TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid to Talk About It

Jon Entine's acclaimed new book Taboo was the subject of an hour-long documentary on Britain's BBC2-TV on Sept. 7.

Story by Jon Entine for

Part One: The Sprints

If there is a level playing field in athletics, it is the earth -- literally. "A scientist interested in exploring physical and performance differences couldn't invent a better sport than running," wrote Amby Burfoot, a former track star who is now executive editor of Runner's World.

Running is a true worldwide sport, practiced and enjoyed in almost every country around the globe. Also, it doesn't require any special equipment, coaching or facilities. [Ethiopia's] Abebe Bikila proved this dramatically in the 1960 Olympic Games when-shoeless, little coached and inexperienced-he won the marathon. Given the universality of running, it's reasonable to expect that the best runners should come from a wide range of countries and racial groups. This isn't, however, what happens. Nearly all the sprints are won by runners of West African descent. Nearly all the distance races are won, remarkably, by runners from just one small corner of one small African country.

Running, the most democratic of sports, attracts participants from every corner of the globe. Yet the stars are increasingly monochromatic. For all practical reality, men's world championship events might as well post a sign declaring, "Whites Need Not Apply." With the breaking of Sebastian Coe's 18-year-old 1,000-meter world record in September 1999 by Kenyan Noah Ngeny, a Kalenjin (Nandi) every men's world record at every commonly run track distance now belongs to a runner of African descent.

The ancestry of elite performers reflects a remarkably consistent pattern, as journalist Steve Sailer has demonstrated. Sailer analyzed the top 100 times for nine events from the 100 meters to the marathon-900 performances in all-broken down by seven population groups: Caucasians, East Asians, Mexicans, North Africans, East Africans, and athletes of West African descent including African Americans. In most cases the elite of each population performed best at one or two specific distances.

Overall, whites and Asians are in danger of becoming mere asterisks when compared to darker-skinned competitors. Among Sailer's key findings: • Blacks who trace their ancestry to central West Africa hold 35 percent of all top 900 times, concentrated entirely in the sprints; • Athletes from one country, Kenya, make up 28.5 percent of all the top performances: Kenyans own 95 percent of the top times in the 3,000-meter steeplechase; and East Africans, Kenyans and Ethiopians in particular, hold more than half the top times at races from 800 meters to 10,000 meters; • North Africans-from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria-do well over 1,500 meters and form a performance bell that peaks at 5,000 meters; • Mexicans, mostly Native Indians, are strongest at 10,000 meters and the marathon; • East Asians-Chinese, Koreans and Japanese-have less than 2 percent of top times, all at the marathon; • Whites do not excel at any particular distance and held only 14 percent of the top times, although their best distances are in the middle distances of 800 and 1500 meters, and the marathon.

Amazingly, whereas only one in every eight people in the world are believed to be black, more than three of four top times in these events-75 percent-are held by runners of African origin. Track-and-field talent in Africa is not evenly distributed across the continent but is concentrated in three distinct regions: the two northwest African countries of Algeria and Morocco; a semi-contiguous string of West African coastal states, dominated by Senegal and Nigeria; and a large block of eastern and southern African states stretching unbroken from Ethiopia to South Africa, with Kenya and South Africa by far the largest producers.

To better understand the complex story behind this dramatic map, let's deconstruct the record book. Remember the last time a non-black set the men's world record in the 100-meter sprint? One has to go back to 1960, when German Armin Hary won the Olympic gold medal in 10.2 seconds. Today, the 100 meter distance is totally monopolized by blacks with West African roots. They are quicker out of the starting blocks and demonstrate blazing speed over short distances. Former "world's fastest human" Donovan Bailey clocked a mind-bending 27 miles per hour at the mid-point of his record-breaking race at the Atlanta Olympics.

There are no sprinters of note from Asia, even with more than 50 percent of the world's population, a Confucian and Tao tradition of discipline, and an authoritarian sports system in place in the most populous country, China. No white sprinter can be found on the list of 100-meter sprinters; the best time by a white, 10 seconds, ranks more than 200th on the all-time list. Dozens of blacks, every one with a West African ancestry, have cracked the 10-second barrier, but no sprinter of any other race. For top black sprinters, it's an every-meet occurrence.

All of the 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races are of West African descent. The likelihood of that happening based on population numbers alone-blacks from that region, now living around the globe, represent approximately 8 percent of the world's population-is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001 percent.

Although there are currently no elite 100-meter male runners who are white or Asian, there have been a small handful over the years (as would be expected with a bell curve distribution). In 1979 Italy's Pietro Mennea shattered the 200-meter record with a time of 19.72 seconds, still the best time by a non-African. Although he ran in Mexico City's 7,300 foot altitude and was aided by a tailwind of 90 percent of the allowable limit, Mennea's moment in the sun is invoked as "proof" that whites can run as fast as blacks.

While Mennea's record held for 17 years, it was pulverized twice in 1996 by Michael Johnson, the second time in a stunning 19.32, an improvement of more than 2 percent-an unheard-of breakthrough in sprinting. Mennea remains the only white man among the all-time great 200-meter runners. Intriguingly, like many southern Italians and Spaniards who are standouts in running, Mennea traces part of his own ancestry to sub-Saharan West Africa. The genetic makeup of many North Africans and South Europeans reflects the gene flow that occurred between the two continents.


Excerpted from Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, by Jon Entine (PublicAffairs, 2000).