Athletics Weekly (UK)
February 2, 2000
Ward's Word

Whisper it quietly

by Tony Ward, Consultant Editor

Here’s a taboo subject: Do different population groups have physical and physiological attributes that can make them brilliant - or hopeless - at particular sports, or, in the case of athletics, particular events? Is it entirely coincidental, for instance, that only four of the top 50 male hammer throwers of all time have come from outside the Slavonic countries of central and eastern Europe? Or, likewise, only seven women shot putters? Or, perhaps not surprisingly, that not one Japanese male or female high jumper makes the top 50 all-time. This is the moment that listeners (or readers) get nervous, start to glance behind them to see if anyone is listening or looking over their shoulder, for they are worried in case we are about to embark into that no-go area concerning the superiority of black sprinters over white.

In mentioning this subject Sir Roger Bannister was dubbed a racist a few years ago and the author of a new book, Taboo: Why black athletes dominate sport and why we’re afraid to talk about it, US journalist Jon Entine, has likewise been condemned in recent weeks.

Dr Theresa Marteau of the Psychology and Genetics Unit at Guys Hospital in condemning Bannister for his remarks said it was potentially racist to even talk about biological factors in relation to human performance. And Ernest Cashmore has spent a lifetime trying to convince us that the reason for black success in sport is entirely environmental ie.: black men punching their way out of the ghetto to a better life, which, to my mind, serves the racist cause it is trying to defeat with stereotyping of the worst order.

The reason why this is such a taboo area is the media, who get very excited when the topic comes up and immediately latch on to this one aspect because its sensational and controversial nature. The Observer news pages became excited about Entine 's book a couple of weeks back for claiming that no white man would ever win an Olympic 100 metres again. It gave scant coverage to the rest of what Entine has to say - that it is different population groups, rather than entire races, that have different physical and physiological attributes.

This backs up the recent work of Professor Kenneth Kidd of Yale. At the root of his work is the principle of variability. Kidd is a gene-mapper and what he's been investigating is the genetic basis of the Out of Africa theory - which says that prehistoric man originated in the continent and then spread around the globe. And what he has discovered, through DNA testing, is fascinating. It is that there is more genetic variation within any one African tribal people than in all the rest of the world put together. Africans have the broadest spectrum of variability; with rarer versions at either end. This applies, for instance, to height, where both the shortest and tallest people on earth come from Africa but there are fewer persons of middling height in between.

What does this mean for athletics? It means that if running fast has a genetic component (which it probably has) then Africa will have produced more fast runners and more slow runners and less ordinary runners than the rest of the world. In terms of sprinting, the best African sprinters have come from West Africa, their build is distinctly different from the tribal peoples of east Africa who produce the greatest distance runners. And it is from these western peoples, who were taken into slavery in the USA and the Caribbean, that the great sprinters and jumpers of this century have come. You cannot ignore the fact that the tiny island Jamaica has for generations consistently produced great sprinters for Britain, Canada and itself. The figures are too great for this to be a coincidence.

So, why is all this taboo instead of being fascinating? The answer lies in the age-old canard, first promulgated by that old bluffer Darwin, that if, to put it very crudely, you were brawny then you weren't brainy. In women the same myth applies to blondes. So, ergo, if black people are superior in sport then they are inferior intellectually. I have to say this nonsense just doesn't apply to black sportsmen and women.

I taught with a Latin teacher who was convinced all PE teachers were missing a few brain cells. It has been promulgated by the white supremacists in the USA and by white, apartheid South Africa to the extent that genetics has become the science that almost dare not speak its name. In other words for genetics read eugenics.

Variability, though, means you can't construct stereotypes or generalize. If a racist wanted to believe that black people were intellectually inferior to whites the immutable law of variability would mean he would have to accept there were a lot of blacks who were much more intelligent than whites. And it may mean no white man will ever win an Olympic sprint again - but who will care?

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