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PROTRACK » Coaching & Training » Genetic research shows athletic skill is not a black and white issue

Genetic research shows athletic skill is not a black and white issue

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Genetic research shows athletic skill is not a black and white issue

by: Matthew Syed
From: The Times
via The Australian
August 09, 2012


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Jamaica's Usain Bolt, right, and France's Christophe Lemaitre after the 200m semi-finals at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Source: AFP

BLACK men have dominated the sprints again. All the finalists in the 100m were black, as they have been at every Olympic final for more than a quarter of a century.

The past 25 holders of the world record for the 100m have been black and data compiled in 2007 revealed that 494 of the 500 best-ever 100m times were recorded by black athletes.

The 200m will doubtless be won by a black man tomorrow, too.

Usain Bolt is the hot favourite and Yohan Blake, his countryman from Jamaica, could take silver, as he did in the 100m.

Christophe Lemaitre, of France, who today qualified for the final with a time of 20.03, is, perhaps, the only white man in with a possibility of making the top five. And even that is a long shot.

The preponderance of blacks in the sprints led to a curious exchange on the BBC on the night of the 100m final. Allan Wells was asked by Gabby Logan to describe his emotions when he won the Olympic 100m final in Moscow in 1980.

The Scot started a sentence, reconsidered, started once more, and then paused again. If he had been as indecisive on the start line, he would not have made the final.

Eventually he said: "Well, that was the last time a white man was in the Olympic final. And I managed to win it as well."

As a statement of fact, it was incontestable, but Logan swiftly and wisely moved the conversation on.

She knew that beneath the surface of what was doubtless intended as an innocent observation lurked a ticking time bomb of political and scientific controversy.

When Lemaitre became the first white man to run under 10 seconds in the 100m in 2010, it was less a sporting story than an ideological one.

The Frenchman was dubbed "White Lightning" in the French press and asked a lot of questions about the "racial" distribution of success in sprinting.

He was also asked to comment on what this might tell us about the world beyond sport. Little wonder that the Frenchman has seemed, at times, a little bemused.

"We are used to seeing black people winning in the sprints, it has always been about colour, it's nothing new," he said in one interview, adding: "It's always just been black sprinters before because, physically, black people become stronger and faster younger than the rest of us.

"We always thought they were better built to be athletes than white people. But I think that's too stereotyped because if a white guy works hard, he can also achieve a lot."

The question that underpins the fascination with Lemaitre is a simple one: is the success of black sprinters based on a genetic advantage? For many, the answer is obvious.

What other explanation could there be for why blacks dominate an event that is both objective and transparent?

Anything less than an unequivocal "yes" is a testament to the power of political correctness.

But take a look at the data once more: 494 of the 500 fastest times were achieved by black sprinters. But there is something else about these men. Almost all of them were either born in West Africa or can trace their forebears to that region.

In other words, East, Southern and other Africans have had almost no success in the sprints whatsoever. But these athletes are black, too. The logical fallacy is a simple one. When we say "blacks" are better at sprinting, we are indulging in an unstated generalisation.

"Black" is a term that contains all sorts of variety, genetic and otherwise. The pygmies in central Africa, the Nandi and the Masai all have black skin pigmentation. However, they are, in anatomical terms, very different. To watch a tiny subset of dark-skinned people succeed in a particular event and to infer that this superiority is shared by all dark-skinned people is to go way beyond the available evidence.

Even if we were to redefine sprinting supremacy as a West African trait, we will still confront obvious problems.

Not a single sprinting medal has been won at the Olympic Games or the World Championships by Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, the Republic of Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Niger, Benin, Mali, the Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Gabon, Senegal, Congo and Angola. Yet these are all West African states.

Success in modern sprinting has, in fact, been concentrated among two population groups: Jamaicans and African Americans. It may be that these two groups have a natural advantage (whether on average in the population or among their fastest sprinters, or both). But this is a world away from the assertion that blacks in general are better sprinters.

Research undertaken in 2003 found that variation in a particular gene called ACTN3 is associated with sprinting success (through its impact on fast-twitch muscle fibres), and that the "sprint" version of this gene is more common among Jamaicans than other populations.

This led to headlines suggesting that Jamaican sprinting success is hereditary. A recent book by a leading French journalist has also made this claim.

But the reality is more complex. Although 98 per cent of Jamaicans have the relevant gene, so, too, do 82 per cent of Europeans. In other words, both these populations have a huge majority of individuals with an ACTN3 gene conducive to sprinting success.

Further research has found that Kenyans (who win distance events but have virtually no success in sprinting) have an even higher frequency of the relevant gene than Jamaicans.

It turns out that most of the genetic diversity within mankind is contained within racial groups, rather than between them. At these Olympics, blacks, who have often been under-represented in swimming events, have started making it into the US team.

It is possible, although not certain, that patterns of national dominance in swimming and athletics will change over time, as the popularity of different sports shift.

What is certain is that the very notion of "black" athletic superiority is deeply misguided.

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