Q: Why are all the men in this picture black?; A: Because they make better runners than whites, says Roger Bannister

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The Independent Online
Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run the four-minute mile, yesterday walked into controversial territory by suggesting that black athletes have innate advantages in sport. Sir Roger, a neurologist and chairman of the Government Committee on Sport in Universities, said attributes of black athletes, such as more efficient muscles, may be partly responsible for them achieving their success.

"As a scientist rather than a sociologist I am prepared to risk political incorrectness by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but under- stressed fact that black sprinters, and black athletes in general, all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages," he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Newcastle.

Black athletes probably have inborn advantages in their anatomy and physiology. "Physiology becomes far more important than anatomy as running events get longer. It may be adaptation of muscles to life in hot climates," making their muscles for efficient.

"It may be that their power-to-weight ratio is better because of the relative lack of subcutaneous fatty insulating tissue in the skin; perhaps there are anatomical advantages in the length of the Achilles tendon - the longest in the body," he told the meeting. More controversially, Sir Roger suggested that innate differences may extend to mental attributes.

"The difference between great runners lies less in their anatomy and physiology than in their capacity for mental excitement - which is probably inborn - but which brings with it an ability to overcome or ignore discomfort, even pain, of extreme effort."

Sir Roger later said he realised that some people found the issue of racial differences in sport to be sensitive. "I don't think it is sensitive and that's why I made the point,'' he said.

"It seems to me perfectly obvious if you observe a phenomenon and you are a scientist you seek to explain the causes of it."

Frank Dick, Great Britain's chief athletics coach until last year, agreed. "There appears to be a racial advantage for sprinters, but it would be unfortunate if people concluded that because you're not black you're not going to win anything. It's more complex than that. It's also to do with motivation." That was a complex thing and young blacks, particularly after seeing role models such as Linford Christie, might be hungrier to succeed.

The ex-Olympic gold medallist Chris Brasher, however, believes it is all in the genes.

Bannister's theory, page 4 Leading article, page 14