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why black will beat white at the olympics

new statesman, 18 september 2000

Next Saturday afternoon, in less time than it has taken me to type this sentence, the fastest man at the Olympics will take the 100m gold medal. That man may be the pre-Olympic favourite, the American Maurice Greene. It may be Trinidad's Ato Boldon. It may even be Britain's Dwaine Chambers, who has run into impressive form in the last few weeks. But whoever it is, of one thing we can be certain: he will be black. Indeed, you've probably got more chance of winning the lottery next Saturday than a white man has of even making it to the final. The last time that a white athlete participated in an Olympic 100m final, Jimmy Carter was still in the White House. And the last time a white athlete held the 100m world record, Khrushchev was ensconced in the Kremlin. Over the past decade, the 10 second mark in the 100m has been broken 200 times - but not once by a white athlete. Nor is it just at the 100m that whites are so noticeably absent. Every men's world record at every commonly-run track distance from 100m to the marathon now belongs to a runner of African descent.

Nor is there any respite for white sportsmen away from the Olympics. In 1950, the American Basketball Association was almost entirely white. Today it is 80 per cent black; among the stars the figure rises to 95 per cent. Sixty per cent of American footballers are black. France won the football World Cup and Euro 2000 with a team in which more than a third of the players were black. In boxing, the two world heavyweight champions - Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield - are black; there is not a single serious white contender for their crowns.

What lies behind such black domination of sport? The traditional liberal answer points the finger at social factors. Blacks, so the argument runs, have been driven into sport because racism has excluded them from most areas of employment. Racism also makes blacks hungrier than whites for success, and so they more often end up on the winners' rostrum. In the postwar world, largely as a consequence of the experience of the Holocaust, there has been a great reluctance to see human differences, indeed to view any aspect of human behaviour, in biological terms. Humans, we have come to believe, can be explained purely in terms of culture.

Increasingly, this antipathy to biology is wearing away. More and more, biologists, anthropologists and athletes themselves are looking to nature not nurture for an explanation of black domination. 'Blacks are made better', argues Carl Lewis, the African American athlete who won four golds at the 1984 Olympics. The American journalist Jon Entine dismisses the environmentalist theory of black athletic prowess as 'political correctness'. Entine's book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It was published in America earlier this year to great controversy. The liberal consensus, Entine argues, has served only to disguise the truth about the black domination of sport - which is that blacks are built to run and jump. It's an argument that's winning a hearing on this side of the Atlantic too. Last week, the BBC transmitted The Faster Race, produced by its Black Britain team, which argued the case for a natural black athleticism. Channel 4 begins shortly a three-part series, The Difference, which explores genetic differences between races, including in sport. It's time we put away our fears of talking about racial differences, the series argues, and faced up to the facts of genetic diversity.

The view that black sportsmen and women have a natural superiority rests on the evidence of physiological research, largely into two groups of athletes: East African long distance runners and West African sprinters. East Africa, and in particular Kenya, is the powerhouse of middle and long distance running. The top 60 times in the 3000m steeple chase are all held by Kenyan athletes, who also hold more than half the top times at 5000 and 10,000 metres. Kenyan men have won the world cross-country championship every year since 1986. At the Boston marathon, often considered the world's premier event, Kenyan men have not lost since 1990. Most remarkably, the vast majority of top Kenyan runners come from one area in the country - the Kalenjin region along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley, adjacent to Lake Victoria. Kalenjin runners have won more than seventy per cent of Kenya's Olympic medals in world running and all but one Kenyan-held world records.

A number of lines of research suggest that the secret of such spectacular success lies in superior biology. All muscle contains two kinds of fibres - fast-twitch and slow-twitch. The former is good at producing explosive bursts of energy, the latter at sustaining muscle effort over long periods. Physiologists have shown that the muscles of Kenyan athletes have a higher proportion of slow-twitch fibres than those of white or West African athletes. Kenyans also enjoy a slighter body profile, have relatively longer legs and larger lung capacities, and possess more energy-producing enzymes in their muscles which are better able to utilise oxygen.

Athletes of West African descent - which include most African American, Caribbean and black British athletes - have, on the other hand, a physique which is suited to explosive events, requiring sprinting and jumping. Such athletes possess what biologists call a mesomorphic physique with bigger, more visible muscles including a larger chest. Their muscles contain a higher proportion of fast-twitch fibres than do whites or East Africans. Athletes of West African descent also possess less body fat, a higher centre of gravity, narrower hips, and higher levels of testosterone in their blood.

For Entine such physiological and biomechanical differences demonstrate the natural superiority of black athletes. For Entine's critics, on the other hand, the very search for such differences demonstrates a racist outlook. 'I don't think it matters what the biological conclusions are', argues former footballer Garth Crooks. 'It forges a distinction between black and white athletes which is unhealthy, unhelpful and untrue.' According to the prestigious science journal Nature, 'The danger that interracial comparisons will be inhibited by considerations of political correctness is less serious than that interracial studies will be wrongly used.' 'There are some things better left unsaid', concluded the New York Times.

Such critics are responding to a long history of racism in which black athletic superiority has often been seen as evidence of intellectual backwardness. 'The Negro excels in the events he does because he is closer to the primitive than the white man', claimed Dean Cromwell, the head coach to the US team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 'It was not long ago that his ability to sprint and jump was a life-and-death matter to him in the jungle.' Today, too, scientific racists, such as the controversial Canadian psychologist Philippe J. Rushton, argue that there is a trade-off between brain and brawn, and that black athletic superiority has been purchased at the price of lower intelligence. In The Faster Race Rushton explained (with a perfectly straight face) that Asian and white infants are born with bigger heads than black infants. Hence Asian and white women have a bigger pelvic girdle than do black women. A smaller pelvis, Rushton claimed, is better suited to running. Asians and whites are brainier, blacks more athletic.

Such claims may seem to us deeply offensive. But this is no reason to close our eyes to scientific arguments about racial differences in sporting ability. The cause of antiracism is not strengthened by ignoring science or censoring data. Racial science is a pseudo-science, which ignores the truth about human differences; antiracists should not try to ape it. Moreover, the debate about differences in sporting abilities is part of a wider debate about the meaning of new knowledge about genetic diversity. Channel 4's The Difference links racial variation in physical attributes to racial variation in intelligence. The final programme in the series is largely given over to Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, to argue that black populations are naturally less intelligent that whites and Asians. Liberals who refuse to engage in the debate about natural difference are simply leaving the terrain open to the likes of Rushton and Murray.

The real problem with the 'blacks are born to run' thesis is not that it is politically incorrect and hence should be ignored but that it is factually incorrect and should be challenged. The most basic difficulty is the confusion of racial and population differences. Different population groups are clearly physically distinct. The Masai in Kenya tend to be taller and longer limbed than the stocky, short-limbed Inuit in the Arctic, because the body-forms of both have been shaped by natural selection to suit their particular environments. But the fact that there are physical differences between human groups does not mean that such differences can be reduced to racial distinctions, nor that such differences need have a meaningful consequence in human endeavour, whether that be sport or IQ tests.

It is certainly possible to divide humanity into a number of races, as we conventionally do, according to skin colour and body form. But it is also possible to do it many other ways - using, for instance, blood group, lactose-tolerance, sickle cell, or any other genetic trait, as the basis for our new 'races'. Genetically, each would be as valid a criterion as skin colour. The distribution of one physical or genetic characteristic - say skin colour - is not necessarily the same as that of another - such as blood group. The current division of the world into black, white, Asian and Oriental races is, in other words, as rooted in social convention as in genetics.

Entine rejects such criticisms as mere 'semantics'. But his own argument shows why it is not so. According to Entine, East Africans are naturally superior at endurance sports, West Africans at sprinting and jumping, and 'whites fall somewhere in the middle'. But if East and West Africans are at either end of a genetic spectrum of athletic abilities why consider them to be part of a single race, and one that is distinct from whites? Only because conventionally we use skin colour as the criterion of racial difference.

To understand why genetic notions of population difference are at odds with social ideas of race, consider the Australian athlete Cathy Freeman. Freeman, an Aborigine, is the hottest Australian athlete, and a good tip for the 400m Olympic gold. Because of their skin colour, Aborigines are often bracketed with sub-Saharan Africans as a 'black' race. Racial scientists have often argued that Australian Aborigines and black African are the two most primitive races in the world. Since Freeman's rise to prominence, there has been much speculation that Aborigines, like black Africans, are natural athletes. Genetically, however, there is no population in the world more distinct from those of sub-Saharan Africa than Australian Aborigines. Freeman is genetically closer to white athletes such as Britain's Katherine Merry than to black athletes such as America's Marion Jones. Here, as in much else, appearances can be deceptive.

Not only are genetic notions of population differences distinct from political concepts of race, but the physiology of human differences is not easy to interpret in sporting terms. Entine suggests that West Africans have relatively slender calves compared to whites, and that this helps their sprinting ability. It is difficult to see how, because muscle-power increases with cross-sectional area; smaller calves should make it harder, not easier, to excel in explosive sprinting events. Indeed 'slender calves' is the main biological reason given for the lack of African-Americans in ice hockey. Yet the same attribute is seen as enhancing their performance on the track.

It is true that athletes of West African descent living in North America, Western Europe and the Caribbean dominate many sports. But contemporary West Africans don't. This is the opposite of what one should expect if athletic ability was predominantly genetic. In America, considerable intermixing between black and white populations has meant that the African American population embodies, on average, some 30 per cent of genes from populations of European descent. Hence African Americans should be poorer athletes than West Africans. The reverse is true.

What all this suggests is that the relationship between sports, culture and genetics is much more complex than either liberal antiracists or 'race realists' like Entine and Murray will allow. Athletic talent is at least in part inherited, and there are undoubted genetic differences between populations. Nor should we dismiss the possibility that West Africans and Kenyans have a genetic advantage when it comes to sprinting or long distance running. It has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt, and there is clearly much more to sport than natural ability, but in principle there is no reason to assume that certain populations have physical characteristics more suited to particular athletic activities. But are blacks naturally better athletes than whites? Not necessarily. We should be highly suspicious of any and all attempts to confuse the genetics of populations and the politics of race.