February 5, 2000

Are Black Genes Best?
A New Book Reignites an Explosive Debate About Race and Sport

By Bruce Garvey

It was a few days before the Super Bowl of 1988, and Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder -- a former Las Vegas bookie turned popular TV football pundit -- was holding court in a Washington restaurant on the state of the National Football League.

"The black is a better athlete because he's been bred to be that way," he told a CBS television crew, "During slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big, black kid, see. That's where it all started."

And that's where it all ended for Jimmy the Greek. He was fired a few days later after a firestorm of protest, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People declaring that his comments could set U.S. race relations back 100 years.

Now, an Emmy-winning former network TV producer has re-ignited the controversy with a book of which its title spells out the explosive debate: Taboo -- Why Black athletes dominate sports and why we're afraid to talk about it.

Throwing off the blanket of political correctness that covers the racial divide in sports, Jon Entine, an American, concludes that blacks will continue their domination of Olympic track and field events and most popular sports; that genetics and the racial heredity of biological attributes plays no small part in the equation. And he quotes the research of exercise physiologist and geneticist Dr. Claude Bouchard, from Universite Laval in Quebec City, to support the thesis that hereditary muscle content and body fat give Africans a decided edge in both speed and endurance.

"In almost every sport, blacks have a decided advantage, and we ignore scientific truth at our own risk," Entine writes. "They are better at sprinting, endurance running and jumping -- the sort of skills required for success in most major sports these days.

"Check the NBA statistics: not one white player has finished among the top scorers or rebounders in recent years.

"White running backs, cornerbacks, or wide receivers in the NFL? Count them on one hand. Roll the calendar back decades, to the 1950s to find the last time a white led baseball in steals.

"A white male toeing the line at an Olympic 100-metre final? Not in decades. Don't expect a white man to set a world record in a road race -- any race, at any distance from 100 metres to the marathon. It may happen in some future decade. But don't hold your breath. There is a new racial barrier in sports. Positions that require speed and jumping ability are almost exclusively black."

Entine cites statistics showing African Americans -- while composing 13 per cent of the U.S. population -- account for 85 per cent of players in the NBA, 65 per cent in the NFL, 70 per cent in women's pro basketball, 50 per cent in U.S. college football and 60 per cent in men's U.S. college basketball.

Of the 44 named starters for the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams who ran onto the field for last Sunday's NFL Super Bowl in Atlanta, only 11 were white.

In baseball, 15 per cent of major leaguers are American blacks, but only 60 per cent are U.S.-born whites, and the number of Hispanics -- many of them black -- has risen to 24 per cent.

Blacks are still few and far between in tennis and golf, even though Tiger Woods and sisters Serena and Venus Williams are among the sports' biggest stars, and there are still only a handful of black players in pro hockey. In Britain, where blacks make up two per cent of the population, though, they account for 20 per cent of pro soccer players, and their numbers are steadily increasing in cricket.

Exploring the possibility of a scientific basis for such lopsided figures, Entine cites the painful memory of Sir Roger Bannister, the British runner who became the first man to crack the four-minute mile and years later became embroiled in a Jimmy-the-Greek-type controversy.

In 1995, Bannister, a retired neurologist, was greeted by a chorus of "racist" allegations after he told the British Association forthe Advancement of Science: "As a scientist, rather than a sociologist, I am prepared to risk political incorrectness by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious, but under-stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain anatomical advantages."

It's a common, and always controversial, theme in the discussion of "race science." When asked about it, the first black man to become an international tennis star, Arthur Ashe, once said: "The results are outstanding, nothing short of stellar. Sociology can't explain it. I want to hear from the scientists. Until I see some numbers (to the contrary), I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge.... My heart says no, but my head says yes."

According to Timothy Noakes, an Australian physician and director of the Sport Science Centre at the University of Capetown Medical School, there is a dramatic difference in the ability of East and North African blacks to run at a higher maximum oxygen capacity in long distance events of more than five kilometres. In the case of marathoners, blacks performed at 89 per cent of maximum oxygen capacity, while whites lagged by nearly 10 per cent. The muscles of the blacks also showed far fewer signs of fatigue, as measured by lactic acid.

The result is that Ethiopians, Kenyans and Moroccans hold almost every running record from the 1,000 metres to the marathon.

Research in Quebec into muscle composition shows that West Africans contain twice as many fast-twitch muscle fibres as French Canadians, and the fast-twitch fibres are responsible for explosive, short-term speed used in sprinting or jumping.

"It appears," Entine writes, "that if an athlete does not have a certain proportion of fast-twitch muscles, he or she can't hope to be a champion sprinter or jumper.

"As we would expect there are relatively more blacks -- almost all of central West African heritage -- in the speed positions in soccer, basketball and football and relatively fewer in the positions in which short-burst activity is less critical than strength."

It also explains why athletes of West African descent so totally dominate in the Olympic sprint events.

Laval's Dr. Bouchard says: "We are keenly aware that race has its limitations and that it has been abused in the past." But "in human biology and clinical studies, as well as in epidemiological research, it is important to understand if age, gender, race and other population characteristics contribute to the phenotype variation. Only by confronting these enormous public health issues head-on and not by circumventing them in the guise of political correctness do we stand a chance to evaluate the discriminating agendas and devise appropriate interventions."

Notes Entine: "In other words, race matters."

However, in today's tyranny of political correctness, Entine writes, even calling a black "a natural athlete" can cost a coach his job. He goes on to quote the Green Bay Packers legendary Vince Lombardi, a coach known for his even-handedness:

"I think Negroes are more naturally endowed. I think physique has a great deal to do with it. They're built differently. Their muscular development is longer. Their muscles are not as bunched. They have a longer type of muscle. That gives them greater spring and more quickness."

And the great Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis: "We generally carry less fat. I can look at our bodies and tell that. We have long levers. And those are the two things that help us sprint better."

For Entine, the sociological rationale that sports has always been blacks' only way out of the ghetto just doesn't explain their athletic dominance.

"Cultural explanations do not, cannot, account for the magnitude of this phenomena," he writes, "But the interaction of science and culture can. The evidence speaks for itself. Humans are different. No amount of rhetoric, however well motivated, can undermine the intriguing kaleidoscope of humanity. It's time to acknowledge and even celebrate the obvious -- it's neither racist nor a myth to say that 'white men can't jump.'"