Sport and Ethnicity

Is your sporting talent predetermined by your ancestry?

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Let's start with a few safe predictions. All of the sprinters in the men's 100m final at the Athens Olympics in 2004 will trace their ancestry to West Africa. Almost all of the world-class throwers will be white, and mostly of Eurasian ancestry. And, except for the marathon, there will be almost no athletes of Asian ancestry appearing in Athens finals. On the other hand, elsewhere in the Games, Asians will flourish in diving, some gymnastic events, judo, and table tennis.

A peculiar but decided trend is unfolding: over the past 40 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. The more democracy on the playing field, the less at the finish line. On the one hand, the social and economic barriers limiting participation in sports are crumbling; on the other, the winners in many events are increasingly limited to participants from specific regions of the world.

It's not surprising that the United States would dominate peculiarly American sports such as basketball, but who can fathom the trends in world sports, such as running. Why is it that every running record from the 100m to the marathon is held by an athlete of African ancestry? Is it racist to be curious about such phenomena?

Nature versus nurture

Absolutely not, say a growing chorus of geneticists, anthropologists, and physiologists. 'Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that play the most important roles in sports,' states Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center and one of the world's premier sports medical researchers. 'But based on the data, it is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented, or whether you will become talented. The extent of the environment can always be discussed but it's less than 20-25%.'

To many sociologists, however, even discussing these trends trivialises the success of all athletes, but most pointedly blacks. 'What really is being said in a kind of underhand way,' insists Harry Edwards of University of California at 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.' Ellis Cashmore of Staffordshire University dismisses the role of 'special inborn ability' as 'absurd, especially when we consider anthropologists' dismissal of the concept of race itself'.(1)

For many years, such righteous dismissals seemed like the moral and scientific high ground and a bulwark against the historical tendency to misuse genetics to support theories of white superiority. Ironically, today, with a far more nuanced understanding of the relationship of population genetics and environment, the formerly righteous position has become untenable - and even, in its own way, racist.

Do cultural factors matter? Of course: there are no great international cricketers from Texas - black or white! Does that mean that nature - genetically influenced (though not determined) factors such as body size and physiology - are always trumped by nurture - hard work and opportunity?

To help answer this question, let's briefly examine the history of distance running. For decades, the 'Flying Finns' were the world's best, their wins multiplying in tandem with their growing nationalist tradition of success (a situation replicated in the javelin - see page 6). The Finnish were eventually eclipsed by the great Anglo tradition in running, led in the 1980s by Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram, and Steve Ovett. By the last decade of the 20th century, as the door of opportunity opened to less developed nations, the centre of gravity shifted dramatically and decisively toward North and East Africa.

According to some, that cycle of history itself suggests that no population has a lock on distance running success. Surely, they say, Kenyan dominance will eventually fade, much as it did for the Finns and Brits, and the trend will shift once again to another nation?

Not so fast. To flesh out this debate, it's instructive to put Kenya under a microscope. This small East African country, with a population of less than 30 million, is home to the greatest per capita concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of the world (see map on page 5). The national sport is the passion of the masses. Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers of the adoring fans that regularly crowd the stands at the National Stadium in Nairobi. The best players are national icons. The selection process to spot the great stars begins at a very young age. Coaches backed by government money comb the countryside to find the next generation of potential athletes. The most promising of the lot are sent to special schools and provided extra coaching. It's not an exaggeration to call Kenya's most popular sport a kind of national religion.

According to conventional and socially acceptable wisdom, this is a familiar story - the sure cultural explanation for the phenomenal success of Kenyan distance runners. There's only one problem: the national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channelling - all these relate to Kenya's enduring love affair with football! Despite the enormous success of Kenyan runners in the past two decades, running remains a relative afterthought in this football-crazed nation.

Yet, while Kenyans and other East Africans sweep upwards of 60% of the world's distance running events, they are among the world's worst football players - and sprinters. Despite an elaborate school system and the expenditure of vast amounts of the country's sparse sports resources, Kenya has flopped in trying to replicate its wondrous distance running success in football. In the sprints, after an intense decade-long national recruitment and training effort, the best Kenyan time ever in the 100m (10.28 secs) ranks somewhere near 5,000th on the all-time list.

So where does that leave the sociological argument that nurture trumps nature? Does anyone really believe that Kenyans, known for their legendary tough training regimes, suddenly become softies when the distance is 100m rather than 42,195m?

No amount of political correctness can obscure the reality that East Africans have a very distinct genetically endowed body type and physiology. Kenyans are ectomorphs, short and slender, with huge natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles, the vital energy system for endurance sports. It's a perfect biomechanical package for distance running, but a disaster for sports - like sprinting and football - that require anaerobic bursts of speed.

Science certainly does not support the popular notion that Kenyans prevail in distance running because they train harder or run huge distances as kids - myths frequently peddled by the media. For every Kenyan athlete who runs 100 miles a week, there are others who get along on 30, and did not regularly run extraordinary distances as children. 'I lived right next door to school,' laughs Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, world 800m record holder. 'I walked, nice and slow.'

Though individual success is indeed largely about opportunity and 'fire in the belly', when it comes to the patterns that we see in sports, genetic traits proscribe possibility. While a driven Kenyan could potentially transform himself into a decent sprinter in spite of having the ideal genetically endowed body type of a distance runner, thousands of years of evolution have left a distinct footprint.

'Kenyans and other East Africans are born with a high number of slow-twitch fibres,' notes Saltin, who outlined his widely-embraced findings in a cover story, 'Muscles and Genes', in Scientific American last year(2). The bio-cultural epicentre for world-class distance running - where evolutionary factors and social conditions come together in a feedback loop - is the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria. This is home to the Kalenjin, a loosely named population of 1.5 million people, who win almost 40% of major international distance events. One tiny district, the Nandi, with only 500,000 people - one-twelve-thousandth of the planet's population - sweeps an unfeasible 20% of such races.

While Kenyans and other East Africans hold more than 60% of the world's top endurance times, athletes of West African ancestry, including most North American, British and Caribbean blacks, are among the world's worst distance runners. The ectomorphic body type so common among East Africans is not very common in whites and is almost non-existent in those with roots in West Africa. They tend to have small and efficient lungs, muscular 'mesomorphic' lower bodies, and a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres which contribute to explosive speed.

This is an exceptional biomechanical package for sports requiring fast bursts of effort. West African ancestral populations represent about 8% of the world's population, 12% in the US, and a mere 2% in Britain - but are vastly over-represented, especially when social and cultural factors are taken into account. Twenty-five per cent of England's Premiership footballers, 84% of American basketball players, 70% of US footballers, and 40% of baseball players are blacks of West African ancestry. The figures in sprinting are even more overwhelming: in the 100m, the purest test of speed, blacks of West African ancestry hold the top 220 times and 494 of the top 500 times. Yet, while runners of West African descent win upwards of 95% of the elite races (not all of course - human variation and individual drive ensure there are no guarantees in sports), there is not a single elite distance runner from West Africa.

For the nurturist argument to prevail, one would have to believe that British and American blacks are hard-training sprinters but lazy distance runners; or that they respond to financial incentives in the 100m but shrug at the prospect of six-figure fees and purses in elite distance races.

In other words, all the determination in the world cannot turn 100m champ Maurice Greene into a first-rate marathoner - or Kenyan distance runner Joseph Chebet or Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi into a world-class sprinter.

Frankly, such claims that blacks succeed for cultural reasons diminish the reality that sports achievement is all about individual accomplishment, that 'fire in the belly'. It's hard work, courage and serendipity that separate champions from other elite sportsmen and women.

Consider Michael Jordan, who grew up in the security of a two-parent home in comfortable circumstances. Or one of the world's top sprinters, the Canadian Donovan Bailey, who was certainly not motivated by a desperate need to escape destitution: he already owned his own house and a Porsche, and traded life as a successful stockbroker to pursue his dream of Olympic gold. More and more top black athletes are from the middle class.

Continued »

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