good performance in sports determined by colour?
It is obvious that blacks dominate
certain sports while whites dominate others. Why cant we talk openly about the
genetics of athletics excellence? asks Jon Entine
Its Kenyas national sport,
the passion of the masses. Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers
of the adoring fans that regularly crowd the stands at the National Stadium in Nairobi.
The best players are national icons. The selection process to spot the great stars begins
at a very young age.
Coaches backed by national outlays comb the
countryside to find the next generation of potential athletes. The most promising of the
lot are sent to special schools and provided extra coaching. Its not an exaggeration
to call Kenyas national sport a kind of national religion.
According to conventional and socially
acceptable wisdom, this is a familiar story - the sure cultural explanation for the
phenomenal success of Kenyan distance runners. Theres only one problem: The national
sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channelling - that all speaks to
Kenyas enduring love affair with not running, but soccer. Despite the enormous
success of Kenyan runners in the past 15 years, running remains a relative afterthought in
this soccer-crazed nation.
Kenyans are among the worlds worst soccer players. They are just terrible. Despite
an elaborate school system and the expenditure of millions of shillings of the
countrys scarce sports resources, Kenya is regularly trounced by far smaller
countries in West Africa. In fact, there is no such thing as an East African soccer
powerhouse. The same thing is true of sprinting. Kenya has tried desperately over the past
decade to replicate its wondrous success in distance running at the sprints, but to no
avail. The best Kenyan time ever in the 100 meters - 10.28 seconds - ranks somewhere near
5,000th on the all-time list.
Whats going on here? And for that
matter, why is it that every running record, from the 100 meters to the marathon, is held
by an athlete of African ancestry? Is it racist and a white obsession to be curious about
In America, the convenient explanation for
the tepid performance of whites in
and, increasingly, football is that blacks just work harder at them, because ofcultural
expectations and in part to escape sometimes desperate poverty. Thats dubious and I
believe racist. Do cultural factors matter? Of course: There are no Texans, white, black
or Latin, starring in the National Hockey League. But there is little more than
speculation in support of assertions that the racial disparities we see in sports success
are determined, as many sociologists claim, by social factors alone.
Frankly, such claim that blacks succeed for
cultural reasons diminishes the reality that sports achievement is all about individual
accomplishment - fire in the belly. Its hard work, courage and serendipity that
separate champions from the rest of the elite sports men and women.
Consider Michael Jordan, who grew up in the
security of a two-parent home in comfortable circumstances. Or Grant Hill, son of a
Yale-educated father and a Wellesley-graduate mother. Or one of the worlds top
sprinters, Donovan Bailey, who was certainly not motivated by a desperate need to escape
destitution: He already owned his own house and a Porsche, and traded life as a successful
stockbroker to pursue his dream of Olympic gold. More and more top black athletes are from
the middle class.
And just look at the athletes winning medals
in the Sydney Olympics. Why is the success of blacks and other minorities such as
Aboriginal Australians explained away by cultural channelling? Sports success is too
complex a phenomenon to be tidily settled by such facile sociology. How do we explain the
success of the majority of athletes, of all nations and ancestral heritage, who lived in
comfortable circumstances? The classic argument that blacks succeed in sports to escape
poverty is less and less plausible and more and more racist every day.
Genes may not determine who the worlds
best runners are, but they do circumscribe possibility. Kenyans and other East Africans
have an innate capacity, not an innate ability, to thrive in distance running; individual
effort and courage separate the pretenders from the stars. Success in sports is a
In Kenya, the cultural argument for the
countrys lacklustre sprinting and soccer success amounts to an assertion that
aspiring sprinters and soccer players dont train hard enough to keep up with their
African brothers on the western side of the continent. Thats sheer nonsense. Kenyan
training regimens, in all sports, are legendary.
No amount of political correctness can
obscure the reality that a large part of Kenyans mediocre record in soccer and
sprinting comes down to genetics: They just dont have the body or physiology for
those sports. They are ectomorphs, short and slender, with huge natural lung capacity and
a preponderance of slow twitch muscles, the energy system for endurance sports. Its
a perfect biomechanical package for distance running, but a disaster for sports that
require anaerobic bursts of speed - like sprinting and soccer.
Kenya, with just 28 million people, is the
world epicentre in distance running, which only became widely popular in the late 1980s.
Today, Kenyans hold more than one-third of the top times in middle- and long- distance
races. Including top performances by other East Africans (most from Ethiopia), that
domination swells to almost 50 per cent. Kalenjins, a loosely named population of 1.5
million people, win almost 40 per cent of major international distance events. Nandi
District alone, with only 500,000 people - one-twelve-thousandth of the Earths
population - sweeps an unfathomable 20 per cent, marking it as the greatest concentration
of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.
At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Kenya shocked
the running world when its top male runners won the 800 meters, the 1,500 meters and the
5,000 meters, plus the 3,000 meters steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone,
the likelihood of such a performance is one in 1.6 billion. The more recent figures are
even more staggering. At the World Cross Country Championships in 1998, arguably the most
competitive running event in the world, each country was limited to six entries. The
Kenyans finished No. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7; the No. 3 finisher was from Kenyas East
African neighbour, Ethiopia.
Why does the claim that sports success is
biosocially based get some people so nervous? After all, its conventional science
that different body types have evolved in response to differing environmental conditions
in different regions of the world.
The elephant in the living room, of course,
is race. Fascination about black physicality and black anger about being
caricatured as lesser human beings have been part of the unspoken side of the American
dialogue on race for hundreds of years. The fear is that some might conclude that if
blacks are faster on average, they must, as part of zero-sum reasoning, be weaker
mentally. But thats a conclusion not supported by science.
Race is a term soaked in much folkloric
nonsense. The concept of race is somewhat akin to a sloppy Joe masquerading as a
hamburger. Its a pretty messy concept, sometimes referred to as fuzzy
sets or extended families. Although racial labels are helpful terms, and I use them
in my book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About
It, they can leave misconceptions. Many traits are correlated, such as dark skin colour
and the presence of the sickle cell gene. But such links are not absolute. Blacks who have
evolved in cooler climates are no more likely to contract sickle cell than are non-blacks.
Although many blacks are lactose intolerant, a result of the utter lack of milk-producing
animals in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the Maasai, with their tradition of cow and goat
herding, are perfectly able to digest milk products.
Race, as we popularly talk
about it, carries enough racist baggage as to be problematic at best. It leads to
simplistic generalisations that link vague concepts such as intelligence,
violence and sexual aggressiveness to populations grouped by skin
colour. Thats why top geneticists, such as Stanfords Luigi Luca
Cavalli-Sforza, while basing their research on a recognition of populationwide genetic
differences, eschew the term race.
|As Cavalli-Sforza has so brilliantly demonstrated, trait variations are the
result of waves and crosscurrents of migrations that at times - frequently even - belie
the folkloric racial categories. This is true, of course, even in sports. Pygmies, who
certainly have black skin, are not particularly good athletes. Its no surprise that
their genetic history distinguishes them quite dramatically from much of the rest of
sub-Saharan Africans. Similarly, the Lemba tribe of southern Africa was recently shown to
be genetically linked
the Y-chromosome to the Jewish population of Mesopotamia some 2,000 years ago. In key
genetic ways, they are quite distant from many other Africans.
With these many exceptions in mind, it
remains largely true that some body type and physiological patterns show up in various
mega-populations such as West Africans, Eurasian whites, East Africans and East Asians.
Today, no credible scientist disputes that evolution, along with local social conditions,
has helped shape Kenyan distance runners, white power lifters, with their enormous
upper-body strength, and athletes of West African ancestry who are explosive runners and
What have scientists documented? Whites of
Eurasian ancestry who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably
dominate weightlifting, field events such as the shotput and hammer (whites hold 46 of the
top 50 throws) and the offensive line in football. Where flexibility is key, East Asians
shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events - hence the term
Chinese splits. Just watch the Olympics and you will see: There are no
prominent Chinese sprinters, no runners of any note until you get to the longest distances
and no jumpers, but the Chinese flourish in diving and gymnastics. Is this totally a
product of cultural factors? Its extremely doubtful.
Despite this remarkable confluence of
massive on-the-field empirical evidence and overwhelming heritable anthropometric and
physiological characteristics, some sociologists and a coterie of ideological evolutionary
biologists seem determined to distort this fascinating phenomenon by turning it into a
racial issue. Some argue that the empirical and scientific data should be ignored in
favour of a personal conviction that humans are a tabula rasa, a blank slate for society
and environment to write upon.
In the light of recent advances in genetics
and the science of human performance, such extremist beliefs appear quaint, dangerous and
even racist. Indeed, populationwide differences are widely acknowledged in disease
research. Many populations of sub-Saharan African ancestry are genetically predisposed to
contracting colorectal cancer, Eurasian whites are genetically prone to multiple sclerosis
- and East Asians by and large are victims of neither.
Why do we so readily accept that evolution
has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell, Jews of European
heritage who are 100 times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the
degenerative mental disease Tay-Sachs and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic
fibrosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that blacks of West African ancestry have
evolved into the worlds best sprinters and jumpers and East Asians into the best
Yet thats the typical position staked
out by ideologues such as University of North Carolina at Charlotte anthropologist
Jonathan Marks. Marks rails against even discussing the issue of human differences on the
basis of his disingenuous assertion that the dramatic patterns of athletic success by
athletes of different ancestral origins cannot be proved, in a laboratory, to be linked to
If no scientific experiments are
possible, then what are we to conclude? he writes. That discussing innate
abilities is the scientific equivalent of discussing properties of angels, is
outside the domain of modern scientific inquiry and therefore should not be
What a breathtakingly simplistic - and
indeed racist - claim, that we should not even discuss the science of sports. Such a stand
enrages many geneticists engaged in lifesaving research.
Of course we have heard echoes of this
debate before. It is similar to the classic defences of the indefensible, such as the
tobacco industry response to charges that smoking causes cancer and the creationist attack
on evolution. For years, tobacco lobbyists have held that because there is no confirmed
laboratory proof that smoking directly causes cancer in humans
(independent of uncontrollable individual circumstances), we should not consider this an
issue of science.
Similarly, creationists have argued (in an
unsuccessful legal brief before the Supreme Court by the Creation Legal Research Fund)
that there is no direct proof for human macroevolution. The evidence for
evolution is far less compelling than we have been led to believe, states the brief.
Evolution is not a scientific fact, since it cannot actually be observed
in a laboratory.
Such posturing by the tobacco industry,
creationists and environmental determinists is scientific hogwash.
The fact that geneticists cannot yet
isolate the chromosomes that contribute to hip-shifting, breakaway running does not
automatically undermine the theory that such skills are genetically based - any more than
the lack of an eyewitness at a crime is proof that the crime never happened. It may be
years before geneticists isolate particular strands of DNA linking population clusters to
athletics, but that is not the same as saying that there is not a genetic basis for
the racial patterns we see in sports, asserts Bengt Saitin, a physiologist, director
of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute and author of the cover story on why athletes
are born, not made, in the September Scientific American. Identifying genes will not
and cannot expect to resolve the issue. The basis for the success of black runners is in
the genes. There is no question about that.
Although ideological critics will
undoubtedly continue to spin this issue, what began as a healthy skepticism about
misuses of biology [has become] a new form of dogma, write Ehrenreich and McIntosh.
Like the religious fundamentalists, the new academic creationists defend their
stance as if all of human dignity - and all hope for the future - were at stake,
they add. But in portraying human beings as pure products of cultural context, the
secular creationist standpoint not only commits biological errors but defies common
Heres a challenge to academic
creationists, who are far better at mau-mauing than rational debate: If there are no
biological differences that contribute to the vast performance disparities in sports, what
is the explanation for the fact that 498 of the top 500 100-meter times in history are
held by athletes of primarily West African ancestry? And why shouldnt we discuss it?
Limiting the rhetorical use of that
problematic concept of race, an admirable goal, is not going to make the patterned
biological variation on which it is based disappear. Although people share a common
humanity, we are different in critical ways, such as our varying genetic susceptibility to
Sports is a wonderful metaphor to encourage
a constructive discussion of the wonderful benefits and potential ethical concerns ushered
in by the revolution in genetics. Indeed, if we do not welcome the impending genetic
revolution with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if
we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose. The question is no longer
whether genetic research will continue but to what end.
Athletic competition, which offers a
definitiveness that eludes most other aspects of life, is a perfect laboratory for a
serious exploration of our humanity. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate
so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than a
source of distrust. After all, in the end, for all our differences, we are far, far more
The writer is the author of Taboo: Why
Black Athletes Dominate.
Feature | Home