Aug. 4, 2001, 10:33PM

Genetics, evolution: the unsung heroes?

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle

EDMONTON, Alberta -- It was a gripping sight to have the pair of marathon runners at the end of their 26.2-mile test of will somehow find the inner reserve, the sheer strength to engage in an all-out sprint over the last 200 meters to the finish line in Friday night's opening event of the IAAF World Track and Field Championships.

After watching on the giant video screen as the elite field pounded their way along the hard, hot streets while battling 90-degree temperatures, the last thing any of the spectators inside Commonwealth Stadium expected was a mad, frantic dash down the homestretch.

But when Gezahegne Abera came in just a step ahead of Simon Biwott for the gold medal, what was not the least bit surprising was the country names on the front of their respective singlets. Abera is from Ethiopia and Biwott from Kenya.

Africans own the distance races. According to the world rankings in events ranging from 800 meters to the marathon, Africans hold the top ranking in each among the men. Among the women's distance events, they hold the top ranking in three.

Anecdotal stories, and a great deal of myth that has grown since Kip Keino burst onto the Olympic scene in 1968 and opened the floodgates for his native Kenya, say there may be something magical at work.

Book explores touchy topic

According to Jon Entine, the author of a bold and thought-provoking book entitled Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, the answer lies in the less mystical world of genetics and evolution.

Entine points out that East and North Africans, who share an evolutionary history, have logged more than 60 percent of the best times ever run in distance races. Kenyans, he says, win 40 percent of international events. Thus, the Nandi district in East Africa's Great Rift Valley -- with a population of only 500,000 -- wins 20 percent of all distance races against the rest of the world.

Can it just be the water?

It has been a back-room, away-from-the-track, off-the-playing-field topic of discussion for decades.

Why are the NBA and NFL dominated by black athletes? Why is it almost a certainty that tonight's final in the 100 meters will be comprised of all black runners? Why have Kenyans established a domination of the Boston Marathon that seems to go back to the days of Paul Revere?

It is a topic that is always out there, but one that has rarely been discussed so openly as in Entine's book.

They made a Hollywood movie out of the old bromide "white men can't jump."

But is the explanation for what is happening in all of sports -- and in the distance races in particular -- as simple as saying white runners are innately "soft" and all of the Africans spent their youth running barefoot up and down mountains?

Entine says the difference from one runner to the next always will be an individual's own drive. But as a result of thousands of years of evolution, the runners from North and East Africa have large lung capacity and mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers and lean physiques that are constructed for endurance.

Americans out of the loop

It is not entirely a black-white issue, Entine says, but a geographic and evolutionary issue. According to studies, East Africans have a different makeup than athletes who trace their roots to West Africa. Those runners, he says, are more inclined to excel in the sprints and hurdling.

"I don't know anything about that," said Maurice Greene, the world record holder in the 100. "I'm just a kid from Kansas City."

So how far do we go in drawing the lines on the map? How far will we go in even discussing the subject openly and in more than a whisper?

Whites of European ancestry excel in the field events that require great strength. The few white runners who are competitive at the top level of the distance races often hail from countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, which are close to Africa, and surely share some genetic traits.

Entine goes so far as to say that no home-grown American, white or black, may ever set another world record in a distance race. The results of the last few decades -- and what will likely happen again here -- would seem to back him up.

But understanding why will take more research and more frank discussion. And the bigger question is whether we can handle that.