Born To Run

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Jon Entine

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Although he won four gold medals and almost single-handedly destroyed the myth of Aryan athletic superiority, his successes were subtly devalued as a product of his "natural" athleticism. Since World War II - in reaction to the race theories that provided the intellectual fuel for Hitler's regime - anthropological orthodoxy has held that the very concept of race is meaningless.

But, as with most orthodoxies, it was a simplistic overreaction. Most population groups have some unique physical and physiological characteristics. Critics who suggest that acknowledging differences in physiology opens the door to speculation about intellectual differences - the infamous "slippery slope" - misunderstand population genetics. Genetics is not a zero-sum game, with physical and mental ability at opposite ends of a seesaw. While a handful of genes correspond to athletic ability, fully half of the human genome of 100,000 genes makes up the incredibly complex organism, the brain.

On the contrary, those who play the "race card" to ridicule research on human diversity play a dangerous, anti-intellectual game of their own. Most of today's research focuses on finding cures for diseases, more than 3,000 of which are genetically based. Certain blood types, such as ABO, show up within defined populations. Beta-thalassaemia is most prevalent in Mediterranean populations. African Americans are genetically predisposed to having the sickle-cell gene, as well as colon and rectal cancer, although, as in all cases involving genes, environmental factors trigger the disease. The separation of nature and nurture is scientifically naive. "In human biology ... it is important to understand if age, gender, race, and other population characteristics contribute to the phenotype variation," writes Canadian Claude Bouchard in the American Journal of Human Biology. "Only by confronting these enormous public-health issues head-on, and not by circumventing them in the guise of political correctness, do we stand a chance to evaluate the discriminating agendas and devise appropriate interventions. To disregard monumental public-health issues is to be morally bankrupt."

Kathy Myburgh, a South African exercise physiologist, emphasises the importance of unfettered inquiry itself. "I've been asked many times how an academic can waste time studying the differences between black and white people," she says. "I said, 'Well, if you're a scientist and you're studying obesity, who do you compare obese people with? You compare them with thin people. But if you are a physiologist and you want to compare your best runners with those not quite as good, you compare the black ones with the white ones, because the blacks clearly are performing better."

Why do we readily accept that evolution has turned out Jews of European heritage who are 100 times more likely than other populations to contract the degenerative mental disease Tay-Sachs, yet find it racist to suggest that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters and jumpers and Asians into the best divers?

Population genetics does not, of course, inform all of the patterns we see in sports. Environmental factors can be overwhelming, as the dearth of Aboriginal athletes in such sports as golf attests. But both biology and culture play a part in some sports, such as swimming. The relatively small number of successful swimmers of African or Aboriginal descent has been explained away as a function of money and access. Certainly that has played a role. But it is also true that such people are considered "sinkers" - they have denser skeletons and muscles, making them less buoyant; and they are far better anaerobic athletes than aerobic competitors as a consequence of smaller lung capacity and a naturally high percentage of fast-twitch (which provide quick bursts) over slow-twitch (endurance) muscles.

The only black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal - Anthony Nesty of Suriname in 1988 - prevailed in the 100 metres butterfly, the aqua equivalent of a sprint. Despite a boom in swimming in the American black community, don't expect many, if any, future black champion swimmers. Most events demand biologically based aerobic skills that West African blacks (and Aborigines) do not, on average, have in abundance.

In sum, if the roulette wheel of genetics did not land on an athlete's number - if Atlanta's 100 metres gold medallist Donovan Bailey had not been blessed with the right physiology - opportunity and hard work comes to naught. But while the pattern of success in sports is circumscribed by population genetics, the success of any one individual rests with the athlete. Ancestry is not destiny. Individuals excel because of an extraordinary combination of natural talent, creativity, intelligence and, most of all, ambition and dedication - fire in the belly.

"It's the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ," Sir Roger Bannister says. "But one would have to be blind not to see a pattern here. I hope we are not at a time and place where we are afraid to talk about remarkable events. I hope not." As the human genome project unfolds, providing remarkable insights into what makes us human, the question is no longer whether scientific inquiries will continue, but to what end. "If decent people don't discuss this subject," writes Professor Walter E. Williams of George Mason University in Virginia, "we concede the turf to black and white racists."


© 2000 Jon Entine. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by Permission

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