Do Races Differ in Athletic Ability?

April 25, 2001

Professor of Evolutionary Biology
Arizona State University West

Do races differ in athletic ability? Do Blacks really dominate sports? The answer to these questions is no. Unfortunately, this response flies in the face of commonly accepted logic.

Most Americans believe that races are real and correspond to their common sense observations. However, if nature always operated by what seem to be common sense, we wouldn't need science. For example, anyone who watched the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia saw "black" athletes dominate in the Track and Field sprint events. The recent dominance of blacks in the sprints has now been joined by an emergence of Eastern African runners at long distances.

There are other examples; blacks are now disproportionately represented in basketball, football, baseball, and boxing. At the face of it, these patterns seem to support the notion that there is something inherently superior about the black athlete. In deed, in sports where blacks have been denied the opportunity to participate, there is evidence that they are making in roads. For example, in Golf (Tiger Woods), Tennis (Venus and Serena Williams,) and even in ice hockey (Grant Fuhr, Edmonton Oilers, is black Canadian.)

In Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, Jon Entine provides a provocative answer. He argues that Black Athletes may be genetically predisposed to allow for superior performance at certain sports. He distances himself from previous analyses of this question by pointing out that Blacks don't dominate all sports and that success in sport doesn't mean lack of intellectual ability. Alternatively, Europeans often dominate sports that require greater upper body strength, and Asians may be successful in sports that require greater flexibility, such as diving and gymnastics. This argument asserts that the success of Blacks in track and field, along with basketball, football, and baseball results from the reduction of social discrimination in these sports. For example, Blacks of western African ancestry seem to dominate the world sprinting records. Entine proposes that there is a biological explanation for this, physical differences between blacks and whites in the body proportions, skeletal and muscle features. These differences are most likely to be crucial at the level of world-class athletes were training regimes and motivational factors have been equalized.

Why not?

This idea is problematic because no biological races exist within the human species. Thus, no biological meaning to defining people as Blacks, or Whites. These groups are social constructions based on the history of racism and slavery in the new world. This fact is generally agreed upon amongst professional scientists, particularly physical anthropologists and geneticists (e.g. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 101:569-570, 1996). These realizations however are just beginning to find their way into the public discourse.

It is true that humans vary in a number of ways. However, skin color, hair type, body stature, blood groups, disease predisposition or prevalence do not define racial groups. For example, Sri-Lankans of the Indian sub-continent, Nigerians, and Australoids share a dark skin tone, but differ in hair type, and genetic predisposition for disease. If one attempts to use physical characteristics such as body stature, body proportions, skull metrics, hair type, and skin color to create a tree of relatedness for human populations, you arrive at trees that do not match the measured genetic relatedness and known evolutionary history of our species. The lack of concordance of physical and genetic variation to socially constructed races means that we cannot expect that any of these categories (such as Blacks or Whites) will dominate any specific sport. The reason for that is there is more biological variation within these socially constructed groups than between them. Thus, specific subpopulations within either of these broad categories may substantially differ in physical characteristics. Aleuts are generally shorter than Mongolians and the Pygmies are shorter than the Watusi.

The 2001 Men's Boston Marathon was won by a South Korean and an Ecuadorian finished in 2nd place. However, East Africans won 8 out of the top 20 positions. The women's race had 1st, 4th, & 5th going to East Africans. The rest of the top twenty were: 4 Eastern Europeans, 10 of Western European origin (mostly American) and 3 East Asians. These results do not suggest that our socially constructed races explain the outcomes in this particular competition. It is notable that the winners in the men's race also came from mountainous countries.

Many distance runners train at high altitude. Training can produce physiological adaptation, increase lung capacity, blood volume, and convert fast muscle twitch fibers to slow twitch fibers. This would be particularly effective if genetic predispositions existed for these traits, as one would expect for any population that evolved at high altitude (as for the Korean peninsula or the Andes in Ecuador.) The lack of Eastern African dominance in the women's race is particularly problematic for any racial explanation of distance performance. The Women's pattern seems robust.

The early 1990's saw the winners in the Boston, New York, and World Marathons come mainly from Eastern Europe (8/15 Eastern Europe, 2/15 Kenyan, 2/15 Western European, 1/15 Chinese, and 1/15 Australian, Source: Britannica 1992 & 1996 Yearbook.) Women and men share 22 chromosomes in common and differ only at the Y chromosome. The Y chromosome has few genes, and it would be hard to construct a genetic theory of race on this basis. Finally, the nations surrounding Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have not produced significant numbers of elite distance runners (see figure 4.1 in Taboo, pg 32.) In fact, one region in Kenya, Kalenjin dominates distance running. This region is between 5,000 - 8,000 feet above sea level. The Nandi district produced 22.9 world-class long distance runners per capita, as opposed to 3.7 in the Rift Valley, 0.3 western region, 0.6 Nyanza, 0.4 central, 0.4 eastern, and 0 for the North Eastern and Coastal portions of Kenya. The world norm is 1.0 per capita (Taboo, pg. 41.)

Neither can we explain the dominance of Black sprinters solely on Western African ancestry. We must first observe that the world record sprinters are mainly from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, and the Caribbean (Taboo, pg 30.) At the Sydney Olympics, the men's 100 and 400 meter events were swept by individuals displaying Western African ancestry. However, an individual from Greece won the men's 200-meter event. For the women, everyone knew that the USA's Marion Jones would win the 100 and 200 meters, she was followed by Ekaterini Thanou from Greece in the 100 meters, and a Sri-Lankan woman Susanthika Jayasinghe took bronze in the 200 meters. The Australian Aboriginal symbol of the Sydney Games, Kathleen Freeman dominated the 400 meters event over two Afro-British competitors (remember that Australian aborigines are the furthest away from sub-Saharan Africans in gene frequencies.)

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics a variety of people won medals in the sprint and jumping events. No clear pattern of Western African dominance emerged. In fact, the medal count from 13 Western African nations was only 4. The 2000 Olympics were not unique, the male sprint events from 1981, 1985, 1989, 1993, 1995 show no Western Africans holding any of the world records*. One could argue that these nations are too small or too poor to have fully participated in the Olympics. I did find a statistically significant relationship between GDP per capita and population size from the 2000 World Almanac population and economic data with total medal count (57.4% of the variance in total medal count was explained by the model.) Kenya is one of the poorest nations in the world (1,550 GDP per capita), yet they won 7 medals at the 2000 summer games. However sprinting and distance events are sports that take the least amount of financial resources to enter at the world level. Therefore, one would expect these events should be accessible to even the poorest nations. The analysis above strongly suggests that having Western African genes alone is not sufficient to make one successful in international sprinting.

African Americans, who have dominated world sprinting since at least 1968, are not uniquely of Western African ancestry. They are a population made up of African, European and Amerindian admixture. African Americans are in fact, the textbook example of admixture used in the discipline of population genetics. The estimates of admixture of non-African genes in North American populations of African descent has been reported from as low as 6.8% to as high as 40%. These percentages differ because they are estimated utilizing different genetic loci and from different populations. Loci that have faced natural selection might be very different in frequency from those that have been neutral. Accidents of population history, such as genetic bottlenecks caused by small population size, could lead to radically different gene frequencies in even closely related populations. Certainly, population subdivision is important in accounting for the range of estimates. What is clear is that there is significant admixture in people described as Black in the New World. Thus for any given individual, their physical appearance would not be a reliable indicator of the percentage of non-African genes they contain. Thus, Marion Jones's athleticism could just as well be the result of her non-Western African genes, or the mixture of genes from three continents. We may never have the means to answer that question.

Finally, significant aspects of diet and culture differ between African Americans and Western Africans. All genes are expressed in relation to their specific environments. The inability of recreating environmental conditions makes it impossible to unambiguously identify the genetic causes to an individual's success.

If not race, what is the answer?

Dominance of any particular population in a specific sport cannot be taken as evidence of innate racial athletic superiority. No one ever argued that the Soviet domination of Chess from 1950 - 90, was evidence of their genetically superior intellectual capacity. Soviet grandmasters agreed that it was their state funded training program that produced their success.

Biomechanical analyses of world-class athletes show that specific physical traits are related to their superior performance. Height may predispose one to be a great basketball player, but there are not many members of the Watusi tribe playing basketball in the NBA. Neither are all Africans tall, such as the Khoi-San and Pygmies who are on average some of the shortest populations in the world. Some of these features may result from their genetic ancestry, or may be the result of training, and finally others may be due to intangible factors such as motivation.

Neither is ethnic/cultural dominance in any given sport robust over time.

Jewish Americans, many from Eastern Europe, were amongst the first to dominate the NBA. The Irish dominated boxing at the turn of the 20th century. Europeans greatly resisted the emergence of East Africans in distance events. The present day domination of sprinting by North Americans with detectable Western African ancestry may be ephemeral. Biological factors are important in sports performance, but we should be clear that environment and culture always influence human biological variation. There is clearly a genetic contribution to any individual's ability to perform in sports. However, biological variation observed at the level of family and local populations does not infer the existence of race or racial predisposition to sports excellence.

Joseph L. Graves, Jr. is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Arizona State University West and author of The Emperorís New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2001). He is formerly the Secretary for the Division on Integrating and Comparative Issues in the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biologists, and has been nominated three times for a position on the AAAS council for Section G, Biological Sciences. He is currently a member of the external advisory panel for the National Human Genome Center at Howard University.