Does Nature Nurture Speed?

By Allen Barra

September 20, 2000

THE QUALIFYING TIME for the men's 100 meters for this year's Olympics was 10.6 seconds, considered slow by modern standards. Nonetheless, Norway could not produce a qualifier for the Sydney games. This came as no surprise to Olympic analysts, as no Norwegian has ever topped 10.08 in the 100 meters. Neither has a runner from Finland (10.27), Denmark (10.23), New Zealand (10.27) or Taiwan (10.27). In fact, no runner of Caucasian, Hispanic or Asian descent has ever cracked the 10-second mark in the100 meters.

But when the runners line up for the 100 meters on Sept. 23 (actually Sept. 22, U.S. time), you won't hear commentators point out what everyone in running circles has long known: that all of the finalists in the 100 and 400 meters will be either African or of African origin. Any discussion of race in sports is prohibited.

But if Jon Entine has his way, you will hear those explanations in the future. His book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, published earlier this year by Public Affairs, is the most explosive book on sports to come out in years. Or, rather, it would be if the mainstream press was discussing it. Mr. Entine, a journalist and Emmy Award-winning producer who has worked for both NBC and ABC, has written, in the words of one prominent black academic, "the book that everyone believes but no one dares quote."

Mr. Entine's thesis is simple enough: Certain populations dominate particular athletic events because they have the innate skills required for that sport. For example, African-American athletes dominate American sports because they can run faster and jump higher than other athletes. There is nothing shocking about this thesis, at least not to anyone who watches professional basketball and football or who follows international track competitions.

What is controversial about Taboo are the reasons Mr. Entine gives for this dominance. Until recently, most commentators have been willing to write off black domination of American sports to "cultural" and "environmental" factors. Mr. Entine says black athletes dominate because of racial factors. But, say his critics, isn't environment a factor in the success of great modern black athletes?

"Of course," says Mr. Entine over the phone from his home in Southern California. "Black athletes have always been shaped and motivated by their environment to perform better than whites. They've always had to try harder. But what about the new generation of great black athletes who didn't grow up in poverty—Michael Jordan, who grew up in comfortable circumstances, or Grant Hill or Ken Griffey, Jr., both sons of sports stars? Donovan Bailey might be the greatest sprinter in the world—he gave up a career as a successful stockbroker to pursue an Olympic gold medal. Are we going to attribute their success to a desperation to escape poverty?"

What, then, of the much-cherished concept that great athletic performance is the result of individual desire and effort? Doesn't talk of race diminish the achievement of individuals? "That," replies Entine, "is perhaps the most racist notion of all. Look, of the 500 fastest recorded 100-meter races, 498 are held by athletes of primarily West African ancestry. Do we conclude from that that only athletes of that particular ancestry have 'fire in the belly'? Sports achievement is all about individual accomplishment. But while genes may not determine who the best runners are, they do circumscribe possibility." He concludes by making a subtle distinction. "Genes don't give some athletes an innate ability," he says. "But there can be no doubt they give them an innate capacity."

No one is more aware than Mr. Entine of the controversial nature of the debate. "The assumption among a great many otherwise intelligent people is that you're trying to conjure up the old stereotype of black physicality as a signifier of mental inferiority," he says. "It's difficult to convey the idea to many people that what researchers in this field are trying to do is debunk facile theories of race that have been used for centuries to justify racism. I believe that what I'm doing is shattering stereotypes that whites or blacks or any racial group is 'superior' or 'inferior' to any others. We're not talking about superiority, we're talking about human diversity."

Mr. Entine cites the example of Kenya, which has a population of only 28 million but is the world epicenter of distance running. Going into the Sydney Olympics, Kenyans hold nearly one-third of the top times in this field. "You can't simply ascribe their success to cultural or social factors," says Mr. Entine, "because running didn't really become popular there till the '80s." In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, Kenyans won gold in the 800 meters, 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, and the 3,OOO-meter steeplechase. "Based on population percentages alone," says Mr. Entine, "the odds of Kenya dominating these events would be one in 1.6 billion."

His research has uncovered an even more specific hotbed of athletic supremacy: Nandi, a small district in the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria. Its 500,000 souls represent 1/2,000th of the world's population, but its runners hold unbelievable 20% of major international distance event records. Mr. Entine calls the area "maybe the greatest concentration of raw sports talent in the world," and emphasizes that the Nandians' "huge natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles, the perfect energy system for endurance sports."

Yet Mr. Entine is quick to emphasize that Kenyans are in no way "superior" to other groups. "They are well-adapted genetically to produce distance runners," he points out, "but they're a disaster in sports that require anaerobic bursts of speed, such as sprinting and soccer." The latter, he says, is their favorite sport. " It's almost a national obsession. It's a shame they're so bad at it." The best 100-meter time by a Kenyan, by the way, is a slow 10.28 seconds.

Mr. Entine may be halfway home to obtaining popular acceptance for his theories. Black academics have by and large come to support him. Sociologist Harry Edwards called Mr. Entine's research "enlightening" and offered the cover blurb for Taboo. Earl Smith, chairman of the department of sociology and ethnic studies at Wake Forest University, told Mr. Entine he would "be accused of spouting old-fashioned racism for raising the issue.... All this beating around the bush has got to stop. This is a good book." Emerge magazine called Taboo "thoughtful, thorough and sensitive" and recommended it to … "anyone interested in the history of black athletes."

Unfortunately, blacks are part of athletic mainstream on the field, not off of it, and Entine still gets enormous resistance from a white establishment. "The climate is changing," he says, "but there's still a great deal of criticism to the effect that it's racist to raise these issues in the first place. I think the best response to that comes from a review of Taboo by [black] professor Walter E. Williams in American Enterprise: 'If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity, we concede the turf to black and white racists."'

Copyright 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.