Bannister says blacks were born to run

`Linford Christie [left] has a superb muscular development, compared with the slenderer Carl Lewis, whom he displaced but who achieved a greater record'; Race and sport: World's first four-minute miler expounds his theory of success on the track BRITISH ASSOCIATION

Steve Connor
Wednesday 13 September 1995 23:02

Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile in 1954 when he was a young medical student, yesterday speculated on why black athletes now dominate many sporting events, particularly sprinting.

Anatomical differences, physiological factors that improve muscle performance and even mental attributes may all play a role in making one athlete innately better than another at running fast, he told the British Association conference in Newcastle.

"It's certainly obvious when you see an all-black sprint final that there must be something rather special about their anatomy or physiology which produces these outstanding successes, and indeed there may be but we don't know quite what it is," Sir Roger said.

"It may be that their heel bone is a bit longer or maybe it is because of their adaptation to a warm climate. Or it may be their lower subcutaneous fat which means their power-to-weight ratio is better. Maybe they have an elasticity or a capacity innately of muscles fibres to contract quickly which is some adaptation to a warmer environment because this would increase the speed of chemical reactions."

Sir Roger, a consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, is accustomed to making forthright statements. Last year, the former master of Pembroke College, Oxford, said that more school sport is the answer to the "yob culture" of a nation "contentedly unfit".

Sir Roger said yesterday that anatomy on its own is less important than might be thought in sporting success. "Linford Christie has a superb muscular development, compared with the slenderer Carl Lewis, whom he displaced but who achieved a greater record than Christie in winning three gold medals in the same Olympics - the 100m, 200m and the long jump."

Genetic inheritance resulting from thousands of years of evolution is the underlying cause of the innate features which Sir Roger believes explain black prowess in sport. It is a sensitive topic given the history of the eugenics movement, which was used by the Nazis in the Thirties to justify mass extermination of racial groups. One sports coach in the United States who said recently that black athletes have inborn superiority was attacked by black sociologists for suggesting that black people were somehow closer to animals.

Sir Roger told the meeting yesterday: "Since it takes 15 seconds for the blood to circulate, no oxygen can be moved from the air to the muscles in the sprinter. In sprinting there is an innate quality of muscle which enables it to contract very quickly, so that sprinters are born rather than made, and show their ability in their early twenties. Linford Christie is an exception to be able to continue till the age of 36, though he now seems beset with fluctuating injuries."

A country's success in international sporting events often rests on the proportion of black athletes that they can call upon, he said. "Some countries have the good fortune to have a high proportion of black sprinters and hurdlers whose physical advantages are obvious whatever their current site of origin, whether Nigeria, the West Indies, or Afro-Americans in the United States or Britain."

Coaching, sporting scholarships are nevertheless important in bringing out the best in a nation's athletes, he said. "This led to the United States winning 12 gold medals in the recent world championships. Nine of these medal winners were Afro-American

Despite the importance of coaching facilities, race can still make all the difference, which is why small and poor African countries can produce world champions "almost miraculously". Sir Roger added: "It is the occasional triumph of the under-privileged over the privileged which is one of sports undying fascinations."

Black athletes and the main events

100 metres

9.91 Donovan Bailey CAN

9.97 Bruny Surin CAN

10.02 Deji Aliu NGR

10.03 Ato Boldon TRI

10.03 Linford Christie GBR

10.05 Tim Harden USA

10.05 Olapade Adeniken NGR

10.06 Terry Bowen USA

10.07 Donovan Powell JAM

10.07 Frankie Fredericks NAM

400 metres

43.39 Michael Johnson USA

44.13 Derek Mills USA

44.22 Butch Reynolds USA

44.34 Darnell Hall USA

44.56 Greg Haughton JAM

44.58 Samson Kitur KEN

44.59 Roger Black GBR

44.69 Sunday Bada NGR

44.74 Marion Ramsey USA

44.81 Mark Richardson GBR

1500 metres

3.27.37 Noureddine Morceli ALG

3.30.78 Venuste Niyongabo BUR

3.31.16 Hicham El Guerrouj MAR

3.31.40 William Kemei KEN

3.31.48 Hazzedine Seddiki MAR

3.32.01 Steve Holman USA

3.32.37 Eric Dubus FRA

3.32.94 Gennaro Di Napoli ITA

3.33.37 Mohamed Suleiman OAT

3.33.69 William Tanui KEN

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