The Story Behind The Amazing Success of Black Athletes

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Jon Entine

Jon Entine is an Emmy-winning former producer with ABC News and NBC News and author of:
TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk About It (PublicAffairs, 2000)

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The Race to the Swift or the Swift to the Race

Here's a safe prediction: all of the athletes who line up at the final of the men's 100-meter sprint in Sydney trace their ancestry to West Africa. It's also unlikely than any sprinter other than one with West African roots will ever again hold the unofficial title of "world's fastest human." Even more startlingly, athletes who trace their ancestry to Africa, home to roughly 1 in 8 of the world population, or 800 million people, dominate elite sprinting and road racing: an athlete of African origin holds every major world running record.

The controversial question is why?

To many sociologists, the answer is 'racism'. "What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way," comments Harry Edwards of University of California/Berkeley, "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. And that's where the indignity comes in."

Most hard scientists take a different view. "If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," says biological anthropologist Vincent Sarich, also of Berkeley, "then you could probably be led to believe just about anything."

What are the scientific facts? What is behind the extraordinary reality that over the past 30 years, as equality of opportunity has steadily increased in sports, spreading to vast sections of Asia and Africa, equality of results on the playing field has actually declined. Greater opportunity has led to greater inequality in performance at the elite level between ethnic groups in a range of sports.
  • Blacks of exclusively West African ancestry make up 13 percent of the North American and Caribbean population but 40 percent of Major League baseball players, 70 percent of the NFL, and 85 percent of professional basketball.

  • Nigeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, and South Africa have emerged as soccer powers. Africans have also become fixtures in Europe's top clubs even with sharp restrictions on signing foreign players. In England, which was slow to allow foreigners and has a black population of less than 2 percent, one in five soccer players in the Premiership is black.

  • From Wales to South Africa, rugby has been played almost exclusively by whites because of historical social restrictions and taboos-except in New Zealand where Maori and Pacific Islanders have risen to the top ranks far out of proportion to their numbers. Maori women have also become the stars in netball, which demands extraordinary quickness.

  • The outsized success of Australian athletes with primarily Aboriginal genes in running, tennis, boxing, and rugby and a recent six-fold surge in the number of Aboriginal players in the Australian Football League.
Are these purely cultural phenomena as socially-acceptable wisdom suggests? And why is this subject so taboo?

Rethinking Race, Science, and Sports

Athletic achievement has long been a Catch-22 for blacks. When an athlete lost a running, it encouraged racist notions that blacks were an inferior race, too frail to handle the challenge and not smart enough to plan a race strategy. But winning only reinforced the equally pernicious stereotype that blacks were less evolved than whites or Asians. That is the fate that befell Jesse Owens after he shocked the 1936 Olympics, held in the capital of Hitler's Germany. His four gold medals were subtly devalued as a product of his "natural" athleticism.

The racist stereotype of the "animalistic black" is rooted in hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, and racism. In the nineteenth century, white Europeans were enraptured by pseudosciences such as phrenology. Racial and ethnic groups were ranked by skull size that supposedly proved that white males were intellectually superior. Jews, blacks, and other minorities were targets of the most egregious generalizations, usually associated with physical characteristics and intellectual prowess.

Since World War II, in an understandable reaction to extremist race theories that provided intellectual fuel for Nazism, it has been widely held that the very concept of race is a meaningless social construct. "Race science" as it was then called, was based largely on the notion of skin color, which scientists had come to realize explained only a tiny fraction of the evolutionary history of the genes that make us human. And since the world's major populations separated only an eye blink of historical time ago - from 5,000 to 100,000 years ago - many scientists also came to believe that natural selection could not have generated anything more than superficial differences like skin color. Those beliefs fed the stereotype that athletic success was entirely social and cultural - the product of hard work and opportunity, with population genetics playing no significant role.

Now science can definitively state that the post WWII anthropological orthodoxy - what is referred to as environmental determinism - is clearly wrong. The genetics revolution now sweeping the world has decisively overturned this belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa for experience to write upon. Evidence spilling forth from the Human Genome Project shows that some functional characteristics do differentiate population clusters - most clearly in the proclivity to certain diseases and in athletic ability - although the classic racial trichotomy of sub-Saharan black/European white/Asian is indeed fuzzy around the edges and potentially misleading.
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