Sport on TV: Johnson crosses the line and races to his conclusions

The subject of race in sport is fraught with danger. The arenas must be free of such considerations, and you are bound to be walking on eggshells. Or in Michael Johnson's case, running very fast over them, so fast that he barely cracks a single one. With the sonorous voice of the American South and four Olympic gold medals in his pocket, there can be no arguing with his credentials to tackle the taboo.

Michael Johnson's Survival of the Fastest (Channel 4, Thursday) puts forward the theory that the vast majority of great sprinters are descended from slaves. Those who were shipped from Africa and survived the atrocious conditions to reach the United States were by necessity the strongest. Or they were left in Jamaica, the last-ditch dumping ground for the most difficult captives. Hence it is no freak of nature that the tiny Caribbean island, where 90 per cent of the population are descended from slaves, is the USA's chief rival in the sprinting stakes.

"Slavery was kind of an unnatural selection, a speeded-up evolution, a mass murder of the weakest, only the fittest able to survive and pass on their genes," says the former 200m and 400m Olympic champion. His theory is somewhat scuppered when he asks a couple of Jamaican teenagers why their island is so successful at sprinting and the answer comes: "The yam and the bananas." Another says: "They will realise we are black people, that we are just as good as whites," which is closer to the mark. But it's a psychological imperative left over from colonial days, not a physical one.

He meets a number of academics including Professor Bill Amos, who studies elephant seals in California. Hunted to apparent extinction, they returned having discarded their weaker traits because only the strongest survived. But sprinters are not descended from seals – the flippers would be no use at all.

More than a scientific inquiry, this programme resembled a tragic episode of Who do you think you are? Johnson unearthed a picture of his great great great great aunt, Irella Battle. But going further back in time, there is nothing. Johnson may or may not have come from a line of Senegalese kings. But the nature of slavery is that there is no hinterland on the African side because the slaves' identity was systematically stripped away.

Slaves were rounded up from all parts of the continent, creating "an incredibly rich gene pool with the widest range of talent available". But there's no way to back up such theories with hard facts. So you really cannot draw any conclusions from the terrible darkness shrouding the slave trade. It's just not that black and white.

* Two former sporting titans are cycling from Olympia to the Olympic Park in London to raise a mighty £2m for charity. On Flintoff and Dallaglio's Big Ride (Discovery, Thursday), "Freddie" challenges "Lol" to a race at Lake Garda, the former cricketer going around it on a bike and the ex-rugby player going across it in a boat. He's rowing for the first time in his life, with the help of TV habitué James Cracknell. The boat gradually fills with water and Dallaglio spends all his time trying to empty it. It's a good job they had made it to Italy, because a bail-out in Greece would have been very hard work.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor