Why an American (Black or White) May Never Win Another Bay to Breakers

May 15, 2001

By Jon Entine

About 100,000 Americans may run in this year's Bay to Breakers, but don't expect any one of them to cross the finish line first. And here's a prediction that may startle you: an American -- black or white -- may never again win any competitive international distance race.

Kenyan Reuben Kiprop Cheruiyot, ranked number one in the world, heads an elite Breakers field dominated by his fellow countrymen. Gladys Asiba and Jane Ngotho, both from Kenya, are the women's favorites.

For Americans, the world rankings paint a dismal picture. Kenyans hold nine of the top 10 men's places and six of the top female spots, with U.S. runners visible only in the rear view mirror.

What has befallen the great American distance running tradition, built on the exploits of Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers?

Media "experts" offer the usual dodge and clichés: Americans are soft. Distance runners from the U.S., Britain and Europe can't match grueling Kenyan training regimens.

In fact, Kenya does have an inspiring sports tradition. The National Stadium in Nairobi is regularly crowded with adoring fans. Coaches comb the countryside for the next generation of stars, who are showered with special training and government perks. It's no exaggeration to call Kenya's national sport a national religion.

There's only one problem: The national sport, and Kenya's enduring obsession, is soccer, not running. But Kenyans, and other East Africans, aren't very good at their national passion and the reason is in their genes.

Long-distance running is what Kenyans excel at and, according to conventional wisdom, Kenyans dominate because they ran to school as children, train torturously at high altitude and are desperate to escape to a better life in the West. It's in their culture.

Yet science does not support the popular notion that Kenyans dominate because of social factors. "I lived right next door to school," laughs Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, world 800-meter record holder, dismissing such cookie-cutter explanations. "I walked, nice and slow." Some kids ran to school, some didn't, he says, but that had nothing to do with success.

Biology plays a hand

East Africans, including Kenyans, win because they are more likely to be born with a near-perfect biomechanical package for endurance activities: lean, ectomorphic physiques, large lung capacity and a preponderance of slow twitch muscle fibers. Evolution has put its stamp on the gene pool.

"Africans are genetically more likely to have less body fat, which is a critical edge in elite running," notes Joseph Graves, Jr., an African American evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University and author of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

"Evolution has shaped body types and athletic possibilities. Differences don't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather with geography and climate. Genes play a major role in this. Don't expect an Eskimo to show up on an NBA court," he adds. "Many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role in sports. But based on the data, the genes are what counts most," states the top scientist in human performance research, Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center

Saltin outlined his widely embraced findings in a cover story, "Muscles and Genes," in last September's Scientific American. "The extent of the environment is less than 25 percent. It is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented."

It's not about training

Moreover, there is no specific "Kenyan style" of training. "Training regimens are as varied in Kenya as anywhere in the world," notes Colm O'Connell, coach at St. Patrick's Iten, the private school that turned out Kipketer and other Kenyan greats.

O'Connell eschews the mega-training common among runners in Europe and North America -- runners who have failed to duplicate the Kenyan running miracle. Some American runners, such as Josh Cox of California, regularly train 200 miles or more a week, to no avail.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument suggesting that sports success is rooted not in how you prepare but who you are is found in the real-life laboratory of the Nandi Hills, the 6,000-8,000 foot highlands that snake along the western edge of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.

Home to roughly 1.5 million people, this region has produced more than 60 percent of the best times ever run in distance races. Kenyans win 40 percent of top international events and the Nandi district of 500,000 people -- 1/12,000 of Earth's population -- sweeps an unfathomable 20 percent, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.

Tracing genetic differences

But what about black Americans, say skeptics? Why are there no great African American distance runners? In truth, there are. But none traces to West Africa, the ancestral home of almost all African Americans.

Khalid Khannouchi, the recently naturalized North African, holds the world record in the marathon. The two best emerging stars are of East African descent: Abdi Abdirahman, born in Somalia, and Meb Keflezgihi, a native Eritrean, who demolished the U.S. 10,000 meter record on May 4.

African Americans are genetically different from North and East Africans. Sports performance owes little to skin color, but much to population genetics. People of West African ancestry have smaller lung capacity (about 15 percent when compared to whites and East Africans), a preponderance of fast twitch muscle fibers, and a more muscled, mesomorphic physique -- a bio-mechanical goldmine for sprinting.

"West Africans have 70 percent of the fast type muscle fibers when they are born," says Dr. Saltin. "And that's needed for a 100-meter race around 9.9 seconds." It's no surprise that athletes of primarily West African origin, including African Americans, hold the top 200 and 494 of the top 500 times in the men's 100 meters.

All the training in the world is unlikely to turn an African American into an elite marathoner or a Kenyan into a top 100-meter runner. The fastest Kenyan 100-meter time is 10.28 seconds, ranking about 5,000th on the all-time list, and almost a half second slower than the best from West Africa.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," notes Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the American Journal of Human Biology, "that if you have the ability to fire muscle fibers more efficiently that might be genetically based . . . it might be very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

There is no superiority

Africans are certainly not "genetically superior" as athletes.

East Asians, not very competitive at jumping and running because of naturally high levels of body fat and a predominance of slow twitch fibers, are prominent in diving and gymnastics; when flexibility is key, East Asians shine.

Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably do best at wrestling, weightlifting, and field events such as the hammer (Slavonic whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws).

Could a non-African runner win the Bay to Breakers? Certainly, for genes only circumscribe possibility and a distance race opens the door for the roulette wheel of the human spirit. There will always be great runners from every part of the globe, particularly from mountainous countries such as Mexico (keep your eye on Armando Quintanilla), but the pool of elite distance runners is far larger in North and East Africa.

"If you can believe that individuals of African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European ancestry in running," notes retired University of California at Berkeley molecular biologist Vincent Sarich, "then you probably could be led to believe just about anything. But when we discuss these issues, those who think that genetics plays no role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sport just shut down their minds."

But scientists have already identified specific genes linked to athletic performance. In one such study, Dr. Steven M. Rudich, a transplant surgeon then at the University of California at Davis, indicated that a single injection of the EPO gene into leg muscles of monkeys produced significantly elevated red blood cell levels for 20 to 30 weeks. EPO is a key factor in endurance.

Human growth hormone and a protein called insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1 are used illicitly now by athletes using conventional methods to increase muscle size and strength. Both can be utilized in gene therapy or adapted through genetic engineering to increase athletic peformance.

Origins a key to athletics

Geneticists are certain that such genes are not distributed equally, population to population. Unfortunately, many prominent scientists, fearful of a backlash from those ill attuned to subtle scientific concepts, over-simplify and actually underplay what we have learned from genetic research.

"Even today, few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject," notes Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which, ironically, some have attacked as politically correct.

Such caution is regularly on display when genetics is the issue. At an internationally covered news conference last spring, Dr. Francis Collins of the National Human Genome Research Project made a point of stating that humans are "99.9 percent the same," reinforcing the popular notion that "race has no genetic or scientific basis."

While technically accurate -- "race" based on skin color is genetically and scientifically baseless -- such statements were widely misrepresented by journalists as "proof" that there are no group differences.

Stanford University's Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, while rejecting the biological meaningfulness of race, recognizes that many characteristics, from facial features to the susceptibility to certain diseases to physique and physiology, are found in population clusters formed by a succession of genetic overlays as smaller populations migrated and mated.

Such ideological correctness makes it difficult to discuss prickly issues of race and undermines support for genetic research, which is focused on finding and isolating patterned biological differences. Moreover, by encouraging censorship in the fear that this information will be misused, righteous social thinkers are in effect legitimizing the racist notions that have underscored the taboo about discussing human biodiversity.

Everyone not created equal

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell anemia and colo-rectal cancer, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely to fall victim to the degenerative neurological disease Tay-Sachs and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that the success of East African distance runners, Eurasian white power lifters, and sprinters of West African ancestry can be explained, in part, by genetics?

Such statements sound heretical to Americans who are steeped in the ideology that "everyone is created equal." Equal in opportunity, hopefully, but not in possibility. Genes set limits. But many scientists are so fearful that acknowledgement of human differences will be misinterpreted that they engage in willful distortion to protect against stirring racism.

But genetic research does not support that conclusion, a fact sometimes lost because the taboo on openly discussing these issues remains in place.

Let's broaden the scope

"The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up consistently in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations," asserts Graves. "There are some group differences. It varies by characteristic. We see it in diseases. But that's a long way from reconstructing century old racial science."

Society, and science in particular, pay a huge price for this disingenuity. At the very least, it denies honest discourse, the soul of an open, liberal society; at the worst, such ideological correctness undermines already fragile support for genetic research, which is focused on finding and isolating patterned biological differences to combat diseases.

Sports events, including Bay to Breakers, provide an intriguing opportunity to broaden our understanding of the genetic revolution now unfolding. As with gene therapy for diseases, scientists are within a decade of perfecting tools of employing genetic engineering that could make humans run faster, jump higher and throw farther.

Sports success is a complex combination of social, environmental, and biological factors, none of which can easily be teased out and isolated. Humans are different, a product of the intertwined and inseparable relationship of genes and environment. Popular thinking, still reactive to the historical misuse of "race science," lags behind this new bio-cultural model of human nature.

"If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity," warns Walter E. Williams of George Mason University; "we concede the turf to black and white racists." The question today is no longer whether genetic research will continue but to what end. Sports offer a non-polemical way to convey this message and de-politicize what has sometimes been a vitriolic debate.

Jon Entine (www.jonentine.com) is author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It (PublicAffairs, 2000), which was just released in paperback.