Breaking the taboo

Uncovering the dominance of black athletes in some sports, and white athletes in others, is a simple matter of consulting the record books – try to explain it and controversy is inevitable

Even a casual mention that significant genetic differences exist between populations can ignite a firestorm. Roger Bannister, who broke the four-minute barrier in the mile and is now a distinguished neurologist and retired Oxford don, vas showered with ridicule in 1995 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,’ said Sir Roger in a speech before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, ‘by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but under-stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages.’

There are only 800 million blacks, or one in eight of the world population, but athletes of African origin hold every major world running record. In the US, blacks make up 70% of the NFL (National Football League) and 85% of professional basketball. In England, which was slow to allow foreigners into football and has a black population of less than two per cent, one in five soccer players in the Premier League is black.

My book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, relates the uncontroversial scientific conclusion that environment and culture alone cannot explain this remarkable phenomenon. ‘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,’ observes Vincent Sarich, biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘then you could probably be led to believe just about anything. But such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays no role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports. When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cortex just shuts down.’

As equality of opportunity has increased in sports over the past 30 years, equality of results – the diversity of the races of the elite players - has declined. And this is not a black and white issue. \\’hites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting and field events such as the shot-put and hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws). Where flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events (hence the term ‘Chinese splits’). Blacks of West African ancestry are the premier sprinters and jumpers. East African blacks - Kenyans and Ethiopians in particular- are the world’s best distance runners.

Genetically linked, inherited characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle-fibre types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity or the ability to use energy more efficiently, are not evenly distributed across racial groups and cannot be explained by known environmental factors.

But don’t expect a dispassionate public discussion of this issue. Since WWII, anthropological orthodoxy has held that the very concept of race is a loaded, social construct. There exists an understandable visceral fear of a slippery slope: if the conclusion drawn from black domination of Olympic track medals is that blacks are physically superior, what is to be made of the enorn1ous over-representation of white Nobel Prize winners?

It was that legitimate concern that energised Taboo – my intention to do damage to the racist belief that intelligence and physical ability are somehow inversely connected like a seesaw. Yet, when I attempted to get the book published, I encountered a wall of rejections. Broadly, the reaction was: ‘By even suggesting that blacks may have a genetic edge in sports, you are opening up the Pandora’s box of intellectual inferiority.’

Intriguingly, many of the African American intellectuals with whom I shared the evolving manuscript felt quite the opposite. ‘You will be accused of spouting old-fashioned racism for even raising the issue of African-American superiority in athletics,’ wrote Earl Smith, Chairman of the Department of Sociology at Wake Forest University, a leading black scholar and one of my board members. ‘All this beating around the bush has to stop. This is a good book. I am quite excited with the arguments that are raised.’

Although the book has taken some hits from blacks – Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University, called it ‘racist’ though he admitted he hadn’t read it – the reaction has been generally positive and overwhelmingly constructive, which was the motive for the book. The most hostile reaction has been from liberal whites. Anthropologist Jonathan Marks, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, called Taboo ‘demagogic quackery’ and a ‘piece of good old fashioned American anti-intellectualism’. Marks did not mention that he was criticised in the book for his neo-Creationist views and well-known extremist political biases.

What are we to make of a phenomenon in which Establishment whites and blacks, so quick to crow about their own racial sensitivity, recklessly inject racial divisiveness into a debate in which scientists and most African-Americans see reason? The black; community in particular has become irritated to the point of anger about the patronising censorship and codes of silence that many institutions employ to ‘protect them’. ‘I am an editorial columnist,’ wrote Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times in a note to me after his glowing column on Taboo ‘I reviewed your book because I enjoyed reading, it. It cut through all of the bullshit. I am black.’

Humans are truly diverse, biologically and culturally. Acknowledging our differences 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. And that’s far more dangerous.

Jon Entine is a writer and Emmy-winning producer who has worked for NBC and ABC News. Taboo is published by PublicAffairs, US. More at