April 22, 2001

Nurture Those Whom Nature has Nourished

When Lee Bong Ju won the Boston Marathon last week, it marked the end of a decade of Kenyan rule. It also raised, once again, the perplexing debate of nature versus nurture. Are athletes born or developed? How much depends on the genes, and how much on the environment?

Tiger Woods is the man in golf with many newspapers and magazines naming him the Sportsman of the 20th Century. But, if Tiger had been born some 50 years ago, chances are, he would not even have been playing golf. As he said on his official website: "Charlie Sifford, in my opinion, is one of the most courageous men ever to play this sport. To deal with the things he has to deal with–society and racism–he kept fighting and fighting. If it wasn't for him, his strong will, who knows, I never might have had the chance to play golf. My dad might not have picked up the sport."

Sifford and Lee Elder, were path-finders for black golfers. About 30 years ago, they gate-crashed the all-White pro circuit. Sifford went on to win the LA Open in 1970. It was tough for Sifford, because the only blacks allowed into almost all the American golf clubs then were the caddies. Today, such discriminatory practices are banned by law and the world discovered a fairway predator. Just how many other 'Tigers' have had their potential killed by society will never be known.


Leander Paes, one of the few tennis players from India to break into the upper echelons of the sport, said in a BBC interview last year: "About 50 per cent of our population can't afford to have three meals a day, let alone be able to put a tennis racquet or a cricket bat in the child's hand. I believe that in India we have a lot of talent, but they miss out because we cannot encourage them to take up sport as a profession."

Both Woods and Paes are the exceptions. Woods was introduced to golf because his father, as a lieutenant-colonel in the armed forces, had access to the military courses. Paes, on the other hand, is lucky. His parents are former Olympians. Dad was a hockey player while mum was the basketball captain. So, he not only grew with sport in his blood but food in his stomach.

Ever wonder why Africa, the poorest continent, is so good at soccer and athletics? Simple, it costs practically nothing to play football or to run. This is also the same reason basketball dominates the ghettoes of America. But one need not go overseas to see how society influences sports, sporting achievements and sportsmen. Take the evolvement of so-called ‘Chinese-based' sports in Singapore. In the 1950s, the Chinese-medium schools did not have large fields. So they concentrated on less space-demanding activities such as table tennis, volleyball and basketball. Today, these sports still bear testimony of their early history.


Similarly, the top English schools of those days–Raffles Institution, St. Joseph's Institution, St Patrick's School and Anglo-Chinese School–were the only ones to offer 'elitist' sports such as tennis, cricket and rugby. Neighbourhood schools don't. And that explains why such sports are still played by only a minority of schools today.

Last Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan announced the setting up of Team Singapore, the sporting equivalent of Singapore Inc. He said Singapore cannot have them pulling in opposite directions. So, it is imperative that athletes, parents, media, sponsors and bodies such as the national sports associations, the Singapore Sports Council and the Singapore National Olympic Council work as one. Singapore has realised that, for a sportsman to succeed, society must stand firmly behind him.

The former USSR has long used sports to build up nationalistic pride and fervour, something that it instilled in its sympathetic neighbours such as East Germany. Winning for the Fatherland is the only goal. Sadly, many athletes had to be drugged to achieve the golds. On the brighter side, sport has been the path out of poverty for many in countries such as Kenya, Brazil, Pakistan and China. Be a cricket or hockey star in the Indian sub-continent, and your future is assured.

Hashim Khan, who founded the Khan dynasty of world squash, realised the economic importance of sports–and kept the 'squash trade' zealously and jealously in the family. But one can only do so much to nurture the rough jewel into a champion sportsman. Nature must do its part. But are all men created equal? Or are various racial groups endowed with certain attributes by Mother Nature, which make them better in some sports than others? Is it nature or nurture that makes Singapore Malays good sepak takraw players, just as Indians and Eurasians seem to excel at hockey and cricket and Chinese at basketball and table tennis?

Sociologists warn against stereotyping, but there is far too much hard and soft proof not to believe that ‘White men can't jump' and 'blacks can't float'. Controversial journalist Jon Entine has researched the subject of sports and race, his book is compulsory reading for sports science and anthropology students. An Emmy-winning producer and writer, one of his best-sellers is Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It. In it he quotes biological anthropologist Vince Sarich of Berkley: "If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavours, then you could probably be led to believe just about anything." Even as late as the early 1990s, it was deemed politically incorrect to talk about black athletic supremacy. It is ironic that while whites hate being made to look inferior, blacks abhor the devious association with 'natural athleticism'.


As black columnist Bob Herbert once remarked, genetics was a "genteel way to call a black a nigger". Times have changed and more and more tests are being conducted by universities from the United States to Scandinavia. Entine quoted Sir Roger Bannister, a distinguished neurologist and the first man to run the sub-four-minute mile as saying in 1995: "As a scientist, rather than a sociologist, I am prepared to risk political incorrectness by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but understressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages."

We do not need hard data to convince us when the empirical evidence is so glaring. NBA basketball has shown that blacks are better basketballers. Africans and those of African descent are better athletes, both in the sprints and the long distances. Whites are better swimmers. Chinese make good gymnasts and divers. Japanese and Koreans have a love for the marathons and ultra-marathons. Nature need not make you, genetically, far superior than others to be world champions.

As Robert Malina, an anthropologist at Michigan State University, observed: "Differences among athletes of elite calibre are so small that if you have a physique or the ability to fire muscle fibres more efficiently, which might be genetically based ... it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place"

While most of us would generally accept that Africans are good athletes, Entine has gone one step further. He has divided the continent into the fast sprinters of West Africa and the marathon-men of the East. Before South Korean Lee Bong Ju won the Boston Marathon this year, Kenyans had dominated that prestigious event for the past 10 years. In the 10,000 metres, the top 12 in the world rankings comprise eight Kenyans, three Ethiopians and a Spaniard. The high-altitude people of the mountains can certainly run, run and run. Entine points out that the last time a non-white set a world record in the 100 metres was German Armin Hary back in 1960. His time: 10.2sec. All the 32 100m finalists in the last four Olympics are of West African descent. On the other hand, if you look at the list of world-class high jumpers and pole vaulters, you could hardly miss the white domination.


Dr. James Tanner, in The Physique of the Olympic Athlete, believes that there is an ideal body' for each sport. Basically, sprinters are muscular. Then, moving from the 400m to the marathon, he noted less muscle in the upper body. Long-distance runners, he noted, were generally small, short-legged, narrow-shouldered and lacking in muscle. Shot-putters were almost always endomorphs–persons of rounded builds.

Is there a lesson in all this for Singapore? Yes. With limited manpower and resources, the Republic cannot afford to be a Jack of all trades. It has to specialise. Granted that the Singapore Sports Council has segregated sports in order of importance: Core, Merit and Others. But the selection is sometimes baffling, to say the least. If we really want to compete at the highest of levels, it is time to put aside sentiment, history and political correctness. Let us nurture those whom nature has blessed. Some natural thoughts.


Human beings come in three basic shapes:

–Ectomorph: Thin and linear. Good marathoners.

–Endomorph: Rotund with fatty tissues. Good shot putters and hammer throwers.

–Mesomorph: Muscular, not tall, powerful. Ideal sprinters.

Certain body shapes suit certain sports. An ectomorph won't be a defender in American football. Kenyans and Ethiopians–largely ectomorphs–are good at long-distance running. Mesomorphic Blacks of West African ancestry are natural sprinters.


But body shape is not the sole ingredient for success. The body needs oxygen for cardio-vascular fitness. Physiologists talk about converting andenosine tri-phosphate (ATPs) into andenosine di-phospate (ADPs). And about reducing lactic acid which causes muscle cramps.

Simply put: The body uses chemical energy stored in muscles and tissues. Efficient usage of oxygen will not produce lactic acid. Sprinters are not affected by this because a race is over in 10sec. ATP/ADP conversion sets in after 45sec. Long-distance runners are more affected. High-altitude dwellers of East Africa have advantage over lowlanders. Mountain air is rarefied so inhabitants learn to survive with less oxygen. So, when they compete at sea level, they find breathing so much easier.


Every now and then, an East Asian would pop up and challenge the world's best marathoners. First, they are of the right body type. And they compensate what nature had not given with single-mindedness of pursuit. Marathoners can improve oxygen efficiency and heart-rate through hard work. Recall what surprise Boston Marathon winner Lee Bong Ju said in Seoul: "I ran every step of the marathon with so much determination that I would die on the track if I had to."


Whites have upper body strength suitable for weightlifting and the throwing events. East Asians are more flexible–good for diving, gymnastics, skating. Sub-Saharan Africans have low body fat, long legs in comparison to rest of body, narrow hips. Africans don't make good swimmers because they are 'sinkers'–they have denser skeletons and muscles. Sprinters have more 'fast-twitch' muscles (for quick bursts), marathoners more 'slow-twitch' ones (for endurance).

Copyright 2001 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.