Sydney, Australia
July 25, 2000

True Colours: Race Debate

By Garry Linnell

“This is the first time in history that champion representatives of the white and black races have me for racial and individual supremacy.”

––Hugh D. "Huge Deal" McIntosh

Forgive Hugh McIntosh his hyperbole. He was a boxing promoter. He was also speaking in a different era The Bulletin was carrying "Australia for the White Man" on its masthead – and he had a fight to promote in 1908. He had just scored an Australian coup: the black American Jack Johnson challenging the world heavyweight champ, the white Canadian Tommy Burns, in a new stadium at Sydney's Rushcutters Bay.

Johnson won the fight – news of his victory was suppressed in the Solomon Islands for fear it might "influence" the natives while the Sydney press went to town, decrying the "coon" as nothing more than a flash in the pan. But McIntosh's statement, and all that it implied, still echoes a century later. Every decade has had its "Great White Hope", a man who rises in the hope of overcoming his physically stronger opponent – The Black Man.

But is there a scientific basis behind the claim that white men can't jump, and black men can? Earlier this year, American journalist Jon Entine published Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. In it, he claims scientific evidence for black superiority on the sporting field is overwhelming. Those athletes with ancestry based in eastern and northern Africa, he argues, have an advantage in endurance sports such as distance running while those hailing from western Africa are good :sprinters and jumpers. "Whites fall somewhere in the middle," he says.

As part of his argument, Entine cites work performed for the Human Genome Project by a Yale University researcher, Kenneth Kidd. During a DNA sampling trip to Africa four years ago, Kidd found that the DNA differences between Africans living just one valley apart could be greater than those between two population groups separated by skin colour and other superficial traits.

This indicates that Africa regarded as the cradle of humankind has a greater pool of genetic variability than anywhere else, leading Kidd to conclude: "It's logical that if running fast has a genetic component, in any African population you'd expect to find more fast runners, more slowpokes and fewer ordinary runners in between them than in the rest of the world."

Entine cites a body of work to explain black sporting dominance. With all 32 finalists in the men's lOOm at the past four Olympics boasting west African ancestry, he claims that, in general, such blacks have relatively less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs, a higher centre of gravity, faster patellar tendon reflexes, greater body density and significantly higher levels of plasma testosterone, along with a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres thought to be conducive to explosive pace.

He also points to a study by scientists at the University College of London, who claim to have isolated "high performance genes", a sequence of DNA regulating metabolic efficiency. 'The British scientists believe that 90% of the performance of athletes could be determined by their genetic make-up, although no research has yet been done on which population groups might be lucky enough to have high-performance genes."

Entine's greatest problem, however, is that any discussion involving genetic differences tends to be bogged down amid claims of racial stereotyping and political incorrectness. The field remains fiercely split between sociologists who maintain any differences are the result of cultural and environmental factors and scientists who believe a genetic reason can be found to explain black dominance in sport.

Entine knew he was entering a potentially explosive environment' particularly the United States. Few emerge from this arena unscathed, even––as Entine points out––Roger Bannister, the British neurologist and the first man to run a sub four-minute mile. In 1995, Bannister made a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he said he wanted: to risk political incorrectness, "by drawing attention; to the seemingly obvious but under-stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages"

Inevitably, he encountered that firestorm of political correctness that greets any discussion of the subject these days. "It is potentially racist to look at the biological factors," said one of his critics. And that person was a scientist.

Copyright 2000 The Bulletin