LEADING ARTICLE: Black power on the track

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Sir Roger Bannister must have made a lot of people uncomfortable yesterday. Britain's first four-minute miler suggested that people of African descent are born to outsprint their white contemporaries. They seem, he said, to have innate physical advantages which explain their extraordinary success on the track.

Some, a small minority, will resist his conclusion because they wish to believe in white physical superiority. But evidence has been stacking up against them for a long time. Their theory has been falling apart since the black athlete, Jesse Owens, won four golds in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and blew apart Hitler's dogma of Aryan supremacy.

Others will have different qualms, feeling that this is a subject better not raised at all. Discussions about human performance, whether physical or intellectual, based upon racial generalisations are easier to make than they are to prove. Put in the wrong way, such theses can do great damage. Once you start saying black people are genetically inclined to athleticism, what next? Is Sir Roger also inadvertently backing The Bell Curve's case that black people are also genetically predisposed to being less intelligent than white people?

His argument also touches upon the legacy of slavery. In explaining black superiority on the track, Sir Roger suggests that adaptation of muscles to hot climates may have enhanced performance, along with a relative lack of fatty tissue. What if, as some experts in America argue, these characteristics, at least among Afro-Caribbeans, spring from the selective breeding that took place during several hundred years of slavery? In that time, 20 million people were shipped across the Atlantic from west Africa: size and strength in men and breeding capacity in women determined their price.

All of this is an awkward reminder of the past. It should be set alongside some equally awkward thoughts about the present. The success of black stars in sport speaks of inadequate opportunities in other walks of life. In the United States, for example, a sporting scholarship may be the best chance that a black teenager has of gaining a proper education. Here in Britain, sport has always been, and still is, one of the few ways out of poverty for members of some minority communities.

Sir Roger was frank enough yesterday to admit that his comments were made with the benefit of medical rather than sociological expertise, and so ignored the evidence that social and economic pressures have throughout history been a factor in propelling human beings to exceptional physical and mental feats. He was right to say that race is a subject that is better discussed than ignored, so long as the debate is conducted with care and attention to accurate data. He was also right to acknowledge the limits of his own thesis.