Secret of The Gene Genies: Bio-Cultural Athletic 'Hot Spots'

By Jon Entine

19 APRIL 2001                                                                            London

THE FEAR of perhaps being accused of racism has made it almost taboo to suggest that anything but culture explains the changing colour of world sport. Yet, we are faced with the striking phenomenon that as equality of opportunity has increased over the last 30 years, equality of results on the playing field has become increasingly segregated.

Consider the racial make-up of English football's Premiership. While only two per cent of the UK population is black, athletes of West African ancestry make up close to a quarter of the league.

In America, where the black population is 13 per cent, the success of black athletes is even more out of proportion to their numbers: 85 per cent in major basketball and 70 per cent in American football's NFL.

Moreover, athletes of African ancestry hold the world record in every major running record, from the 100 metres to the marathon.

In the two major marathons last weekend, in London and Rotterdam, Africans swept to victory in both the men and women's divisions.

But this is not an issue of athletic blacks versus the less athletically gifted populations of the rest of the world. Eurasian whites dominate weightlifting, wrestling and the field events such as the hammer and shot put. East Asians are premier divers and shine in other sports in which flexibility is essential, such as certain gymnastic and ice skating events.

Is this just cultural serendipity or is something more fundamental at work? In A Hard Road to Glory, Arthur Ashe, the late Wimbledon champion and one of the most thoughtful and gentlemanly of athletes, provided endless anecdotes about the very American dream of bootstrapping oneself to success. Still, Ashe did not find that cultural explanation totally convincing.

"Sociology can't explain it, " Ashe sighed, frustrated at the political incorrectness of his own beliefs. "My heart says no, but my head says yes; I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge.

I want to hear from the scientists."

The scientists have spoken, loudly and with one voice. "Differences among athletes of elite calibre are so small, " says Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the American Journal of Human Biology, in summarising more than 50 years of studies, "that if you have a physique or the ability to fire muscle fibres more efficiently, that might be genetically based . . . it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fibre types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors.

Scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to those biologically-based differences (though the fact that the biology is grounded in genetics is unequivocal).

A glance at our world map of athletic pockets or hothouses highlights places where evolution and accidents of culture have conspired to turn out athletes with extraordinary skills that have been honed by environmental adaptations.

HOTSPOT 1 Mexican Mountains

SKILLS: Ultra-long distance running, Ultra-aerobic THE rugged Copper Canyons in north-central Mexico are home to the Tarahumara, recognised as the world's most remarkable ultra-endurance runners. Considered the least-assimilated people in the Americas, natives still live in caves and log cabins and subsist by herding, growing crops, and hunting.

Their ancestors were probably Mongoloids who crossed to the Americas some 15,000 years ago. Like East Asians, the Tarahumara are slight and have a relative excess of body fat, which helps them excel at endurance athletics.

Their running exploits are legendary. Two Tarahumara were reportedly hardly panting after setting a world record in a 100-kilometre race to Mexico City in 1926. Two who raced in the Olympic marathon in 1968 were said to have complained "too short, too short" as they finished. The tribe slipped into athletic anonymity until 1993, when six Tarahumara competed at the Leadville 100-mile race, which tops out at 12,500ft. Wearing traditional huarache sandals, 55-year-old Victoriano Churro took first, with tribesmen finishing second and fifth. Juan Herrera won the following year in a record 17hr30min42sec. Two Tarahumara smashed the record in the Wasatch 100 in 1995, averaging less than 13 minutes per mile.

Such stunning performances provoked a backlash and ugly incidents in the endurance running community. Almost overnight, the tribal runners hung up their sandals.

HOTSPOT 2 Dominican Republic

SKILLS: Baseball, anaerobic, speed, WITH only eight million people, the Dominican Republic is the world's greatest per capita producer of baseball talent, with 70 major leaguers. Most stars, such as Sammy Sosa, pictured, are from the "blackest" of Dominican cities, San Pedro de Macoris, with a genetic background similar to that of African Americans, with some Spanish and Taino Indian genes. Black Hispanic ballplayers are most likely to make it to the big leagues, followed by players of mixed black and white heritage, then whites. Mexicans, typically with a shorter and less muscular lower body than blacks as a result of their Indian/Asian heritage, have the toughest time.

The republic, with a population one-tenth the size of baseball-mad Mexico, turns out six times as many pros. More than a third of professional baseball players are African Americans or black Latins.

HOTSPOT 3 West Africa

SKILLS: Soccer, sprinting, basketball, American football, anaerobic, quickness, jumping THE actual Eve, the first modern human, is of sub-Saharan origin. Blacks who link their ancestry to western African coastal states, from where American blacks trace their primary ancestry, are the quickest and best natural leapers in the world. West African-descended blacks almost completely monopolise sprinting up to 400 metres. No white or Asian runner has ever broken 10 seconds in the 100m. The top 200 times in the event - all less than 10 seconds - are held by athletes of West African descent, as are all 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100m races. The likelihood of that happening based on population numbers alone is a nano-fraction of one per cent. This group also dominates in Basketball and American football.

HOTSPOT 4 Nandi Hills of Western Kenya

SKILLS: Middle and Long Distance Running, Aerobic WEST AFRICANS hit a bio-mechanical wall, grounded in their evolutionary history, after 45 seconds of intense, anaerobic activity when aerobic skills come into play. East Africans, who have small and slender ectomorphic body types, are hapless in the sprints yet dominate distance running. Kenya, with 28 million people, is the powerhouse. At Seoul in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800, 1500, and 5,000 metres, along with the 3,000m steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the likelihood of such a performance in this Texas-sized country is one in 1.6 billion.

Kenyan runners combine two seldom matched running traits: speed and endurance. They demonstrate the muscular mass to reach maximum speeds just below the West African peak, yet their endurance is as good as any in the world.

Perhaps the explanation for this paradox is that they combine the best running traits of separate lineages. Hundreds of years ago the proto-Kalenjin population migrated from the Nilotic core area north-west of Lake Turkana to the Mount Elgon region, where the group fragmented and moved to its present locations in the highlands. And whereas the West African population has remained relatively isolated, East Africa has evolved in a genetic stew, with studies indicating a mixture of about 60 per cent African and 40 per cent Caucasian genes. The Kalenjins of the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria - who represent 1/2000th of the world population - win 40 per cent of top international distance-running honors and three times as many Olympic and World Championship distance medals as athletes from any other nation. One tiny district, the Nandi, with only 500,000 people, has spawned runners who have won an unfathomable 20 per cent of major international distance events. By almost any measure, the Nandi region, which produced Wilson Kipketer, left, and Kip Keino, among others, is the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.

HOTSPOT 5 Pacific Islands

SKILLS: Sumo, rugby, American football, flexibility, speed, size THE top stars in Japan's beloved sport of sumo wrestling are not Japanese, but quick-footed behemoths such as the 600lb Konishiki and 6ft9in, 516lb Akebono, both of Pacific Island ancestry.

The cluster of islands that straddle the international date-line in the South Pacific, including Samoa and American Samoa, have also funneled hundreds of players into American football and rugby in Australia and New Zealand.

"Football is like legalised village warfare, " explains "Throwin' Somoan" Jack Thompson, an all-America quarter-back from the University of Wisconsin in 1976.

"There is an innate competitiveness in the warrior sense in Polynesian culture." But more than cultural factors are at work. Polynesia is a hotbed of human biodiversity, with links to sub-Saharan Africa and aboriginal populations of Japan.

This genetic mixture helps in part explain why athletes from this region are large, agile, and fast.

HOTSPOT 6 Eastern Asia

SKILLS: Gymnastics, diving, ice skating, table tennis, flexibility EAST ASIANS are among the best in ice-skating and diving. They tend to be small with short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat. As a result, athletes from this region are slower and less strong than whites or blacks, but more flexible.

This flexibility has helped the region produce some of the world's best gymnasts, like Olympic gold medallist Junfeng Xiao, below. Those same characteristics prevent Asians from being great leapers: not one Asian high jumper makes the all-time top 50. Many scientists believe this distinctive body type evolved as adaptations to the harsh climate faced by migrants to north-east Asia about 40,000 years ago. The excavation of precise tools in Asia, including needles for sewing clothes to survive cold winters, has led experts to speculate that Asians were "programmed" over time to be more dexterous. Studies indicate East Asians have the quickest reaction times, a key skill in table tennis, another East Asian specialty.

HOTSPOT 7 Eurasia

SKILLS: Lifting, wrestling, anaerobic, upper-body strength THE world's top weightlifters and wrestlers live in, or trace their ancestry to, a swathe of Eurasia, running from Bulgaria in the south to upper Mongolia in the north.

Evolutionary forces in this northern clime have shaped a population with a mesomorphic body type - large and muscular, particularly in the upper body, with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage particularly in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium. For instance, Naim Suleymanoglu, above, the 4’ 11” Turkish weightlifter is considered the greatest in the history of the sport.

Not surprisingly, this region also turns out a huge number of top field athletes - javelin throwers, shot-putters, and hammer throwers. Forty-six of the top 50 male hammer throwers of all time and 43 of the top 50 female shot-putters trace their primary ancestry to the Slavonic countries of central and Eastern Europe.

Does ancestry confer destiny or “determine” who emerges as great athletes? Certainly not. Individual success comes down to the x-factors: training, discipline, intelligence – and luck. But all the hard work in the world will not turn an Eskimo into a top marathoner or an African Watusi into a powerlifter – evolution and nature have determined otherwise. Genes do limit possibility.

“The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up consistently in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations,” notes Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves, Jr., who is African American. "Populations with roots in equatorial Africa are more likely to have lower natural fat levels. That is likely a key factor in running. It's an adaptive mutation based on climate. It varies by characteristic. It doesn't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather by geography. But that's a long way from reconstructing century old racial science," adds Graves, whose book on race science, The Emperor’s New Clothes [Rutgers University Press, 2001], was just released. “Those who suggest that there are no body type differences between athletes that are impacting athletics are just denying basic science.”

Popular thinking, still reactive to the historical misuse of “race science,” lags the new bio-cultural model of human nature. The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue but to what end. "If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity,” warns Walter E. Williams of George Mason University, an African American, “we concede the turf to black and white racists." Sports offer a non-polemical way to convey this message and de-politicize what has sometimes been a vitriolic debate. “

Copyright (C) 2001 The Express On Sunday