How Brazilian Shoes Explain the Olympics Part 3

The Kenyan Marathon Running Cluster

Zagreb21 20160320 DSC 4158

Wilson Kipsang is a millionaire. In 2014, he won a  $500,000 prize as the most successful man in the Marathon Majors. In 2015, he won it again. But his experience is so atypical that, to really understand marathon running in Kenya, it is necessary to look elsewhere.

Earlier this year, Joel Maina Mwangi (above) was second in the Three Hearts Marathon in Slovenia, for which he won prize money of $840. His most lucrative race came in 2014 when he won the Bratislava Marathon and took home $3,015. He has career earnings of just over $40,000, accumulated in six and half years, or $6,000 a year before deductions.

And deductions are substantial. He has to pay his agent and his manager and has to pay tax twice, once in the country in which he races and once in Kenya. He keeps maybe 15%.

It is trite to say that Kenyans run to escape poverty. It is possible that this motive makes them train harder. But the main reason why Europe has fewer runners is much sadder – wages in Kenya are low. An athlete can survive on the tiny sums for which he competes.

There is little money to be made from being the fifth best heptathlete in Great Britain, or the sixth best discus thrower in Poland, but Maina Mwangi does have a career as the 557th best marathon runner in the world. While, even in Kenya, the state funds a lot of athletes, the development of marathon runners has become a commercial enterprise.

Iten Rifles

This explains the sheer number of marathon runners but it begs the question: Why are they all in the same place? The running camps which try to profit, by producing stars of the future, occupy the orbit of Iten, an otherwise unremarkable town in the Rift Valley.

Philip Boit 2011 FIS Cross-Country World Cup Oslo

The answer is that Iten opens doors. Everybody wants to recruit a runner who has been to Iten, for a variety of reasons. Sammy Wanjiru, the tragic gold medallist from the 2008 Olympic marathon,  was scouted from a camp 150 miles from Iten and coached in Japan. Philip Boit (above) left a town 20 miles from Iten, to be trained as a cross-country skier.

Because Iten opens doors, parents want their children to go to Iten. Stephen Kiprotich moved from Uganda to Kenya at the age of 17, and then won the Olympic title in 2012. New Zealand twins, Zane and Jake Robertson, left home to live in Iten at the same age.

Fast Feet in the Andes

Harder to explain is why the running camp managers choose Iten, where they have to compete to recruit local talent, and compete to attract the attention of foreign agents. On the face of it, it might seem more appealing to set up a running camp on a different continent altogether, another place with high altitude but low wages, Bolivia perhaps.

But this wouldn’t work. Agents can see hundreds of camps in Iten so they are not going to make a side trip to La Paz to visit a single camp. Just as fashion shops have to cluster together because that is what their customers want, running camps must do the same.

Large global industries have multiple clusters – there are shoe clusters in India as well as Brazil, for example. But the amount of money in marathon running is tiny compared to the vast profits in shoes. There is only room for one cluster and Kenya got there first.

Unlike the Robertson twins, most people are not willing to travel to Iten, and so those who live locally have an advantage when it comes to the chance to run. But it is not all medals and roses. It is not lucrative for many, and it is the only opportunity they have.


How Brazilian Shoes Explain the Olympics Part 2

The Caribbean Sprinting Cluster

100 m women Berlin 2009

At the 2009 World Athletics Championships, the women’s 100m final (above) included four sprinters from Jamaica and two from the Bahamas. The athletes from the United States were the only two not from islands with populations of less than three million.

How could such small countries compete with the medal-producing miracle that is the US college system? Well, actually, they couldn’t. An even more amazing statistic is that seven of those eight finalists studied in the United States, including five of the six from Caribbean nations. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won the race, was the only exception.

Until recently, the Caribbean strategy was not to develop Olympic quality athletes, but rather to make them good enough to get track scholarships to US universities. This will allow them to move up to international class at little cost to the countries of their birth.

The Craftier Games

One reason why so many of the region’s sprinters get picked up by American agents is its geographical proximity, which makes scouting them easier, but there is much more to it than that. When it comes to making life easy for agents, the Caribbean goes a lot further.

The key is the CARIFTA Games, a youth event similar to the Jamican Champs. Just like Champs, it is a magnet for scouts but, unlike Champs, athletes from all of the Caribbean take part. Much as recruiters from US colleges would like to spend many weeks cruising around small islands, they do not have time – CARIFTA means that they do not have to.

By accident or design, CARIFTA replicates the model of the Brazilian shoemakers. By co-operating and pooling resources, in a way which is attractive to those who can help them, they have all benefited. It succeeds because it is a cluster, not despite being one.

Networking for Success

Of the six Jamaican and Bahamian sprinters in that 2009 final, all had competed at the CARITA Games and three had won the Austin Sealy Award for its outstanding athlete.

Savatheda Fynes, a star of the Bahamas’ Golden Girls relay team, did well at CARIFTA too but no scout picked her up. Fortunately, her high school coach got her a scholarship through her contacts. Going to school in the Bahamas is as useful for aspiring sprinters as going to Eton for aspiring British politicians (even if they may say that it is all genes).

James and Bartholomew Daegu 2011

It is romantic to believe that being small, and lacking in resources, confers some kind of advantage, for example that training on grass tracks is actually helpful. However, Kirani James (above left) succeeded only because he went to the University of Alabama, away from the grass tracks. James is another former winner of the Austin Sealy Award, and is a fine example of how CARIFTA is even more important for small nations like Grenada.

Jamaica has discovered that it does not need American help any more. Fraser-Pryce is one of a generation of Jamaican athletes trained at home by local coaches, many who have learned from their counterparts at US colleges. But hopefuls from other islands will still go overseas. Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas was at the University of Georgia.

And some of the smaller Caribbean countries are keen to share the spoils of Jamaica’s success. Daniel Bailey of Antigua and Barbuda, and British-Anguillan sprinter Zharnel Hughes, both share a coach with Usain Bolt, Glen Mills. The shifting centre of gravity, from the United States to Jamaica, could give the CARIFTA Games yet more influence.

Next week: Why do Kenyan marathon runners come from such a tiny geographical area?

How Brazilian Shoes Explain the Olympics Part 1

Shoes and Shopping


On 8 July, the Olympic torch visited the town of Novo Hamburgo. It is an unusual place, founded by German settlers in the nineteenth century, with lots of German architecture still surviving (above). But it also holds a secret, one which can not only explain much of global trade, but also sheds light on Caribbean sprinting and Kenyan marathon running.

The people of Novo Hamburgo began to make shoes to sell to the rest of Brazil, but they  wanted to export them internationally as well, and they came up with a clever solution. Instead of competing in the spirit of capitalism, they decided to work together instead.

As Comfortable as an Old Shoe

In the 1960s, the local producers set up a trade fair, invited foreign export agents to visit and paid for trips to the United States and Europe to look for buyers. Their co-operation made life easier for export agents, helping them to sample many manufacturers at once. They cobbled together a relationship into which their potential buyers could snugly fit.

As competition intensified, particularly from China, and export agents demanded higher quality, the shoemakers had to lace their offerings with a bow. They did so through even tighter collaboration, between manufacturers and the suppliers of their raw materials.

These raw materials are all sourced locally: leather comes from Brazilian cattle ranchers and even the machines used to make shoes are built in the area around Novo Hamburgo.

The result is an industrial “supercluster” of businesses, dedicated directly or indirectly to the production of shoes. By 1992, Brazil was the third largest exporter of shoes in the world, and 80% of those exports came from Rio Grande de Sul, the state in which Novo Hamburgo is situated. This was not random – it was a consequence of economic forces.

Rodeo Drive & Via Rodeo, Beverly Hills, LA, CA, jjron 21.03.2012

One problem with many analyses of, say, Kenyan marathon running is that they start from the premise that such phenomena are rare, aberrations which require a special explanation. But economics provides numerous other examples of similar clustering. Silicon Valley in California and banking in the City of London are just two instances.

Shopping is a typical case. It is unusual to see two big supermarkets in close proximity but the same does not apply to clothes shops, which are often found in groups. There are entire streets such as Rodeo Drive (above), which are wholly set aside for fashion.

You Can Never Have Too Many Shoes

The reason for this is the way that shoppers behave. Very few people visit more than a single supermarket in one trip, so having two close together just exposes them both to extra competition. But clothes shops are different. A wise owner wants to stay close to competitors, because customers prefer to shop around, and will avoid isolated stores.

There are parallels here with the way that international shoe agents behave. A trade fair is like a fashion mall, allowing them to window shop for a range of products, try them for size, and consider whether they will make their profits look fat. Clusters occur naturally.

But what is true of export agents is also true of sports agents. Athletes require access to sponsorship and training facilities but the people who can offer these do not have time to watch every potential prospect. The countries that succeed will be those which make life as simple as possible for agents – there are two places which have it down to an art.

Next week: Using the economics of clusters to understand sprinting in the Caribbean

Sliding in Latvia Part 4

The Ice Prince

Sigulda Castle backside

The end of the nineteenth century was an age of royal eccentricity. Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria spent a fortune on a series of elaborate castles across Southern Germany. The most famous, the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein, was an expression of his love for swans.

Sigulda Castle (above) was built in 1878. It is now proudly in Latvia but was then part of a sprawling Russian Empire – the castle was was built by a Russian aristocratic family, the Kropotkins. Like Prince Ludwig II, Nikolai Kropotkin sought to add a personal touch, but swans were not thrilling enough for him, so he looked to Switzerland for inspiration.

Ice Hotel

In St Moritz, the hotel owner Caspar Badrutt had been trying to promote the town as a winter resort. He found that his guests, who were mostly British, would enjoy sliding though its streets on improvised sleds. Wanting to encourage them, but equally mindful of the danger to pedestrians, he built the world’s first sliding track, now the Cresta Run.

The idea snowballed, laying further tracks as it did so. Sliding spread to other parts of Switerland, including Arosa and Davos, which had a very good bobsleigh team (below).

More than a century later, the legacy of this Swiss-British invention continues to be felt. Switzerland still has more Olympic bobsleigh medals than any other country, although Germany is catching up fast. Great Britain is by far the most successful nation without its own track, in bobsleigh and even more so in skeleton, particularly in women’s events.

Bobfahrer Davos

The Sigulda region is known as the “Switzerland of Latvia” and Nikolai Kropotkin tried to strengthen this association by building a sliding track, modelled on those in the Alps, in the grounds of his castle. This was 90 years before the modern track was completed.

This cannot have been a coincidence. The Soviet choice of Sigulda to host a track surely had much to do with the precedent that the prince had set. And the passion of the locals for the sport must have spread like icy fire from Kropotkin, who they wanted to emulate.

The mystery appears to have been solved. Latvia’s sliding history has been traced back, through the Soviet era, to the moment when it all began, with the fanciful act of a prince.

Or has it?

Nikolai Kropotkin was an adviser to Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov dynasty, which had eccentrics of its own. The great great great grandmother of Nicholas II was Catherine the Great, who installed an ice slide outside St Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

Catherine might also have been an inspiration for Kropotkin. Not only is the history of sport shaped by unpredictable crazes and capricious decisions, but there are so many overlapping causes that it is impossible to be certain that a final answer has been found.

Sliding in Latvia Part 3

Accidental Glory

Leevan Sands

Drivers in Sweden have to watch out for moose but, in the Bahamas, they once had to watch out for triple jumpers. A fad developed where enthusiasts would hop, step and jump from one back yard to another, often across a busy road. It is difficult to interpret these trends – they seem as crazily unpredictable as a moose stepping in front of a car.

As with California in 1849, the Bahamian jumping rush might not have been entirely rational but it did produce precious metal. The country’s tradition in the event would unearth Frank Rutherford and Leevan Sands (above), both Olympic bronze medallists.

Lucky Breaks

Role models play a part – Bjorn Borg provoked a huge growth in tennis in Sweden, as did Martina Navratilova in Czechoslovakia – but there must also be random factors at play. Ilie Nastase and Maria Bueno inspired Romania and Brazil but were much less imitated.

It is like trying to explain the popularity of colouring books for adults, or why a picture of an ambiguous dress went viral last year. There is a kaleidoscope of reasons, some which are clearly visible and keep coming into view, others which are harder to make out, and a few which can barely be seen at all. A complete answer will never reveal its true colours.

Nixon at an athletic exhibition in Peking - NARA - 194757

Even if key individuals can be identified, their actions may not be straightforward – the dress went viral in part because it was retweeted by Kim Kardashian. And her behaviour is no more capricious than that of Mao Tse Tung, who first embraced table tennis as the Chinese national sport, only to discourage it during the Cultural Revolution, and then to regain a love for the game, in time for Ping Pong Diplomacy with Richard Nixon (above).

Equally significant for the history of table tennis was Ivor Montagu of Great Britain, the president of the ITTF between 1926 and 1967. Before Nixon, China had been shunned by the international sporting world, in favour of the democratic regime on Taiwan, but Montagu’s Marxist leanings led him, uniquely, to prefer the Communist state instead.

Great Men and Chaos Theory

Had Ivor Montagu had different politics, China would not be the ping pong powerhouse that it is today. The “Great Men of History” is increasingly unfashionable as a theory of events but, in sport at least, arbitrary decisions by powerful people can have a profound effect. Although, as with Mao and Nixon, “greatness” is not a measure of moral stature.

Sporting history is chaotic in both the poetic and the mathematical sense. Randomness has many aspects, from the unpredictable spread of fashions to the whimsy of heads of state. The Latvian sliding story includes both, and begins in the late nineteenth century.

Next week: The creation of the sliding sports in Switzerland, and how they got to Latvia

Sliding in Latvia Part 2

If You Build It, They Will Come

Sigulda track lower start

Of the 44 Olympic gold medals to have been awarded in luge, only one has been won by a non-German speaker, Vera Zozula of the Soviet Union. And it is extremely unlikely that Russian is her first language either. She hails from Talsi province, the most Latvian part of Latvia, where 95% state that the country’s national language is their mother tongue.

Zozula was equally fluent in the language of luge. Her Olympic debut was in 1976, when the first Soviet luge team appeared. Of the six members of that team, five were Latvian.

Her title came in 1980 and, until the break-up of the Soviet Union, Latvians continued to dominate its luge and bobsleigh teams. As discussed last week, an important part of the reason for this was the existence of a sliding track in the Latvian town of Sigulda (above).

Cool Moneying

When Sigulda became part of an independent nation, Russian sliding ran out of track. It crashed and remained unconscious for several years. But it recovered in typical fashion, throwing vast sums of money at the problem. Russia built not one, but two new tracks, one at Paramonovo near Moscow, and another at Sochi, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The investment paid dividends and had a lubricating effect on sliding in Russia. In 2014, it won two gold medals in bobsleigh (below), and one in skeleton, and two silvers in luge.

Two-man bobsleigh, 2014 winter Olympics, Russia

But there is a chink in the ice, a curious gap in the story, because the Sigulda track was not completed until 1986. Latvia’s early successes, including Zozula’s golden moment, were all achieved without it. The way in which it happened is a truly remarkable tale.

Shall I Carve?

The Soviet Union was just as prepared as its capitalist Russian counterpart, to dedicate state funding to state-of-the-art technology. But constructing a track would take time.

The enthusiastic and impatient people of Latvia were unwilling to wait. They decided to create their own, not a modern artificially-refrigerated track, but a natural track carved out of the snow. They built it in the town of Cesis, less than 25 miles away from Sigulda.

The keenness of the locals to get their hands cold explains why Sigulda was selected to host the track. As will become clear, the region’s bobsleigh history goes back more than a century. Before carving the track, it had already carved itself a niche in sliding sports.

Natural Born Lugers

Practising on a natural track is less beneficial for aspiring Olympians. Natural track luge is a non-Olympic specialism of its own, with a quite different set of successful athletes.

This makes the Zozula’s victory all the more impressive. She will surely lose her record as the only non-German-speaking winner – a US luger could even claim gold in 2018 – but, as countries become willing to spend more and more, it will only get harder to train for gold predominantly on a natural track. This is a feat which might never be emulated.

Next week: The role of randomness in sporting history in the Bahamas, China and Latvia

Sliding in Latvia Part 1

Papa’s Got a Brand New Sliding Track

Martins Dukurs 2010 Vancouver

Martins Dukurs of Latvia has done everything else but has never won Olympic gold. He was second in Vancouver in 2010 (above) despite leading after the first three runs. A tiny mistake allowed Jon Montgomery of Canada to slide away from him on his home track.

He won silver once again in Sochi in 2014, having dominated the World Cup. Alexander Tretiakov of Russia knew the track better and the victory was iced by his home support.

But Dukurs cannot begrudge the extra practice which is inevitably afforded to Olympic host sliders. For the moral of his tale is not that anything can be achieved through many hours of hard work. The moral is that anything can be achieved through many hours of hard work, so long as your father also happens to manage an international sliding track.

The Magic of Sigulda

Nothing should be taken away from Dukurs, who deserves everything he has achieved, and deserves to have achieved more. Nor am I downplaying the importance of practice – quite the opposite, in fact – his story highlights the necessity of having access to a place to practice. Having the right genes is of no benefit if there is nowhere to learn new skills.

Dukurs probably got some useful genes from his father, Dainis, a former bobsledder, but the key point in his life came in 1994, when Dainis got that all important job in Sigulda.

Sigulda is one of a handful of tracks in the world, so it was a golden opportunity of which Dainis Dukurs took full advantage. But he still had to put in plenty of effort coaching his sons, and it paid off. His other son, Tomass, finished fourth in both Vancouver and Sochi.

Rennrodelweltcup Altenberg 2015 (Martin Rulsch) 5217

Another Latvian family also kept friction to a minimum at both Games. Brothers, Juris and Andris Sics (above), twice put in a smooth performance to win a luge doubles medal.

The Sics brothers were born in Sigulda. It is plainly not a coincidence that Latvia’s three most successful Winter Olympians spent their formative years in the same small town.

Eis Eis Baby

Of the sixteen main artificially refrigerated luge tracks in the world, no less than four are in Germany, and Germany (East and West) has won more than half of all Olympic medals in luge. Since reunification, it has also won eight gold medals in bobsleigh, making it by far the most decorated nation. This is not a coincidence either. An unexpected legacy of the division of Germany is that its Communist-era tracks have now been democratised.

Latvia has also emerged from the Cold War with an East German designed track from the days of the Soviet Union. As a result, a country which would otherwise be too small to have its own track can more than hold its own against some much larger rivals. The number of tracks matters far more than population as a determinant of sliding success.

But Latvia’s size does give it one disadvantage. It is unlikely to host the Olympic Games in the near future and Martins Dukurs will never compete for medals on his home track. It is something that he will have to overcome if he ever wants to claim that elusive gold.

Next week: Latvians had a love of sliding before the Sigulda track had even been built

Games Without Frontiers

The countries which lead in egg-and-spoon, three-legged and pantomime horse races

Egg-and-Spoon Race (Barratt's Photo Press)

Almost all of the top Jamaican sprinters started their careers at Champs, the Jamaican Schools Championships. To a casual observer, it looks a lot like a school sports day and this is no coincidence. It comes from the same egg-and-spoon and sack racing heritage.

There are no eggs at Champs but they form part of the staple diet at Jamaican primary schools. World Indoor Champion, Juliet Campbell, developed a love for track and field while precariously carrying an egg across the finish line. In Jamaica, the menu is often varied, and so a lime is substituted instead, as the foodstuff to be kept finely balanced.

Like so many sports, egg-and-spoon races were spread across the world by the British Empire. From England (above), they found their way to Australia, the West Indies and South Asia. And like the egg, the fragile tradition has remained intact because of subtle adaptations to circumstances. In India, a lemon is carried on a spoon held in the mouth.

Four Legs Good, Three Legs Better

Great Britain leads the world in many unorthodox events, such as running a marathon dressed a pantomime horse. And, yes it has held onto the world record, which was set in 2012, when brothers Bill and Tom Casserley cantered along the streets of London.

In the three-legged race, other countries are a step ahead. The women’s 50m record is held by East Germany, which turned even the most fun contest into a brutal expression of state power. At least it completed the race in the usual way, using two sprinters with legs tied together, rather than one with odd side effects from human growth hormone.

The men’s record for the 100 yeards is held by a Olympic champion, Harry Hillman of the United States, with Lawson Robertson. Their time of 11 seconds was set in 1909.

Sally Pearson Daegu 2011-2

A more recent Olympic gold medallist, Sally Pearson (above), sought to get her name into the record books in 2013. The Australian hurdler tried to break the 100m record for the egg-and-spoon race. She took the attempt almost too seriously, insisting that a 50m track be extended so that she would not lose any precious seconds turning round.

The previous best, held by serial record breaker Asrita Furman, was 19.39 seconds but Pearson finished in 16.59 seconds. She didn’t just smash the record – she scrambled it.

Green and Golden Eggs

Great Britain dominates the longer egg-and-spoon races but Australia is mounting a challenge there too. Dale Lyons holds the marathon record but Phil Rorke, the Aussie who holds the mile record, tried to take it from his British rival. He made two attempts in 2014 but dropped the egg twice, and so he failed to claim the egg-and-spoon Ashes.

This is a surprise. Great Britain invented many sports but has been overtaken in most, by Jamaica in sprinting, India in cricket, and Australia in another egg-shaped pursuit.

On the other hand, Great Britain is the land of cheese rolling, bog snorkelling and welly wanging. It remains tough to beat in egg-and-spoon races and pantomime horse racing too. Nobody else, not even those wacky Australians, can quite match it for eccentricity.

Next week: Why tiny Latvia is able to slide so successfully in luge and skeleton events


The Genetics of Basketball Part 4

Bradner Gardens Park 20

I know what you are thinking. If you have read the last three posts in this series, you may believe that I am some sort of genetic denialist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, I am confident that genes are extremely important in shaping ability in all sports, especially basketball. They explain much of the variation between individual players in a country. However, genes have much less impact on the differences between countries.

This counter-intuitive conclusion is not just restricted to sport but reflects an academic consensus about a wide range of traits. It is certainly James Flynn’s conclusion about IQ.

How can this paradox be explained?

One reason is that humans are not very genetically diverse in the first place, much less genetically diverse than chimpanzees. What little diversity there is must have mostly arisen when we were all living together in Africa. We only started to spread out about 60,000 years ago and we have been separated for just 1% of our evolutionary history.

And Flynn offers another answer, which he explores in a joint paper with the economist, William Dickens. In explaining a similar pattern in the genetics of IQ, Dickens and Flynn use an analogy which is particularly helpful for our purposes, the analogy of basketball.

Dickens and Flynn have observed the huge increase in American basketball ability over time, which I discussed last week. They attribute this improvement to more television coverage, leading to more pickup games, and a proliferation of basketball hoops (above).

But not everybody is equally enthusiastic. Some players shine in these informal games, usually the taller ones, and become keen to play more. The shorter players often become frustrated and discouraged. Those with a genetic advantage end up practising more and develop a more favourable environment as well. Genes and environment work together.

Chris Paul (2)

The same applies to formal basketball training. The best opportunities to receive high quality coaching and acquire new skills come only if selected by a school or club. Once again, those players who already have an advantage will be able to increase it further.

It is possible for a relatively short player to make it. Chris Paul (above) won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, despite being one of the shortest competitors at both Games, at 6 foot. But Paul was lucky. He made the team as a 4 foot 1 eight-year-old because his coach could see his talent. If he had been overlooked, it would have been harder to learn new tricks, and his skills would have become as short as his stature.

What about countries?

The equivalent for countries would be if taller countries like the Netherlands invested more resources in basketball, because they know they are more likely to succeed, while shorter countries like Spain invested less. But this does not happen, or at least not yet.

Instead, the Spanish are far more interested in basketball than the Dutch, and we have the topsy-turvy situation where Southern European countries perform far better than Northern European ones, despite Northerners having a substantial genetic advantage.

In a world where scientific talent identification is becoming increasingly common, this could change, and a more calculated approach might emerge. But talk of nations taking full advantage of their population’s genetic gifts is, for the moment, rather premature.

Next week: For Christmas, I examine less serious sports, such as the egg and spoon race

The Genetics of Basketball Part 3

Exam Slams and Slam Dunks

Joe Fortenberry

Academic papers on genetics rarely cite Vines as evidence, which is a pity because there is one Vine, produced by the Olympic Games, which is very revealing indeed. It shows an extraordinary difference in speed between basketball played in 1936, and that of 2012.

And then there is dunking. Joe Fortenberry (above), a member of the US team of 1936, is sometimes credited as the inventor of the slam dunk. This might not be correct – there are earlier claims – but, even if he was, he used it sparingly, as though it was a trick shot.

But it would get worse for the slam dunk. It would be banned from college basketball for 10 years in the 1960s and 70s. What is now a routine play was once highly controversial.

Rules Changes and Changeable Weather

Scorelines have improved over the years, helped in part by innovations like the 3-point line, but more slowly than might be thought. Players did not originally have the skills to take advantage, and expectations have now been thrown even further by Stephen Curry.

Basketball players have simply got better and better, in every single aspect of the game.

The US won that 1936 Olympic final, by a feeble 19 points to 8. The match took place outside, in pouring rain, which didn’t help. But the enormous increase in scores since then should be credited, more deservedly, to overhead passes than to a roof overhead.

Yao Ming (3048979621)

See also China. Yao Ming (above) undeniably knew how to dunk, but this was not always the case for his compatriots. There too, the manoeuvre had been viewed with suspicion.

Communism probably played a part in the disdain for individual brilliance but it cannot be a complete explanation. China needed to work through the same slam dunk anxiety which had afflicted the United States – it was just decades behind in beating the phobia.

There is little doubt that the China of 2012 would have thrashed the United States of 1936. So, if the spring-loaded shoe had been on the other foot, and China had improved first, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that it would have become a world beater.

Intelligence Testing

IQ tells a surprisingly similar story. Intelligence researcher James Flynn has discovered that, in the West, over the last 115 years, IQ scores have increased by nearly 30 points.

Flynn’s point is that historical forces have a major effect on intelligence, even when the gene pool remains constant. Therefore, where IQ differences exist between groups, in different parts of the world, they will be better understood by history than by genetics.

The same reasoning applies to basketball. China has always lagged behind the United States, and it is tempting to attribute this relative failure to fixed biological factors like height. However, many of the claims about short Chinese players turn out to be myths.

Students have learned to study more, under cultural pressure, and have benefited from technical changes, such as the development of computers. Equally, basketball players have been training harder and have been learning new tricks. China has now overtaken the United States when it comes to IQ, and it might one day do the same in basketball.

Next week: Flynn’s explanation of the IQ rise, and the amazing parallels with basketball