Runaway success in the sports arena is never simply a question of race

'Winning has reinforced the sterotype that black people are less evolved than white people'

Share

Sporting achievement is down to our natural inheritance. It's in the genes. That appears such a statement of the obvious that one wonders how or why anyone could object. Introduce race into the equation, however, and you have an explosive mix.

Sporting achievement is down to our natural inheritance. It's in the genes. That appears such a statement of the obvious that one wonders how or why anyone could object. Introduce race into the equation, however, and you have an explosive mix.

I can't say I'm really surprised by this anxiety. As a young boy growing up in North London, I found that my mixed heritage confused a great many people, white and black. To a degree, it still does. Polarised views of ethnicity, based on skin colour, focused my mind as a child on the meaning of both black and white.

At school, many of my teachers and fellow pupils expected me to be good on the sports field. I vividly recollect the reaction to my modest teenage athletic triumphs. The overwhelming majority insisted that I was good because I was black. Fewer were interested in my English mother's not inconsiderable athletic credentials. Although it may well have been in the blood - a euphemism for genetic inheritance - it was assumed it was in "the black bits".

Recently, the American journalist Jon Entine has caused an enormous furore in the United States with his book Taboo: Why black athletes dominate sports and why we're afraid to talk about it, precisely because he's come up on the nature rather than the nurture side of the argument. Entine argues that it is not a coincidence that all the world's leading sprinters have a West African heritage.

Certainly, there are few other human activities where natural ability and performance is so readily measurable as in running. The pattern of achievement at the highest levels makes a prima facie case for black superiority. Of the top 200 times at 100 metres, not one has been run by a white athlete. Only black sprinters have dipped under the magic 10 second barrier. In the middle distances, the Kenyans appear to have cornered the market in gold medals.

Science has tried to pin down the magic ingredients that seem to make men of West African heritage faster. There's a lot of theorising around higher percentages of fast-twitch muscle fibres in the legs, and higher levels of testosterone leading to greater amounts of explosive energy for black athletes. Many of these body type differences appear to have a genetic basis - that is, they are inherited. But here we must tread with caution, because whether these genetically determined characteristics translate into sporting success remains largely in the realms of conjecture.

In the late 1970s, Henrik Larsen was coaching middle-distance Danish national champions. He was intrigued by the competitive drubbing the Kenyans dished out to his star athletes. Wanting to know more, he travelled to Kenya. He went to the region where the Kalenjin tribe has lived for generations, high up on the Great Rift Valley that slices through the eastern part of the African continent. Larsen's trip spawned a research project which, he says, is now concluding that the Kalenjin have a genetic advantage when competing in endurance running - in every race, from the 800 metres up to the marathon.

The hypothesis is based on a long-term study carried out at the Copenhagen Institute of Sports Science in Denmark. The researchers believe that the Kalenjin runners have an ability to take on board oxygen in just the same way as fit Europeans, but their bodies are more efficient at using that on-board fuel. The Kalenjin can also run at higher speeds for longer than Europeans at the same fitness level. The theory is that the genes of the Kalenjin have probably mutated to adapt to living in hot, dry conditions at high altitude.

The Copenhagen team is absolutely clear, however, that race is not a variable in its research. It would be a mistake to apply the results to the entire population of Kenya, let alone the entire world's black population. As such, skin colour is incidental.

While race and racism may be alive and well in the imaginations of many people in multiracial societies, science is slowly piecing together a jigsaw which reveals that there are more genetic differences within racial groups than between them. It has long been understood by biologists and geneticists that the scientific concept of race is virtually useless as a means of classifying the human family.

Sport, especially at the time of the Olympics, is good place to discuss these matters. Athletic achievement has always been a double-edged sword for black people. Winning has ironically reinforced the stereotype that black people are somehow less evolved than white people and therefore retain more "natural endowments", fuelling the perverse logic that brains and physical ability are mutually exclusive.

There are, of course, other legitimate explanations than genetic predisposition, for why there are so many black sporting champions. Professor Ellis Cashmore at Staffordshire University says that racism itself has a part to play. Sport is an arena where black people are allowed to achieve. It creates role models, and there's nothing like success to breed success.

In a perverse way, the mythology surrounding the notion that black sporting achievement is down to natural ability may give black athletes a psychological edge. They believe the myth, too, and they'll work harder to achieve athletic success.

That's not to say that genes are irrelevant. When I talked to Colin Jackson, our own 110-metre hurdle gold medal prospect, he told me that he was lucky to have inherited his parents' genes. Both parents were gifted athletes. That isn't an issue of skin colour or race; it's an issue of biology. Of course, whatever the natural inheritance, there still has to be a lot of training and luck to ensure that it finds its way to the champion's podium.

So what about an answer to the question, do black men run faster? The evidence suggests that we've simply been asking the wrong question. We're so used to thinking in terms of black and white and employing the terminology in everyday language, that we unthinkingly attach these categories to the sports results. Scientifically, it turns out to be meaningless.

What champions such as Linford Christie, Michael Jordan, Daley Thompson and Marion Jones have is genetically unique. If it weren't, there would be a lot more of them around. In fact, they show us how important individuality is. We should get away from race-defined success and celebrate the individuality of a champion.

Britain is a much more mixed place than it was when my generation was growing up. All of us, white, black and - increasingly - brown, now have the chance to release ourselves from this bondage of racialised history. The prize is one that all our children deserve to share. A timely recognition that, although in our differences we are many peoples, the message from science is loud and clear: we are but one Human Race.

Kurt Barling reports on 'The Faster Race' (BBC2), Thursday, 9.40pm

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
Rebekah Brooks after her acquittal at the Old Bailey in June  

Rebekah Brooks to return? We all get those new-job jitters

John Mullin
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future