The myth of athletic gifts

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The comments made in the national press yesterday by Sir Roger Bannister upon the contentious issue of racial supremacy/inferiority have stirred up a hornets' nest. All too often people accept the misconception that black people are deemed to be athletically superior but are regarded as intellectually inferior. As a black international athlete with a BSc in sports science, physical education and recreational management, I was invited to add my own comments.

There is undoubtedly much evidence that reinforces the view of black people being athletically gifted. Since Alan Wells's gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics all the medals at major games and championships in the 100 metres have been taken by black athletes. In my own speciality, the 400 metres, there seems also to be a preponderance of black athletes.

Some of Sir Roger's conjectures are correct, as there are some recognisable differences. Studies in genetics have consistently found that the body composition of black athletes of west African heritage in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts is somewhat different. A black athlete generally has less body fat, longer leg-to-torso ratio, narrower hips and lighter calves.

One of the major appeals of athletics is its great accessibility. Athletics is one of the few sports in which initial participation is not to any great extent dependent on one's status, disposable income or class. This presents equal opportunities for everyone involved. This concept of sport being non-discriminatory has been grasped by many as a chance to gain an equal footing and achieve recognition for their talents.

There is an old adage "success breeds success". As black athletes began to dominate the sprint events during the 1980s, there was suddenly a greater number of popular black role models. Perhaps the extent of the success enjoyed by these early black pioneers has had a major effect on the present phenomenon.

Carl Lewis in 1984 thrust himself into superstar status and, following this, there appeared to be a sudden emergence of black talent within the sprinting arena. Some renowned psychologists believed that this led white athletes to believe they could not actually succeed in the sprint events. As such they sought varying challenges in different fields.

Research in 1988 identified how white sportsmen had largely abandoned the professional ranks of basketball and American football, resorting to white-dominated areas such as swimming and tennis. Thus the myth of black athletes being genetically gifted, whether true or false, plays a self-perpetuating role.

Sir Roger has identified many recognised variances between the two races. However, it is unclear whether these observed morphological disparities among racial groups are directly related to performance. Gross characteristics are only associated with variation in performance rather than its actual determinant.

The writer is the current British Athletics Federation champion and European Cup holder in the 400 metres, and came fifth in the world championships.