Why Race Matters in Sports

April 25, 2001


Jason Williams, the cat-like guard of the Sacramento Kings, is affectionately called "The Thrilla in Vanilla" by his teammates. As in: Wow, maybe some white guys can jump and run.

But let's be real: the best whites and Asians cannot jump as high as elite African American athletes. Blacks have redefined modern sports, making up 87% of the NBA and 75% of the NFL. And while only one in eight people in the world are of African ancestry, blacks hold every major running record.

My book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It addresses this phenomenon free from racist rhetoric.

What are the facts? What have scientists who actually study this issue found?

"If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," notes retired University of California-Berkeley molecular biologist Vincent Sarich, "then you probably could be led to believe just about anything. But such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays not role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports. When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cerebral cortex just shuts down."

Of course, blacks don't dominate all sports. If you don't have access, you can't to excel; there are no Texans starring in the National Hockey League playoffs. But by and large, athletes who trace their ancestry to Africa are over-represented in many sports in which the social and economic barriers to participation are low. Remarkably, as equality of opportunity has increased in the past 30 years, equality of results on the field has declined.

The socially acceptable explanation for such a staggering trend that blacks succeed to escape the clutches of the ghetto is unconvincing and I believe racist. Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100-meter champion, who quit his job on the Toronto Stock Exchange and put his Porsche in hock to pursue his dream to become the world's fastest human, hardly fits such a sweeping stereotype. Neither does the (once) middle-class Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant who speaks fluent Italian, Chris Webber who went to private school before moving on the University of Michigan, or Grant Hill, the son of a Yale father and a Wellesley mother. Few people glibly claim that white skiers or female soccer stars, many of comfortable means, are successful because they needed to flee desperate financial conditions. We only use such stereotypes to stigmatize black athletes.

No athlete succeeds because of economic conditions or ancestry. The success of each individual is a product of that person's ambition, creativity, and intelligence matched with the serendipity of life - the X factors that make sports so compelling. But if the roulette wheel of genetics did not land on that athlete's number, hard work would come to naught. So while the success of any individual rests with the athlete, the pattern of success in sports is circumscribed by population genetics - the inherent differences between populations shaped over many thousands of years of evolution.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small ... it might be very, very significant," agrees Robert Malina, Michigan State University anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology, who has studied anatomical differences of elite athletes over more than 30 years. "The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

Running offers the best prima facie case for the potential impact of body type differences. Athletes of West African descent dominate sports requiring speed and jumping, such as basketball and football. They hold the fastest two hundred 100-meter times, all under 10 seconds, and 494 of the top 500 times. In last weekend's NFL draft, of the 69 players who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds or less, only one is white.

This is not to say that blacks of West African ancestry are "superior" athletes. Body type does not confer rank. Generally, they are lousy at endurance sports as a consequence of smaller natural lung capacity, body type, a preponderance of fast twitch type muscle fibers type, and characteristics. Having less natural body fat, an advantage in sprinting, is a disadvantage in swimming; sports scientists have long known that blacks are less natural buoyant, which makes becoming an elite long distance swimmer a long shot at best.

Humans are different, the consequence of thousands of years of evolution in varying terrains. This is not an issue of black and white. East African blacks, from Kenya and Ethiopia, for example, have traveled a different evolutionary path and are genetically distinct in many aspects of their body type and physiology from West Africans. The best East African time in the 100 meters, 10.28 seconds, ranks near 5,000 on the all time list.

While relatively poor sprinters, East Africans win more than 50 percent of top endurance races. Almost all trace their ancestry to the 6,000-8,000 foot highlands that snake along the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. This region of roughly 1.5 million wins 40 percent of international distance events. The Nandi district in Kenya, 500,000 people one-twelve-thousandth of Earth's population sweeps an unfathomable 20 percent, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports. They win in large measure because elite runners have a near perfect biomechanical package for endurance: lean, ectomorphic physiques and huge natural lung capacity.

"Kenyans are born with a high number of slow twitch fibers," states Bengt Saltin, director of the Institute of Sports Science in Copenhagen. "They have 70 to 75 percent of their muscle fibers being slow. Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role. But based on the data it is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented."

Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained. For example, whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting, field events such as the shot-put and hammer (whites hold 47 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").

"It's time we dispense with the notion that athleticism is entirely due only to biology or only to culture," says Michael Crawford, University of Kansas professor of genetics and president of the Human Biology Association. "Any dialogue between different racial groups should start with the facts."

What about claims that "race is biologically meaningless" or that "humans share 99.9% of their DNA proving there are no racial differences"?

Well, yes and no. The 19th century concept of race based on skin color and defined as "white, yellow, and black" is certainly biologically nave. Rather than identify groups by facial characteristics, scientists now isolate populations based on gene frequencies and proteins. "I don't believe this is a racist issue," says Saltin, one of hundreds of scientists who have documented patterned physique and physiological differences between populations. But such overwhelming evidence does not prevent journalists, and even some scientists, from injecting charges of racism into what is mainstream human anatomy.

A few weeks ago, at a New York conference on race and sports, Harvard anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, renowned for his political correctness as much as for his scientific acumen, apparently attempted to score some media points with his declaration that there is no "running gene." However, no scientist claims there is a running gene. Geneticists assert only that evolution has played in role in circumscribing some patterned differences between populations, including in body type and physiology.

Gould's circumlocution seems designed to play to the popular myth of equal possibility. Reuters fell for the ruse, headlining its story: "Athletic Achievement Isn't in the Genes." Yet, even Gould didn't go that far. In his speech, he noted that sports success is a complex combination of social, environmental, and biological factors, none of which can easily be teased out and isolated. Of course, that's exactly what geneticists and anthropologists have shown repeatedly. Humans are different, a product of the intertwined and inseparable relationship of genes and environment.

The media reporting on genetics rarely demonstrates such nuance.

Unfortunately, some scientists, themselves anticipating a backlash from those who see genetic research as inexplicable or something to fear, perpetuate the confusion. In February, Dr. Francis Collins of the National Human Genome Research Project made a point of stating that humans are "99.9 percent the same." It echoed comments made by President Clinton in his State of the Union address in January 2000. Attempting to allay fears about the unethical potential of recent advances in genetic science and mindful of the ways in which research on genetics has historically been abused, Clinton declared, "there are more differences within races than between races."

Both statements were meant to reassure us that (in the words of one nationally syndicated columnist), "there are no scientific differences between humans -- race has no biological reality, it is only a 'social construction' that perpetuates racism."

In truth, while technically correct, such assertions are scientifically meaningless and provide absolutely no support for the popular myth that "race has no biological reality." There is zero genetic difference between a wolf and a cocker spaniel. If one really believes that such genetic similarity means that there is no hard-wired functional difference between a wolf and a hand-licking spaniel, then I invite that person to adopt a wolf as a house pet for the children. Such differences are grounded in gene sequences and proteins and are activated by obscure environmental triggers. All the training in the world is not likely to turn an Inuit Eskimo, programmed to be short and stout, into a NBA center or an American (black or white) into a great marathoner: nature sets limits.

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell and colo-rectal cancer, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative neurological disease Tay-Sachs, and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that the success of East African distance runners, Eurasian white power lifters, and sprinters of West African ancestry can be explained, in part, by genetics? Why would Dr. Collins and Professor Gould and so many other respected scientists continue to publicly peddle the myth that there are no meaningful patterned biological differences when their own research belies this?

Few scientists are willing to talk about this charade, let alone acknowledge their silent complicity. As UCLA's Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) has noted, "Even today, few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject."

Most researchers are fearful that their views will be misinterpreted by journalists (and by the general public) unable to grasp the magnitude of the revolution in our understanding of what it means to be human. Certainly, caution over the potential misuse of genetic research is certainly warranted. After all, pseudo-science and claims that certain "races" are genetically superior and destined to dominate historically have been evoked to justify colonialism, slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. But scientists who have documented anatomical differences between populations generally reject notions that physical ability and mental acuity are inversely linked. Yet, in some important ways, certainly in the proclivity to many diseases and in highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, musculature and metabolic efficiency, group differences are real and sometimes huge.

Science is not an assertion of inalterable facts but a method of interrogating reality. The question is no longer whether inquiries about human diversity will continue but to what end. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration rather than serving as fodder for demagogues. "If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity," warns Walter E. Williams, an African American social scientist at George Mason University in a review of Taboo, "we concede the turf to black and white racists." Sports offer a nonpolemical way to convey this message and de-politicize what has sometimes been a vitriolic debate.