Sport and Ethnicity 2

Is your sporting talent predetermined by your ancestry?

Page 1 2

Why is the success of blacks and other minorities such as Aboriginal Australians explained away by cultural channelling? Sports success is too complex a phenomenon to be tidily settled by such facile sociology. How do we explain the success of the majority of athletes, of all nations and ancestral heritage, who live in comfortable circumstances? The classic argument that blacks succeed in sports to escape poverty is less and less plausible and more and more racist every day.


Genes may not determine who are the world's best runners, but they do circumscribe possibility. Kenyans and other East Africans have an innate capacity, not an innate ability, to thrive in distance running; individual effort and courage separate the pretenders from the stars. Success in sports is a bio-social phenomenon.

Rethinking race, science and sports

Why does the claim that sports success depends in part on genetics get some people so nervous? After all, it's conventional science that different body types have evolved in response to differing environmental conditions in different regions of the world. The elephant in the living room, of course, is 'race'. Fascination about black physicality and black anger about being caricatured as lesser human beings have been part of the unspoken side of the dialogue on race for hundreds of years. The fear is that some might conclude that if blacks are faster on average, they must, as part of zero-sum reasoning, be weaker mentally. But that's a conclusion not supported by science.

What have scientists documented? 'Evolution has shaped body types and in part athletic possibilities,' says Joseph Graves Jr, an evolutionary biologist and author of The Emperor's New Clothes: Theories of Race at the Millennium. 'Don't expect an Eskimo to show up on an NBA court or a Watusi to win the world weightlifting championship. Genes play a major role,' adds Graves, himself an African American.

What does that mean? After all, the fact that significant differences exist between populations would seem to conflict with a spate of declarations proclaiming that 'humans are 99.9 % the same' and 'race is biologically meaningless'. Indeed, the arguments by Edwards and Cashmore rise (or in this case, fall) from such beliefs.

The paradox revolves around a common misunderstanding about the notion of 'race' - in particular, the popular notion that races are discrete groups, each with distinct genetic profiles. Race is a term soaked in much folkloric nonsense. The concept of race is somewhat akin to an omelette masquerading as an egg. It's a pretty messy concept, sometimes referred to as 'fuzzy sets' or extended families.

Despite its notorious history, racial terminology can be helpful, such as when used in medicine. Many traits are correlated, such as dark skin colour and the presence of the sickle cell gene. But such links are not absolute. Blacks who have evolved in cooler climates are no more likely to contract sickle cell than are non-blacks. Genetic factors help explain the prevalence of any number of population-specific diseases and physiological responses to drugs. Tay-Sachs is a neurological disease more common among European Jews and their descendants. Northern Europeans are more susceptible to cystic fibrosis. Blacks are genetically more susceptible to any number of diseases, including sickle cell and heart disease. These are all 'racial' differences of a kind, although the interaction of genetic and environmental factors is extremely complex.

With these many exceptions in mind, no serious scientist would subscribe to the dogma that grips the post-modernist sociological community. Today, no credible scientist disputes that evolution, along with local social conditions, has helped shape Kenyan distance runners, white power lifters, with their enormous upper-body strength, and athletes of West African ancestry who are explosive runners and jumpers. In discussing basketball, for instance, Jared Diamond, the UCLA physiologist and Pulitzer Prize winner (for Guns, Germs and Steel), writes that the disproportionate representation of African Americans is not because of a lack of socio-economic opportunities, but on account of 'the prevalent body shapes of some black African groups'.(3)

Most scientists are quick to point out that this is not a 'black and white' issue, but the consequence of thousands of years of evolution in varying terrains. Modern humans are made up of overlapping, soft-edged genetic clusters. Although humans share most of their estimated 40,000 genes, there are as many as 500,000 gene components, or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), many of which are more common among people from one geographical region than from another.

'The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations,' stresses Graves. 'There are some group differences. We see it in diseases. But that's a long way from reconstructing century-old racial science.'

Each sport demands a slightly different mix of biomechanical, anaerobic, and aerobic abilities. As a result of evolutionary adaptations to extremely different environments that became encoded in the genes, athletes from different insular populations tend to have rather distinct physical and physiological characteristics. As a result, they frequently excel in specific events.

Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting, wrestling and field events, such as the hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 performances). Evolutionary forces in this northern clime have shaped a population with a predilection toward a mesomorphic body type - large and muscular, particularly in the upper body, with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium.

Certain East Asian populations tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat - part of the evolutionary adaptation to harsh climes encountered by homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia about 40,000 years ago. As a result, athletes from this region are somewhat slower and less strong than whites or blacks, but are, on average, more flexible. These characteristics are key potential advantages in diving, some events in gymnastics (hence the term 'Chinese splits'), and figure skating. They also have very quick reaction times, which undoubtedly contribute to their success in racket sports (see case study 2 on page 9). And though they generally are not very competitive at jumping and sprinting because of squatter bodies and the predominance of slow-twitch fibres, East Asians are very competitive at long distance races, including the marathon, in part because of higher levels of body fat. It should come as no surprise that the world's most remarkable ultra-endurance runners, the 4,000 or so Native American Tarahumara of Mexico, have East Asian ancestry. (The Tarahumara are considered the least-assimilated people in the Americas; like the Nandi, they subsist by herding, agriculture and hunting. They also love to run: it is not uncommon for women to run up to 40 miles as part of social game-playing.)

Popular thinking still lags behind the genetic revolution. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fibre types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors.

'Differences among athletes of elite calibre are so small,' notes Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the American Journal of Human Biology, 'that physique or the ability to fire muscle fibres more efficiently that might be genetically based... it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place.'

Although scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to biologically-based differences, it is indisputable that they exist (see 'Genetic engineering and sport' - page 9). Such characteristics are not distributed equally among populations. The genetics revolution has decisively overturned the belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa for experience to write upon. Some functional characteristics do differentiate population clusters - most clearly in the proclivity to certain diseases and in body types.

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out groups with distinct susceptibilities to different diseases - yet find it racist to acknowledge that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters and jumpers and East Africans into the best distance runners?

In light of recent advances in genetics and the science of human performance, extremist claims that we should not discuss these 'racial' or patterned biological differences appear quaint, dangerous and perhaps even racist. Limiting the pejorative use of that problematic concept of race - an admirable goal - is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which it is based disappear. Although people share a common humanity, we are different in critical ways.

The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue - but to what end. Athletic competition, which offers a definitiveness that eludes most other aspects of life, is a perfect laboratory for a serious exploration of the complex relationship of genes and culture.

'I believe that we need to look at the causes of differences in performance between races in sports as legitimately as we do when we study differences in diseases,' says Canadian Claude Bouchard, sports physiologist and geneticist, and director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. 'I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. (Critical inquiry) is the greatest safeguard against prejudice'

Indeed, if we do not welcome the impending genetic revolution with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than a source of distrust.

Finally, it should never be forgotten that genes are not the ultimate factors in elite performance. While genetics will determine if you have a chance to be an elite athlete, intelligence, dedication, and serendipity are the final arbiters of who wins and loses.

'It's the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,' Sir Roger Bannister told me on a visit to his home at Oxford University. 'But one would have to be blind not so see a pattern here. I hope we are not at a time and place where we are afraid to talk about remarkable events.'

Jon Entine

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