Too far-fetched? But 40 years ago, when Roger Bannister became the first man to run a four-minute mile, the idea that every finalist in the 1992 Olympic men's 100 metres would be black might have sounded equally strange.
Last week, Sir Roger thrust his hand into a hornet's nest by telling the British Association for the Advancement of Science that "it's certainly obvious, when you see an all-black sprint final, that there must be something rather special about their anatomy or physiology which produces these outstanding successes, and indeed there may be. But we don't know quite what it is."
Could it be, as Sir Roger wondered in public, that "maybe their heel- bone is a bit longer [offering more leverage with each step], or their adaptation to a warm climate [which leads to more efficient energy conversion in the muscles]. Or it may be their lower subcutaneous fat, which means their power-to-weight ratio is better. Maybe they have an elasticity or a capacity innately for muscle fibres to contract quickly . . ."
Race is a prickly subject at the best of times, but scientists and social observers are prepared - albeit quietly - to say that they do know what the ingredients of those outstanding successes are. They are, in ascending order of importance, genetic heritage, the statistical variation of populations, and the opportunities presented by society. While black athletes have always had the genetic make-up and the numbers, it is the opportunity to exploit them that they have grasped so successfully in recent years. It is the same two factors of population and opportunity which suggest that in the next century China will be setting records.
For decades, China's rigid communist system, its agricultural character and its social conservatism have caused it to lag behind the rest of the world in its ability to spot and develop sporting talent. For an early taste of what China's billion-plus population might do, given the same incentives as the rest of the world, you might look at the results achieved by its athletes in the past two years. In September 1993, the woman runner Wang Junxia effectively broke three world records - for the 3,000 metres, 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres - in the course of a single 10,000-metre race. Many other records fell to an astonishing onslaught by a whole squad of women runners. Although these results were cast in doubt last year after 31 Chinese athletes had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, it would still be foolhardy to write the Chinese off.
Imagine a capitalist China where sports stars became international celebrities as revered and rewarded as they are in the West today. With such a huge population to choose from, the winners would be quick to put themselves in the spotlight.
This is the power of statistics.
Every statistician is familiar with the "normal distribution". This is a symmetrical, bell-shaped curve on a graph that describes the spread of characteristics within a randomly varying population. The "characteristic" could be height, weight, or - more usefully - the average time that an untrained child takes to run 100 metres. Some will lumber, many will charge and arrive almost simultaneously, but a talented few will whip ahead of the pack. These are the ones from the right-hand end of the normal distribution: the lair of the Olympic medallists.
The most important point to notice about the normal distribution is that, in theory at least, the edges of the curve stretch off to infinity - though with a progressively smaller probability that any member of the population will actually be found there. Locate them, train them, and there is a good chance they will turn into the Olympic runners of the future.
This allows us to explain the preponderance of black runners today. Start with two populations of equal size. But make the average speed of one population a little higher than the other - give it, for example, a genetic advantage in running such as a longer heel bone, or more efficient muscles, or less body fat. Now measure some characteristic common to both groups. There will always be more high performers in the genetically advantaged group, but - and this is important - the graph insists you will also get a few white qualifiers. Britain's Roger Black, the only white runner in the world top 10 rankings in the men's 400 metres, thus emerges from the extreme right hand end of the curve.
Hold on, you may say. In the US the white population greatly outnumbers the black, yet black athletes dominate many sports. Why? There are sociological reasons. White athletes might go for better-paid sports, for example (such as tennis or golf), while black athletes stick with sports they already dominate. That is the present. But what the future holds is also predicted by statistics. The larger your starting population, the more people you will find at any given point. Bluntly, you will find more sprinters in China than in Britain or the United States.
As for physical aptitude, it would be unwise to assume that the Chinese do not have what it takes. Ask Richard Budgett, director of medical services at the British Olympic Association. "I'm a rower, have competed internationally," he says. "Now you might think that, as a race, the Chinese are small. I rowed in an eight against a crew of Chinese; every one of them was six foot four."
While the Chinese may still be on average a smaller race than Caucasians or west or east Africans, the statistical probability is that, given a large enough population to choose from, the Chinese will find people tall, heavy or fast enough to compete at the top of any sport.
This process will accelerate if and when the possibility of becoming a professional athlete becomes realistic there. Just as in Japan the average height of the population has increased in the post-war years with changing diet and improving health care, so it will in China in the future, offering trainers a wealth of would-be sports stars. "Once they've got the chance to reach their potential, with a quarter of the world's population they should be winning a quarter of the medals," says Dr Budgett.
One day, there will without doubt be Chinese athletes lining up for the 100 metres final. There will be black athletes alongside them. The results until now have been distorted by the fact that the Chinese quarter of the world's potential entrants haven't been training in earnest.
Neal Ascherson, page 20Reuse content