Different strokes
By David Owen
Published: July 29 2005

I first noticed Malia Metella at a little after 7.30pm on a hot Saturday in Athens. It was August 21 2004, Britain’s best day in modern Olympic history. I was covering the games for the FT, and had taken up station beside the open-air Olympic swimming pool to see whether a young Welshman called David Davies could add to a gold rush that included oarsman Matthew Pinsent’s fourth Olympic title. Davies’ event was the 1,500 metres, Olympic swimming’s ultra-marathon, a test of endurance that takes even these oddly-shaped sporting specialists with shoulders like Parma hams about a quarter of an hour to complete. But first there was the small matter of swimming’s ultra-sprint: the women’s 50 metres, less than half a minute of dash and splash and wafer-thin victory margins.

As the clock ticked down, the focus of attention was Inge de Bruijn, the favourite and eventual winner, a muscular blonde Dutchwoman in royal blue swimsuit and black goggles and cap, windmilling her arms furiously. But I had eyes only for a less flamboyant figure in an adjacent lane. This was France’s Malia Metella, the soon-to-be silver medallist. My fascination was simply explained: Malia Metella was black.

I should elaborate. Though swimming is one of the most widely practised of all sports in rich and increasingly multicultural countries such as Britain, where one in seven adults takes regular dips, at elite level it remains dominated to a remarkable degree by white athletes. Though both South Africa and Zimbabwe claimed swimming golds in Athens (all of them through white swimmers), and Japan finished third in the medals table, the main duel for supremacy was between the US and Australian teams. These mustered one non-white swimmer between them. So the presence of a black swimmer in a final, let alone on the medal podium, was rare.

It was not until several months later, after I had met Metella in a Paris hotel, that I realised quite how rare black swimming champions were. It is only 17 years since a black swimmer - Anthony Nesty of Surinam - first won an Olympic gold medal, in the 100-metre butterfly in Seoul in 1988. It is only five years since a swimmer of African-American descent - Anthony Ervin - made the US Olympic team. He duly took gold in the 50-metre free style at the 2000 Sydney Games, tying with Gary Hall, a US team-mate. To this day, only one black swimmer - Paul Marshall in 1980 - has represented Britain at the Olympics.

The most famous black swimmer of all is probably not Nesty but Equatorial Guinea's Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, who achieved global fame in much the same way as British ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards by manifesting supreme determination in the face of negligible technical ability at the Sydney Games. Moussambani finished 71st and last in the men's 100-metre free style, clocking a time, 1:52.72secs, that was 50 seconds slower than the 70th man. For all that the worldwide television audience took him to their hearts, Eric was an unfortunate role model for anyone hoping to see more black swimmers at the pinnacle of the sport. I was surprised and depressed recently to find his blue trunks on display at the Olympic Museum on the shore of Lake Geneva.

How to explain this? After all, what sport, apart from running, could be more natural and accessible than swimming? You just find a body of water, strip off and wade in. It is not like other predominantly white sports such as show jumping and sailing, where the potential barriers to participation are all too obvious. Or so I imagined. But the more I delved, the more I found myself straying into, if you will excuse the pun, deep scientific and sociological waters.

First, though, came a meeting with Metella, whom I interviewed in March near Paris's Gare du Nord railway station. She was soon to board a train to compete in Antwerp and this restricted us to 25 minutes. But by the time she left, wheeling away her Speedo luggage, I had formed the impression of a young woman whose ready smile could not mask the slightly monomaniacal determination bred by a training regime of swimming up to 13km a day.

Metella, 23, comes from French Guiana, a sliver of Amazonian rain forest tucked between Brazil and Suriname. It is far from rich but it did have the wherewithal to let Metella get started, albeit with the help of a schedule that would put most chief executives to shame. “It was hard, very hard,” she says. “I sometimes swam at 5am. Before lessons.” Four more hours of training would be fitted in around a full school day.

She credits her mother and elder sister for getting her interested in swimming in the first place. “[My mum] is Moroccan, but she was born in Algeria, where she did some swimming. She must have stopped during the Algerian war... Afterwards, when we were in Guiana, my sister [who is four years older] tried just about every sport before settling on swimming.” When it came time for her to take up a sport, she decided to follow her sister.

I decide it is time to broach more difficult areas. Remarking on the wide spread of medallists in Athens, I ask why top swimmers from Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, to Mark Spitz, have usually been white.

”I have never thought,” she said. “I don't know. It's like in athletics here, the sprinters are black.” She thought more. “I think you need to set the wheels in motion. It needs a push to make [black swimmers] want to do well, to show that it is possible. That must be what it is.”

I persist. I can understand how poverty might hold people back in developing countries, I say. But then why don't those who become strong swimmers in such circumstances immediately excel when exposed to a state-of-the-art pool? “Yes, it's hard to explain,” she replies. “You really have to want to get to the top. You have to have money to travel around, to train away from home. It's not easy. It's a little bit like cutting the umbilical cord with your country, you know?

”Where I come from, there were good swimmers. But when the time came to sit their Baccalaureat, their studies took over and they said: ‘We want to succeed and [so] we cannot keep swimming.' After a while, they could no longer improve their times. So their morale dropped a little bit and they said: ‘We'll stop swimming altogether and devote ourselves to our studies.' With most of those swimmers, that's how it was.”

There aren't many top black swimmers, even in wealthy countries, I observe. “There must be a different reason in the US,” she says. “They are not easily attracted by swimming. It's athletics and American football. It's a different mentality, I think.”

I finally make a timid attempt to see if things would have been easier for her had she been white. “I don't think so,” she says. I sense it is time to move on.

A few days later, Duncan Goodhew returns my call. A breast stroke gold medallist from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he has latterly become an occasional FT columnist. I knew I could count on him for inside knowledge and good sense. He quickly comes up with a compelling financial reason why disadvantaged youngsters of any race are unlikely to turn to swimming, even in wealthy countries.

”Even today,” he says, “only about half a dozen swimmers earn enough in their careers to support their retirements.” As a result, “even in a rich country, if you are a deprived child and you are looking for a way out, you will pick basketball or soccer rather than something you have to pay for.”

As for natural swimmers, who bathe every day in the sea: “If you swim in the sea a lot, you swim differently. The sea is salt. It's denser. It encourages the development of a significantly different technique.”

But Goodhew said something else that gave me pause for thought: a few years back there was a theory going around suggesting that the paucity of top black swimmers “was to do with bone density and muscle density. Some black people are very muscular and very dense in their structure.”

He made clear at once that this was not a line he bought into. “I think the major issue is socio-economic: a swimming pool is expensive; coaching is expensive.” It seemed to me, though, that if this was the full story, we could reasonably have expected the occasional aquatic Linford Christie or Venus Williams to have emerged over the years - and not just Eric the Eel. I decide to probe further.

Google turned up an array of references to a book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It by Jon Entine, scholar in residence at Miami University in Ohio. I fired off an e-mail to runjonrun@earthlink.net and minutes later he was on the line.

”I don't think there's any question that there are physiological factors [that help to explain why swimming is such a white sport],” he said. “It has been known for hundreds of years that blacks are ‘sinkers' because they don't have natural buoyancy. Black skeletons are, on average, heavier than white. We also know that blacks have on average less natural body fat for no other reason than that they evolved near the equator.”

However, he cautioned, “what complicates the matter is that, unlike running or football, the barrier to entry for competing at elite swimming is among the highest of any sport because, besides needing a swimming pool, you need sophisticated coaching. Teasing out the degree to which success is based on genetics, as opposed to social or cultural issues, is impossible.”

This seemed to me persuasive, if potentially inflammatory. Relative bone density and body fat levels fell into the realm, surely, of scientifically verifiable fact. And even if one couldn't say precisely how much they contributed to the scarcity of top black swimmers, it seemed common sense to acknowledge that they were likely to affect buoyancy and, hence, swimming performance. But where were the studies to back up Entine's assertions?

I unearthed references to several of them in an article - “Measures of body composition in blacks and whites: a comparative review” - co-authored by Dale R. Wagner and Vivian H. Heyward. When I spoke to him, Wagner, an exercise physiologist at Utah State University, had no hesitation in supporting Entine's remarks on bone density. “From all the research that has been done, black people overwhelmingly tend to have greater bone density than white people on average,” he said - although he added: “I don't necessarily know how that would translate into being a world-class swimmer.”

However there was “no conclusive evidence” that black people had less body fat than whites. “A lot of studies have used a two-component model separating the body into fat and fat-free tissue,” he said. “The problem is that you have to make the assumption that everybody's fat-free body density is essentially the same.” Since black people's bones were on average denser than whites, such studies would tend to underestimate their body fat levels.

So that was that, or so it seemed. Elite black swimmers were thin on the ground for a variety of economic and sociological reasons that tended to drive them towards other sports, coupled with their denser than average skeletons. Given how well-established this physiological detail appeared to be, however, I was surprised at how difficult some of those I spoke to, even scientists, seemed to find it to accept. One UK-based lecturer in bioethics seemed to think it better to leave such unpalatable hypotheses unacknowledged. “Even if it's true, where does that leave us?” he asked of the supposed difference in bone density between blacks and whites. “It does lead towards separating people out by race.”

It was then that I spoke to Simon Underdown, a lecturer in biological anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. What he told me appeared to undermine the theory I had developed. His argument, in essence, was that the human skeleton is more dynamic than I had previously supposed, changing in structure in line with the nature of our lifestyles. If you led the life of a hunter-gatherer, for example, your skeleton would become denser. And this would happen within your lifetime; it would not require the passage of generations for the change to become apparent. Citing the now extinct indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, he said the relative harshness of their living conditions was reflected in their “enormously dense skeletons”.

If Underdown was correct, then of course those studies of comparative bone density that I had taken as proof that black swimmers laboured under a physiological disadvantage reflected only the difference in the respective lifestyles that the owners of the tested skeletons led. His conclusion, therefore, came as no surprise: “I cannot think of a skeletal reason why black people should be handicapped as elite swimmers.”

So can the paucity of top black swimmers be blamed on economic and sociological factors alone? Not necessarily: even if the bone density theory is wrong, it doesn't mean that people weren't influenced by it. Brian Pote-Hunt, a consultant on equal opportunity issues for the UK's Amateur Swimming Association, certainly believes that such “myths” once played a part in discouraging sports instructors from promoting swimming as even a recreational activity for black people. Physical education instructors at schools sometimes used to take the view that since there were not many black swimmers, they would push black students towards other sports such as athletics and football,” he says. “Everybody kowtowed to the stereotype that black people were not good at swimming.”

A South African colleague showed just how unquestioningly this received “wisdom” was accepted. Under apartheid, he recalls white racists using the term “non-swimmers” as a euphemism for blacks.

We may not have long to wait for something approaching a definitive answer to the question of whether top swimmers can be identified by their genetic make-up. A team in Scotland has been gathering the material it needs to examine this issue. “We have collected close to 80 DNA samples from elite swimmers,” says Yannis Pitsiladis, the University of Glasgow scientist who is leading the team. “We hope in the next few months to bring this up to 200.”

Pitsiladis is further advanced on a similar study of east African runners aimed at determining whether there is a genetic explanation for the extraordinary dominance of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes in recent times in long-distance running events. To date, however, this remarkable concentration of running talent “does not seem to be genetic”.

So is there any sign of change?

Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, is hopeful. “The problems of access were even greater in tennis and golf, and yet they have been surmounted,” he says. “If one black swimmer breaks through, the likelihood is many more will follow.”

But Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, says that, as with golf, access to facilities and coaching is critical. “USA Swimming is currently seeking for ways to expose our sport to a wider and more culturally diverse audience of youngsters, but it's an uphill struggle.”

One cannot help but wonder how many national associations would have spotted the talented Metella in her obscure corner of South America and put her on the path to the Olympic podium. I, for one, will be delighted if she can go one better at the next summer Olympic Games at 2008 in Beijing.

The story of which she is part highlights the complex cocktail of biological, economic and attitudinal forces behind the, at times, surprisingly stark national and racial patterns we observe in top-level sport. I think it also illustrates the importance - in any field - of pinning down a coherent and rational explanation for the phenomena we see. Even if the truths we stumble upon in the process are unpalatable or politically inconvenient.