Letter: Why black people excel at sport- if they really do

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The Independent Online
From Mr John Palmley

Sir: May I, as a black man - though I hope my reactions would have been the same were I a non-black - say how distressed I was to read the "explanations" from Sir Roger Bannister (and, to some extent, from Chris Brasher, too) of why black sportsmen figure so prominently and successfully in athletics - if, indeed, they do ("Bannister says blacks were born to run faster", 14 September). According to these gentlemen, black people have inborn advantages in their anatomy, physiology and perhaps even genes.

I am old enough to remember the 1936 Olympic Games, staged in Berlin, when the Nazis were so demoralised by the four gold medals won by Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter, that Hitler refused to congratulate him or even acknowledge his existence. Furthermore, the regime felt constrained to go to the trouble of explaining that the physiology of black people gave them an unfair advantage over Aryans in track events. My distress, therefore, is caused by the fact that Sir Roger and Mr Brasher seem to be taking us over the same ground.

To my mind, the social history of black people is not unlike that of the Jews. In the Middle Ages, Jews in Europe were excluded from public office and barred from the professions; the only outlets available to them, which they were positively encouraged to use, were banking, money lending and insurance. Consequently, they excelled in these areas, simply because they had nowhere else to go. Gentiles restricted in the same way might well have been equally successful.

Black people, too, have been cruelly restricted in almost every direction in the United States - and even more so in South Africa - and it was only in the field of entertainment, when white entertainers were in short supply, that they were allowed to make headway.

Sports such as boxing and, lately, soccer, have been avenues out of the ghetto for black people, and, with sometimes vastly inflated financial rewards being added to the prestige of actually competing, is it any wonder that black people - generally from the underclass - feature so prominently? It is financial necessity, not physiological differences from Caucasians, that has spurred them on.

Yours sincerely,

John Palmley

Dilton Marsh, Wiltshire

14 September