Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It.

By Jon Entine [PublicAffairs] $25

• Michael Crawford, University of Kansas
Biological Anthropologist
President, Human Biology Association
Former Editor, Human Biology
• Kenneth Crawford, Freelance Writer

With just a couple of months to go before the summer Olympics in Sydney, a few things are already shaping up as sure bets: the latest incarnation of the “Dream Team” will dominate the men’s basketball competition, some broadcaster will make a crack about “putting a shrimp on the barbie” … and the gold medal in the men’s 100 meter dash will go to an athlete of West African descent. If you’re a sprinter of European extraction, you’re pretty much out of luck.

What’s more, the situation doesn’t significantly improve at longer distances. At middle-distances – and in the marathon – North African and East African runners have been equally dominant.

“For all practical reality, men’s world championship (track) events might as well post a sign declaring, ‘Whites Need Not Apply.’”

So states former NBC news producer Jon Entine in his new book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, and the numbers appear to back him up. For example:

All 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races trace their ancestry from West Africa.

In the 100-meter dash, the 230 fastest times – all less than 10 seconds – belong to black sprinters. No white sprinter has ever broken the ten-second mark.

Over half the top times in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races, as well as the top 60 times in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, belong to Kenyans.

Kenyans have won the last ten Boston Marathons, routinely turning in times that are beyond the reach of all but a handful of white athletes.

Indeed, whereas only 13% of the world’s population claim African ancestry, every major track record – and over 70% of the top running times – belongs to these athletes. Some regions are so proportionately over-represented as to raise eyebrows: the Nandi district, in Kenya, has only half a million people, yet produces runners who win a full 20% of all the major international distance events.

But track isn’t the only arena in which black athletes dominate. African-Americans make up 87% of the players in the NBA, as well as 75% of the NFL. And while whites still account for some 60% of Major League Baseball rosters, since Jackie Robinson first broke the color barrier in 1947 thirty-two of fifty-two National League MVPs have been black. In almost every sport in which a premium is placed upon speed, quickness, and leaping ability, black athletes rule the roost.

At the same time, white athletes still dominate those sports where upper-body strength is crucial to success; such Olympic events as the hammer toss and the shot-put are almost exclusively the domain of European and American whites.

Given this apparent clustering of certain athletic skills along population lines, one might be excused for wondering why this is the case – for asking what makes those with West African heritage excel at sprints, or East Africans at endurance events? But to even pose such questions is to enter a minefield of racial politics, social agendas, and the darker side of American history, as Entine quickly discovered during his initial foray into this territory, the 1989 NBC documentary, “Black Athletes: Fact or Fiction?”

That program, co-written with Tom Brokaw, won an Emmy, but also elicited some strongly negative reactions from the African-American community. Les Payne, a journalist at Newsday, wrote that “NBC had scientists answer questions that none but a bigot would conjure up,” and the network received many irate phone calls from viewers. Both Brokaw and Entine came away from the experience feeling singed.

Now, roughly a decade later, Entine has returned to the subject, this time equipped with the latest findings from fields are far-ranging as exercise physiology and molecular genetics. Give the man credit for persistence.

But the question remains: why revisit such a sensitive area? Could it be – as sportswriter Justice B. Hill has intimated -- that Entine is actually a racist, out to denigrate black athletic achievements by stressing “natural” gifts over dedication and hard work?


“I'll challenge anyone to say I have any ulterior motives. My motives are I'm interested in the subject, I'm curious and I think it's endlessly fascinating,” says Entine. “I wrote it because I'm a sports fan and you can't avoid thinking about the subject if you are around sports.”

Fortunately for readers, Entine has done far more than simply cogitate. As Taboo makes amply clear, he is a conscientious – even meticulous – researcher, and one who is not afraid to challenge comfortable or accepted “truths.”

For many in the social sciences, black success in sports has come to be viewed as a strictly sociological phenomena – a byproduct of cultural values, restricted opportunities, and individual desire. Physiologist Owen Andersen has insisted that “Elite runners have worked unbelievably hard, and their extreme physical travail and motivation – not their genes – have played the key roles in getting them to the front of the pack,” while Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards has stated, “Athletic skills are essentially culturally linked capabilities. It is racism, not genes, that explains the domination of black athletes.”

According to Entine, though, the reason behind the dominance of elite black athletes has much to do with a complex feedback loop of genetics and environmental influences – a loop resulting in phenotypes particularly well-suited for certain biomechanical tasks.

As Entine puts it, “There is extensive and persuasive research that elite black athletes have a phenotypic advantage – a distinctive skeletal system and musculature, metabolic structures, and other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of years of evolution.”

For example, blacks of West African ancestry have, on average, smaller chest cavities, greater body density, less subcutaneous fat, faster patellar tendon reflex, more anaerobic enzymes, higher levels of plasma testosterone, and higher percentages of type-II (fast-twitch) muscle fiber – all factors which may positively influence the ability of an athlete to rapidly accelerate.

This, of course, is not to imply that “biology is destiny” when it comes to athletic success. Entine clearly acknowledges that environment, culture, economic opportunity, training, and personal motivation all can and do play major roles in determining which athletes ultimately rise to the top.

“Simply stated, the opposing and incompatible claims that black athletic success can be explained by environmentalism or evolution are equally simplistic,” writes Entine. “Sports success is a bio-social phenomenon.” But, as he puts it: “In sports a minuscule advantage in body type or firing muscle fibers can make a dramatic difference on the playing field. Though small differences may mean nothing when comparing average people, at the elite level, an infinitesimally small advantage can be decisive.” In other words, where split-seconds and fractions of an inch can mean the difference between winning and losing, genes may be the deciding factor that separates champions from also-rans.

While the sections concerning Entine’s hypothesis will surely attract the greatest attention, they actually form a relatively small portion of the book. The majority of Entine’s tome is concerned with outlining the origins and history of the “taboo” itself – the reasons why Americans are reluctant to talk about human differences in general, and athletic differences in particular – and it is here that Entine is at his best.

In chapters covering the origins of so-called “race science” and the rise of the American eugenics movement, Entine lays out the sordid modern history of fascination with racial differences – a history which eventually gave rise to such frightening excesses as U.S. laws against miscegenation, and Hitler’s “final solution.”

Entine documents many of the outrageous (and wholly erroneous) nineteenth-century claims concerning both the “superiority” of white athletes and the supposed “fragile nature” of black athletes – a mythology which helped preserve white notions of racial superiority by effectively barring black athletes from competing against them. Later, as the conspicuous achievements of Jesse Owens and others on the international stage made these notions unsustainable, the “prevailing wisdom” was quickly transformed into a new paradigm: black success in athletic endeavors was seen as “proof” that they were brutes, just one step removed from animals. Likewise, the notion of an inverse relationship between black athletic prowess and black intellect quickly took root, making “natural” athleticism a proxy for denigrating the intelligence of African-Americans.

It is perhaps the existence of these lingering attitudes – still prevalent throughout much of this country -- which explains some of the backlash against Taboo’s central thesis, particularly amongst African-Americans: “A country nurtured on the myth that all people are created equal is understandably uncomfortable talking about innate differences, particularly when it comes to race,” writes Entine. “So when blacks are referred to as physically superior or natural athletes, hackles are raised. What's the real and underlying agenda? If blacks are better at sports, are they better 'sexual athletes'? Are they more brutish? Is black physical superiority inextricably connected to intellectual inferiority . . . ?"

So … is there an inverse relationship between athletic prowess and intellectual ability?

Entine’s answer to this is an emphatic “No!”: “It cannot be stated too strongly that the data that conclusively links our ancestry to athletic skills have little or anything to say about intelligence.”

University of Texas professor John Hoberman once wrote, “…the problem with suppressing public discussion of anatomical and physiological differences is that such evasiveness only encourages the public’s ill-defined suspicions that profound differences are being covered up.”

Entine understands that as scientists continue to study the complex interactions between genes and the environment, population-based genetic differences will continue to surface. We can speculate in private, or openly probe, debate, and seek answers. Taboo is not only an excellent survey of a controversial subject, it is also an impassioned argument in favor of this more democratic approach.