelona to Franco, until he decided to retain it as his capital, and Franco intervened to help Barcelona too, when the club wanted to register Kubala as a player.

The Worst Olympic President Ever?

For Olympic fans, Lowe tells an equally nuanced story about Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee during its most troubled period, a bribery scandal surrounding the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. It was the worst case of its kind at the time but it has since been eclipsed by the UCI, FIFA and the IAAF.

Samaranch has rightly been heavily criticised for his support of Franco’s regime, and so it is tempting to portray him as a one dimensional B movie villain, but Lowe adds some arthouse moral complexity. Samaranch took a stand to criticise Real Madrid fans in that infamous 11-1 meeting, and was sacked as a journalist from his pro-Madrid newspaper.

The simplicity of fandom is part of its appeal but it is refreshing to take a break from it.

Next week: The last time Great Britain played Belgium in the Davis Cup final, in 1904

The Long and the Short of Competitive Running

Preview of the London Sports Writing Festival 2015

Caesar, Two HoursMoore, Bolt Supremacy

If you want to understand Jamaican sprinting or Kenyan marathon running, the place to be on 15 November is not Kingston or Iten but Lord’s Cricket Ground, where the London Sports Writing Festival will take place. Richard Moore and Ed Caesar will both be there to talk about their latest books (above) in discussion with Orla Chennaoui of Sky Sports.

Click here for ticket details and information about the other events on the programme. I have already reviewed Richard Moore’s “The Bolt Supremacy” here, so now I will look at Ed Caesar’s “Two Hours”, to compare and contrast the two extremes of the running art.

Creating Bonds

Marathon runners are unfamiliar, like a distant leading group. As Caesar says, “We know nothing of their homes, or families, or desires or vices . . . We do not know how much they are paid. We do not know if one of them cheats.” He then chases after these details.

The most intriguing question is that of payment. Caesar explains the economics of the running camps, and sheds a great deal of light on why Kenya succeeds. Just as Jamaica developed its system by building links with US coaches, Kenya has established its own niche, in a complex global network of camp owners, agents, sponsors and race directors.

Geoffrey Mutai NYC

But this is no dry analytical text. For it is an exploration of human limits, of whether a marathon can be run in less than two hours. The attempts of Geoffrey Mutai (above) to break the world record are at the heart of this book, and provide its emotional heart too.

Caesar does not let talk of money drain the romance from the narrative. He poignantly contrasts Mutai’s wealth with his previous life breaking rocks, and deftly handles the tragic morality tale of Sammy Wanjiru, whose flashy lifestyle may have led to his death.

One Hundred and Twenty Years of Cheating

As with Jamaica, and indeed with all countries that participate in athletics, the lingering stench of doping hangs in the air. Like Moore, Caesar does not shy away from the issue.

Kenyan doping is messy. Crooked doctors act like dealers at a dodgy nightclub and are not always honest about what they are giving to the athletes. This messiness reveals a lot about its sophistication and likely effectiveness. Lance Armstrong was never messy.

And there have always been cheats. In a non-Kenyan interlude, Caesar outlines the truly unbelievable history of the early Olympic marathons. Drug taking, aggressive dogs, fruit stealing, shortcuts and a lift in a car all feature. If nothing else, it will persuade you that the slow burn excitement of a marathon race can be just as dramatic as that of sprinting.

Next week: My preview of the events at the London Sports Writing Festival continues

Record Breakers

Review of the week: 27 October – 1 November 2015

Sonny Bill Williams 2011

Rugby World Cup Final

The generosity of Sonny Bill Williams (above) made headlines when he gave his medal to a young fan. But New Zealand was much less generous to its Australian opponents in the final itself. It led 16-3 at the break and killed a second half comeback to win 34-17.

Ma’a Nonu scored a contender for try of the tournament while Dan Carter, a contender for player of the tournament, kicked an impressive 19 points. It was a third Rugby World Cup for the All Blacks, a record which takes it ahead of both Australia and South Africa.

World Artistic Gymnastics Championships

Also on record-breaking form was Simone Biles (below), who won her third all-around title to equal Svetlana Khorkina and, with victories on the floor and balance beam, took her overall gold medal tally to an unprecedented 10. Kohei Uchimara extended his own record with a sixth all-around title and led Japan to its first team triumph since 1978.

Romania’s women looked like they will struggle to qualify for Rio. The test event will be their last chance but there was the consolation of all-around bronze for Larisa Iordache.

There were two firsts for Great Britain, which won its first medal in the women’s team event, and took its first gold on the men’s side, for Max Whitlock on the pommel horse.

Jamaica won places in next year’s Olympic test event for Reiss Beckford and Danusia Francis, but Dipa Karmakar of India might be a victim of the tough qualification rules, despite her fifth place in the vault. She missed the cutoff for the test event by just two.


IPC World Athletics Championships

There were world records galore, 54 in all. China topped the medal table but Tunisia had a remarkable fifth place finish. Its team included the overall top performer, Walid Ktila, a cerebral palsy wheelchair athlete, who won four golds in distances from 100m to 800m.

Ktila’s female counterpart, Hannah Cockroft of Great Britain, won three gold medals, as did Brent Lakatos of Canada in the T53 classification for athletes with spinal injuries.

The women’s wheelchair events were weakened by the absence of Tatyana McFadden of the United States, who instead set a unique record of her own in New York. She took the race there to win all four marathon majors in the same year for the third time in a row.

The bladerunning glory went to Richard Browne of the United States and Dutchwoman, Marlou van Rhijn, who each completed a sprint double of both 100m and 200m races.

But it was a disappointing championships for Brazil, which will look to rebuild before hosting the Paralympics next year. Alan Oliveira finished with just a silver and a bronze while Terezinha Guilhermina won two silvers, hindered by an injury to her guide runner.

Tennis and Hockey

Agnieszka Radwanska was the first Polish winner of the WTA finals, while South Africa became African hockey champions for both men and women. It seems set to maintain its stance that it will not take up its Olympic qualification places. In one sense, hockey is the first sport to finalise its Rio line-up but, in practice, it won’t be confirmed for some time.

Next week: The final stages of two World Cups, in U17 men’s football and in swimming