Scientists conducted research on the sprinting and arrived at a conclusion that reverses the famous proverb of French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, "one is not born a women, one becomes one."
Representing Grand Valley State University's biology and psychology departments, respectively, Drs. Micheal Lombardo and Robert Deaner found that world class sprinters had proven themselves to be exceptionally talented before entering formal training.
The study sample was small, but highly elite: A field of 26 sprinters included 15 Olympic gold medalists and the eight fastest male sprinters in U.S. history.
Examination of their biographies revealed innate talent was the case for nearly every athlete in question, indicated in part by the
time it took to become major players at the top of their game: less than five years, on average.
Themselves former college sprinters, Lombardo and Deaner say they were not surprised by the result itself, but the consistent level of innate talent in the top level sprinters was unexpected.
"Rob and I both ran track in college, and we follow the sport pretty closely," says Dr. Lombardo. "So we expected that most sprint champions' biographies would indicate that they were always the fastest kid in their neighborhood, even before they did any formal training or received any coaching. But the consistency of the pattern was surprising -- from Helen Stephens, a 1936 Olympian, to Usain Bolt, there were no exceptions."
The study contradicts genetics author David Shenk, who in his book "The Genius in All of Us" rejects the concept of innate talent, saying that what accomplished individuals have in common is a concept he calls "deliberate practice."
His book includes the illustrious citation: "Born to be small. Born to be smart. Born to play music. Born to play basketball. It's a seductive assumption, one that we've all made. But when one looks behind the genetic curtain, it most often turns out not to be true."
According to Shenk, anyone can do anything at expert levels after 10 years, or approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
Drs. Lombardo and Deaner say their study results should not be taken as discouraging for those with big dreams, but that they underline an interactive model of expertise development.
"Our point is not that talent trumps everything," says Lombardo. "Training is crucial, especially the kinds of training highlighted by the deliberate practice model. But in sports, innate talent is required too."
Another positive outcome of the study is that it could be used as an indication of when to give up those hoop dreams and stick to one's day job.
For the grand majority of us who will never make it to world class levels of athletic prowess, becoming an expert at something is hardly a drawback, and Shenk's model should be respected in honing talents, be they extraordinary or a little less so.
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