Guest review by Jaime Green
I love the Olympics, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the special-occasion feel, or the every-two-years anticipation--a longer wait than for next Christmas. (I do remember when both summer and winter games were held in the same year, though not well enough to recall whether the four-year wait heightened the thrill or if the crush of excitement was too much, gymnastics and archery only six months from figure luge and ski jump.)
The exotic sports at the Olympics also add to its thrill. Sure, people will snark about the two weeks a year we care about synchronized diving --“Where were you during world championships last year!?”--but for those two weeks we do care! We cram our brains with obscure knowledge. Every four winters we learn about triple axels and the salchow--how the heck to spell salchow--and then we let it all go dormant for the next four years, until we can debate the finer points of fencing again.
It's this thrill of the unusual, and of learning its finer points, that I was looking for in Scientific American's ebook, The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics. And coming into it looking for that angle, I was disappointed that the book stayed so true to the first part of its title: the science of sports. That's what this ebook is full of. What it is not full of, and what I missed, was the science of the Olympics.
This first ebook from the editors of Scientific American reads much more like a collection of articles than a single work, and as such it is a perfectly serviceable survey on the science of sports. Pieces are divided into eight sections: The Psychology of Winning, Pushing Human Limits, Drugs and Doping, Concussions, Comeback from Injury, Gear that Gives an Edge, Fitness: Expert Advice for You, and Closing Ceremonies. The pieces, written especially for this ebook by individual Scientific American editors and contributors, explore the physiology, biochemistry, and neurobiology of sports. They also examine recent incidents, such as doping scandals, that bring science and sports together in less savory ways.
Although the lack of unity was sometimes frustrating on a straight-through read--back-to-back articles sometimes retread each other's ground, re-explaining a concept or re-defining a blood protein--it still makes for a nice collection to pick your way through. There's no need to read in order, so you can follow your interests, from the mental acuity of an elite athlete to the most common Olympic injuries and then over to how playing sports can boost children's brain power. You'll learn something cool whichever path you take. And there's a lot to learn. Even if you didn't need this ebook to teach you that the ACL isn't the Achilles tendon but is actually in the knee, there is satisfyingly deep discussion of topics ranging from psychology to blood doping to the physics of prosthetic legs.
The questions tackled in this ebook go beyond the science of sports, too, in several cases engaging with the ethical questions that scientific advances raise. Do steroids make better athletes, or do they make cheaters? How many restrictions should be put on young athletes to protect their brains from concussions? Where does an athlete find the balance between improved performance and dangerously low body fat? These questions make interesting food for thought, and perhaps also foundations for important decisions. The ramifications extend far beyond the Olympic arenas.
Yet I still wished this ebook spent more time within those Olympic arenas. Many pieces focus surprisingly squarely on the topic of the ebook's subtitle: winning. It's as if the ebook's authors decided that Olympic equals elite, and then just wrote about how elite athletes win. But I don't care if Michael Phelps gets the gold. I care that he is stunning to watch. (In the pool, I mean.) And I want to know the science behind his performance--of something that feels specifically, uniquely Olympic. Articles that focused on baseball and American football felt similarly dissatisfying. They're sports, yes, but hardly what we think of as Olympic sports. (In fact, now that baseball's been dropped from the games, neither is an Olympic sport.) For readers drawn to this ebook for the Olympics and not for the sports, this may be a disappointment.
Also potentially disappointing--or virulently frustrating, depending on your level of investment--are some gaps in the scientific and athletic arguments. Jesse Bering's piece, “Why We Love Sports: Success of the Fittest,” proposes that sports compel us as fans and spectators because they serve as a demonstration of reproductive prowess. (Think of football as the peacock tail-feathers of our species.) This argument itself is a stretch. Sports audiences are so dramatically weighted toward men who are not looking to the field for mates. Bering doesn't even give the plausible counterarguments lip service. What about the primal need for play? Tribal affiliations and the strengthening power of us vs. them? The evolution and ritualization of hunting and combat practice? Heck, maybe even mirror neurons, who knows?
In a piece called “Does Exercise Really Make You Stronger?” Coco Ballantyne asserts that “the longer, harder and more often you exercise, the greater the health benefits.” She fails to offer the important caveat against overtraining, which plagues professional and devoted amateur athletes alike, with increased risk of injuries and often dramatic negative effects from overstressing the body. An article on preventing shin splints was similarly narrow-sighted, failing to mention the calf-strengthening exercises that have saved the shins of every new runner I know.
The highlights of the book examined the subjects that I, and most readers, have no experience with. The articles on top-level cyclists and swimmers, on Olympic runner Oscar Pistorious' prosthetic legs, drew me in much more and carried that charge of the slightly esoteric that make me love the Olympics. Even an article on advanced swim gear brought a little frisson of elite, advanced technology. And “Who Wins the 40-Yard Dash: Squirrel, Elephant, Pig, Human?” armed me for some fun small-talk to fill the breaks between track and field events over the next two weeks.
For the most part, though, the science here is decidedly pedestrian. Readers who want to learn about the geometry of a rhythmic gymnast's twirling ribbon or how a pentathlete slows her heart rate before she shoots will have to wait. Maybe there will be something for us in another four years.
Jaime Green is a graduate student in Columbia's MFA writing program. Her work has appeared in The Awl, Spezzatino, The Hairpin, and Parabasis. She is writing a book about the possibility of life in the universe.