August 6, 2001


Black Athletes: A race apart?

Muscles and genes : No mean feet

Their accomplishments are formidable. British blacks were strangers to athletic competition 10 or 15 years ago. "But that's all changed now," says Rodney Hinds, sports editor for the Voice, the black newspaper.

Black star athletes, draped in the Union Jack, are highly touted symbols of the nation's pride and vitality. They have made their mark in professional football, cricket, boxing, track, athletics and the Olympic Games. "Who knows," says Hinds, "the majority of the athletes and winners will probably be black at the XVI Commonwealth Games in Manchester in August 2002".

But this black ascendance is not without its perils, say some campaigning journalists. Too often victory won through hard work and achievement against great odds turns sour. "It is strange and demeaning that we are still faced with the belief that black people are natural athletes - running, jumping and skipping faster and further than any other race," " says Michael Eboda, campaigning editor of New Nation, writing in black Pride magazine,

Myths abound
Singled out for criticism are a spate of books alleging blacks are literally "a race apart". Among them is Jon Entine's Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It .

In Race, Evolution and Behavior , author J. Phillipe Roth, says athletes of African ancestry are genetically programmed in two arenas of proven excellence. They have traits for the quick bursts of speed needed to win in sprint events and for the endurance that is essential for long distance running, he claims.

In a similar vein, Jesper L. Andersen of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre suggests that a special mix of muscle fibres - "myosin and isoforms" - explain the dominance of black sprinters and marathoners.

Gene media forum
Such claims are overblown and dangerous, respected academics and sports personalities told a meeting in New York called to promote responsible genetic reporting in the media.

There are too many potent social factors for there to be any truth in the belief that blacks have a genetic advantage in sports said Stephen Jay Gould, America's respected science writer. Gould is a Harvard University professor and author of the best-selling book The Mismeasure of Man

Far from any alleged genetic influences, it is achieving a balance of hard work and mental attitude that counts, said Olympian Kipchoge Keino, the Kenyan distance runner and winner of four Olympic medals. These are the key determinants of success, he told the gathering of journalists and public figures.

In the training regimen of the best athletes, 75% is physical training and 25% is mental says Keino.Then, in the race itself " it's the mental process - thinking ahead and planning your moves - that comes to the fore, and proves most valuable". The Kenyan established black dominance in long distance running in 1968, when he dramatically burst upon the world scene with his 1500m gold medal win at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Explanatory variables
It is easy to see why Black journalists may feel that black sports achievements have been demeaned by talk of racial biology. The definitive statement on race was made at a post-war UNESCO meeting of the world's authoritative experts. "Contemporary science does not admit the concept of race as meaning a division of mankind into different parts, each of them characterised by special physical and mental traits," they said repudiating the genetic lunacies of Nazi Germany.

This wise observation has yet to be refuted. Current research from the Human Genome Project reports that 99.9 per cent of the DNA of every person on the planet is identical. Roughly speaking if black Olympic medalist Denise Lewis and her white neighbour could compare their genetic blueprints, they would be almost identical.

To date, hard working researchers in human genome mapping programmes in Britain and America have not isolated and identified any known gene for athletic ability among human beings.

Therefore, if blacks, at this moment in time, do produce superlative athletes and dominate certain sports in a far greater proportion than other population groups, then the causes are not in their genes but in the mix of hard work, talents, aspiration and appropriate aptitudes and mental skills that make for success.