Sir: Your suggestion that social and economic pressures may be as important as physical characteristics in explaining the dominance of black athletes is borne out by evidence from another sport: boxing. As is well known, the outstanding practitioners of that terrible art have overwhelmingly come from the poorer classes. In the US, this has been marked by a striking coincidence between the dominant boxing nationalities and the most recent wave of poor immigrants.
Thus, in the 1890s, a significant proportion of champions and contenders were of Irish descent (John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Paddy Ryan, Jack O'Brien); then, in the early part of the century Jewish (Benny Leonard, Abe Attell and, from the slums of London, Kid Lewis and Kid Berg); followed by Italian (Tony Canzoneri, Jake La Motta, Fidel La Barba, Franky Genaro); and most recently, central American (Roberto Duran, Jose Torres, Jose Napoles, Hector Camacho).
All of these, with the possible exception of Corbett, were poor, underprivileged lads trying to fight their way out of the ghetto. (And throughout the whole period, of course, black athletes, the most underprivileged of all, provided a gigantic proportion of outstanding champions, when the authorities permitted them to fight).
Until the mid-Eighties, athletics provided nothing like the financial rewards available to boxers, but generations of black people, from Jesse Owens on, found it to be one of the few available ways to improve their social standing. In the Nineties, the exponential growth in the amount of money going to top athletes will ensure that future champions will more and more come from the same kind of background as Linford Christie and less and less from the rather more privileged upbringing of Sir Roger Bannister.
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