January 29, 2000

Are White Athletes an Endangered Species?
And Why is it Taboo to Talk About It?

By Jon Entine

When Mike Tyson boasted earlier this week that "I'm going to kill Julius Francis," the 16-to-1 underdog in tonight's scheduled fight in Manchester, Francis wasn't the only one to shudder. The defiant prediction echoed loud in the sink estates of Britain where the once legendary Iron Mike is viewed with a curious mixture of awe and embarrassment.

After all, this is the same boxer, who in better days before a controversial rape conviction in 1992 derailed his heavyweight career, regularly destroyed opponents with a lightning jab and ferocious knockout punch. Journalists on both sides of the Atlantic marveled at his "killer instinct" and "brute power"-animalistic metaphors that took on new meaning when Tyson chewed off part of Evander Holyfield's ear in his humiliating return to the ring after release from jail.

Tyson's problematic public image is an exaggeration, a caricature, of the sport world's greatest taboo: successful black athletes, and not just boxers, are frequently cited for their physical prowess as if their success is an accident of nature rather than of hard work. We see it all the time in football, where such black stars as Manchester United's Dwight Yorke or Arsenal's Thierry Henry are praised for their athleticism as if they tumbled out of their mother's womb dribbling a ball.

Even a casual mention that there may be innate differences between the races can ignite a firestorm. In a speech before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995, Roger Bannister, the distinguished neurologist, retired Oxford dean, and the first man to break the four minute barrier in the mile, in 1954, was showered with ridicule for venturing his opinion "as a scientist rather than a sociologist" that all athletes are not created equal. "I am prepared to risk political incorrectness," he said, "by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but understressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages."

The remarkable trends in sports certainly suggest something unique is going on. In the United States, where African Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, almost 90 percent of professional basketball players, 70 percent of the National Football League, and more than a third of professional baseball is black. In Britain, with a black population of less than 2 percent, one in 5 professional footballers is black. Blacks have also come to dominate world boxing. Britain has not even had a mediocre heavyweight contender for two decades, when Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner played patsies for the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Why do black athletes dominate sports in which the social and economic barriers are lowest, such as running, basketball, and soccer. And why are we afraid to talk about it? That's the sub-title of my book, "Taboo," which has just been released in the United States to a growing controversy.

To the degree that this is a purely scientific debate, there is actually not much debate at all. "If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," declares University of California at Berkeley biological anthropologist Vincent Sarich, "then you probably could be led to believe just about anything. But such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays not role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports. When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cerebral cortex just shuts down."

Although "Taboo" has so far received almost unanimous praise from a range of quarters - for example, the editor of the "Journal of the African American Male" called it "compelling, bold, comprehensive, informative, and enlightening" - some critics have slammed it, although none who has read the book.

Indeed, the criticism of Bannister was political, not scientific. "I don't think it matters what the biological conclusions are. It forges a distinction between black and white athletes which is unhealthy, helpful, and untrue," said African-Britisher Garth Crooks, a former soccer star and once had of the players' union. "It is potentially racist to look at the biological factors," added Theresa Marteau of the Psychology and Genetics Research Unit at Guy's Hospital in London.

Such an intensely personal response is understandable. Black athletes have become prey to a fallacious logic that runs something like this: Physical ability and smarts are inversely proportional, and since blacks are more "naturally" athletic than whites, blacks are less intelligent.

"What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make up than they are to the rest of humanity," notes Harry Edwards, an African-American sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Sociologists like Edwards and Staffordshire University professor Ellis Cashmore counter that the remarkable success of black athletes is a purely social phenomenon. Citing genetics, it has been said, is a "genteel way to call a black a nigger," in the words of "New York Times" columnist Bob Herbert.

Athletic achievement has always been a double-edged sword for blacks. When an athlete lost a contest, it encouraged racist notions that blacks were an inferior race, intellectually and physically. But winning reinforced the equally pernicious stereotype that blacks were less evolved than whites or Asians. That is the fate that befell Jesse Owens after the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Although he won four gold medals and almost single-handedly destroyed the myth of Aryan athletic superiority, his successes were subtly devalued as a product of his "natural" athleticism.

In fact white fascination with black physicality has been part of a dark historical undercurrent with roots in hundreds of years of European colonialism and American slavery. In the nineteenth century, white Europeans, particularly in Britain, were enraptured by pseudosciences such as phrenology and craniology. Racial and ethnic groups were ranked according to all kinds of measurements, such as skull size that supposedly proved that whites were intellectually superior. Jews, blacks, and other minorities were targets of the most egregious generalizations, usually associated with physical characteristics and intellectual prowess.

Since World War II, in reaction to these race theories that provided the intellectual fuel for Nazism, anthropological orthodoxy has held that the very concept of race is a meaningless social construct. And since the world's major populations have evolved in only an eye blink of historical time, from 5,000 to 100,000 years ago, it was generally believed that natural selection could not have generated anything more than superficial differences like skin color.

Is race only skin deep? How have racial differences evolved?

Although the move out of Africa by modern humans to Europe and Asia occurred rather recently in evolutionary time, scientists now know that even small, chance mutations can trigger a chain reaction with cascading consequences, possibly even the creation of new species, in relatively few generations. Economic ravages, natural disasters, genocidal pogroms, and geographic isolation caused by mountains, oceans, and deserts have deepened these differences over times. Using DNA evidence, scientists are now compiling maps of the waves of human migrations that have led to today's "races."

Every population group has some unique physical and physiological characteristics, much of which has a genetic basis. Most of today's research focuses on finding cures for diseases, more than 3,000 of which are genetically based. For instance, blacks are predisposed to carry genes for sickle cell and colorectal cancer. Beta-thalassemia is most prevalent in Mediterranean populations. A form of diabetes has been linked to a gene most commonly found among North American Indians.

So why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out Askenazi Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs, or blonde hair and blue-eyed Scandinavians, yet find it racist to suggest that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters and jumpers?

In fact, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not even distributed across racial groups and cannot be explained by known environment factors. Popular thinking lags the genetic revolution.

Consider diving, gymnastics, and ice-skating, sports in which East Asians excel. Asians tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat. "Chinese splits," a rare maneuver demanding extraordinary flexibility has roots in this anthropometric reality.

Eurasian whites are the premier wrestlers and weight lifters in the world. Evolutionary forces have shaped a population with large, muscular upper bodies with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium. This region also turns out an extraordinary number of top field athletes-javelin throwers, shot-putters, and hammer throwers - such as Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot, 11-inch Turkish weight lifter who is considered the greatest in the history of his sport.

Athletes who trace their ancestry to western African coastal states, from where British, Caribbean and American blacks trace their primary ancestry, are the quickest and best natural leapers in the world. They almost completely monopolize the sprints up to 400 meters. No white or Asian runners have broken 10 seconds in the 100 meters. The top two hundred times in the 100 meters - all under 10 seconds - are held by athletes of West African descent, as are all thirty-two finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races. The likelihood of that happening based on population numbers alone is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001. Yet there are no - not one - premier middle or long distance runners from this region in Africa.

Studies have shown that athletes of West African origin hit a biomechanical wall after about 45 seconds of intense, anaerobic activity, when aerobic skills come into play. East Africans, who have small and slender ectomorphic body types and are therefore hapless in the sprints, dominate distance running.

Whereas the West African population evolved in the lowlands and remained relatively isolated, East African runners trace their ancestry to the highlands. This region in Africa is also a genetic stew, with studies indicating a mixture of genes from invading Arabs and Middle Easterners.

Kenya, with 28 million people, is the athletic powerhouse. At Seoul in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800, 1,500, and 5,000 meters, along with the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the likelihood of such a performance is one in 1.6 billion. The Kalenjins of the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria - who represent 1/2000th of the world population - win 40 percent of top international distance running honors and three times as many distance medals as athletes from any other nation in the world. One tiny district, the Nandi, with only 500,000 people, sweeps an unfathomable 20 percent of major international distance events. By almost any measure, the Nandi region is the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.

Remarkably, over the past 30 years, as sports has opened wide to athletes from almost every country-as the playing field has become almost level, particularly in the one international sport, running-the results have become increasingly segregated.

The genetics revolution has decisively overturned the dated belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa, or blank slate, for experience and culture to write upon. Humans are different. Acknowledging human biodiversity may approach a danger zone, but pretending that there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one's breath.

Although the African biological edge is not great, at the level of an elite athlete, even a small advantage can be the difference between a gold medal finishing out of the money. On the field trends create a cultural advantage that forms a biosocial feedback loop, with nature and nurture fueling each other. Nevertheless, it is critical to remember that no individual athlete can succeed without the X factor—the lucky spin of the roulette wheel of genetics matched with considerable dedication and sport smarts.

"It's the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ," Sir Roger told me. "But one would have to be blind not so see a pattern here. I hope we are not at a time and place where we are afraid to talk about remarkable events. I hope not."