April 26, 2000

Taboo Wades Boldly into Forbidden Waters

American journalist and award-winning TV producer Jon Entine takes on a loaded topic in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It (Public Affairs, 387 pages, $37.95). How come blacks dominate many sports?

Part biology and ancestry, says Entine – the great Kenyan distance runners are the product of thousands of years of chasing livestock at altitude, as one well-known example.

To absolutely no one's surprise, last week's Boston Marathon was won by a Kenyan, Elijah Lagat. Indeed, Kenyan men claimed five of the top six finishes and seven of the top 10; for 10 consecutive years now, the winner of the 104-year-old marathon, the ultimate test of long-distance running, has come from that same East African nation.

Why Kenyans, and other East Africans? What makes them so good, so dominant in all distance running competitions?

Why do the hard statistics likewise indicate that sprinting is dominated by men and women who trace their origins to Central West Africa? Why is it that eight of 10 NBA players have sub-Saharan heritages?

Is it all right to ask such questions? Do we really want to know the answers?

In Taboo, Entine wades boldly into these forbidden waters. Entine, who is white, recalls talking with the late Arthur Ashe, the great African-American tennis player, who wrote A Hard Road To Glory, a history of the black athlete. "His book had provided endless anecdotes about the very American dream of bootstrapping oneself to success," writes Entine. "Still, Ashe did not find that explanation totally convincing. `Sociology can't explain it,' Ashe signed, frustrated at the political incorrectness of his beliefs. `My heart says no, but my head says yes. I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge. I want to hear from the scientists.'

"Taboo is a response to Arthur's challenge. Sports – running in particular – is a perfect laboratory. Athletic competition offers a definitiveness that eludes most other aspects of life. The favoured explanation for black athlete success - a dearth of opportunities elsewhere and hard work - just do not suffice to explain the dimensions of this expanding monopoly. The decisive variable cannot be found in modern culture but in our genes - the inherent difference between populations shaped by thousands of years of evolution. . . .

"This is, of course, dangerous territory. Fascination about black physicality, and black anger about being caricatured as a lesser human being, have been part of the dark side of the American dialogue on race for more than a century. Taboo respects these justifiable concerns. Yet, pretending there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one's breath. . . . For all our differences, we are far, far more similar. In the end, that's my only real message."

Entine throws out an enormous intellectual net, bringing all sorts of historical and scientific studies together with anecdotal evidence. But a section on whether there's a link between physical superiority and intellectual ability? Race science is a hair-trigger subject in the best of hands. Thankfully, Entine also presents a social history of modern sport, with the stories of such pioneers as Jackie Robinson and such modern superstars as Michael Jordon and Randy Moss.

Whether readers agree with him or not, their thoughts certainly will be provoked by Entine's lively writing. There may not be, in fact, black and white answers in matters so complex – the fuller the paintbox, the better.

Genetics have in the past been used to horrific ends, so caution is always advised and some critics will feel Taboo begs to be misconstrued by committed racists. But legitimate research in genetics is resulting in leaps of fresh information, albeit perhaps only a few steps into what is a marathon of understanding.

"The evidence speaks for itself," concludes Entine. "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.'"

(c) 2000 The Toronto Star