Born To Run

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Jon Entine

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These different body types reflect vastly different historical migration patterns - and therefore significantly different genetics. Whereas the West African population evolved in the lowlands and remained relatively isolated, the ancestors of East African runners lived in the highlands. The population of this region is also a genetic stew, a legacy of invasions by Arabs and Middle Easterners.

Kenya, with 28 million people, is the athletic powerhouse. At Seoul in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 metre races, plus the 3,000 metres steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the likelihood of such a performance is one in 1.6 billion. The Kalenjins of the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria, a tribe of half a million people, win 40 per cent of top international distance running honours. If the tribe competed as a nation, it would hold three times as many distance medals as any other country in the world.

This domination of middle- and long-distance running by East Africans (and by some Moroccans and Algerians who are much closer, genetically, to East than West Africans) is relatively recent. Before the 1960s, they didn't enter these events because they didn't have the money or means. The few who did compete during the 1950s did so mainly through being in the military and police forces, which was how Kip Keino and other Kenyans got their opportunity.

As recently as the 1960 Rome Olympics, the world was shocked when Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, running barefoot, won the gold medal in the marathon.

With modest prosperity came opportunity. By the 1980s, Africans began pouring into long-distance running. East and North Africans now dominate almost as completely as West Africans do the sprints. Such patterns largely hold true among elite female athletes, although white performance records have been inflated by admitted rampant drug use by former Eastern bloc athletes. White women remain competitive in longer races, in part because of the severe social taboos against female participation in sports in Africa, though that is changing. Apart from drugs, the other main factor is female physiology, particularly higher levels of body fat. While black men on average have less body fat compared to men of other populations, the difference is not as striking in women.

If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavours," declares Vincent Sarich, a biological anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, "then you probably could be led to believe just about anything. But such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays no role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports. When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cerebral cortex just shuts down."

Indeed, acknowledging "racial differences", even the physical ones that all of us intuitively recognise, can ignite a firestorm. In a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995, Sir Roger Bannister, the distinguished neurologist, former Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and, in 1954, the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, was showered with ridicule for venturing his opinion, "as a scientist rather than a sociologist", that all athletes are not created equal. "I am prepared to risk political incorrectness," he said, "by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but understressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages."

The outrage that greeted Bannister's comments in some quarters was almost entirely political. "I don't think it matters what the biological conclusions are. It forges a distinction between black and white athletes which is unhealthy, unhelpful and untrue," said African Briton Garth Crooks, a former soccer star and once head of the players' union.

"It is potentially racist to look at the biological factors," added Theresa Marteau of the Psychology and Genetics Research Unit at Guy's Hospital in London. Such anxiety is rooted in the historical white romance with twisted interpretations of race science that provided a prop for racist eugenics and Nazism. And after all, "race" is in part a sociological construct, a mix of folklore and science. Few populations are "pure". Black Americans are mostly of mixed race, potentially rendering sweeping generalisations racist.

Black athletes have traditionally been prey to a fallacious logic that runs something like this: physical ability and brains are inversely proportional, and since blacks are more "naturally" athletic than whites, blacks are less intelligent. Harry Edwards, a prominent African-American sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, reckons, "What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make-up than they are to the rest of humanity." Sociologists such as Edwards and Ellis Cashmore, a professor at Staffordshire University in Britain, counter that the remarkable success of black athletes is a purely social phenomenon. In the words of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, citing genetics is a "genteel way to call a black a nigger".

Athletic achievment has always been a double-edged sword for black people. For instance, when an athlete lost a running race, it encouraged racist notions that blacks were an inferior race, not physically up to the challenge and not intellectually capable of handling racing strategy. But winning reinforced the equally pernicious stereotype that blacks were less evolved than whites or Asians. That is the fate that befell Jesse Owens after the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
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