Kevin Fixler
    Sport Matters

3 September 2013

Are blacks just better athletes? A book review

Since the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, every finalist in the men’s 100-meter, regardless of country of origin, has a lineage that recently stems from sub-Saharan West Africa. In fact, since 1968, the world record holders have all been black athletes, with just 10 non-blacks holding the honor since 1912 when the record was first kept. To boot, dating back to 1980 as well, just one woman without recent Western African ancestry has won the 100, and all competitors in the female final of the last two Games have also been of this same descent.

So are blacks just better athletes?

It’s a difficult and controversial question that author David Epstein, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, attempts to tackle in his new book, “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” which he originally began work on as far back as May 2010 for SI. So tangled and fraught with myriad theories and opinions is the topic through the years that Epstein, who in the pages of his work explores everything from the biological differences between men and women to analyses of sled dogs, seven-foot NBA players and the specialization of athletes’ body types, dedicates a full quarter of his debut book to the inquiry. Nevertheless, at least initially, he was reluctant to address the subject at all.

“I almost backed out of doing the book because of it,” Epstein told me. “Eventually I convinced myself that there’s a real harm done when people ignore the ethnic differences that are real. The fact is there’s been so much pseudoscience in the past—not even pseudoscience, it’s been like pseudophilosophy, it wasn’t science—that I can understand why people are gun-shy, but to me, I think you want to study more of these things, not less, if you can figure out what differences are real, what differences are important and how to get the best outcome for every different genome.”

Epstein first presents work from 1993 that isolated the structural protein called alpha-actinin-3, or ACTN3, in muscle fibers commonly referred to as fast-twitch and known for the role they play in explosive power and speed. Scientists acknowledge that athleticism and the ability to run fast are based on many inherited and developed traits, but also that the ACTN3 gene—something several companies now offer to test people for—is a component that appears in nearly every elite-level sprinter. In accordance, those of recent West African roots are a group that almost always possesses this Olympic-caliber defining unit of heredity.

Jamaicans, Epstein explains, who are thought of as the world’s leading speedsters and many of which are descendents of slaves brought over in the 17th century from what is today Nigeria and Ghana, are included among this premier genetic contingent. Even so, he refutes the oft perpetuated theory that Jamaican athletes simply represent the fittest of those who survived from the days of the brutal slave trade, because scientists have proven that the approximate 2.9 million people who make up the island nation actually come from particularly diverse bloodlines. In other words, despite popular belief, no one superior athletic gene or set of genes exists among the citizens of Jamaica.

A grouping of biological features is believed to combine to create physical advantages within the Jamaican population though. Physiologically speaking, as inhabitants of a warm climate and low latitude, Jamaicans tend to have narrow hips as well as long legs compared to their overall height, both of which are beneficial for running and jumping. Some researchers have also proposed that another attribute prevalent among many Jamaicans, the evolutionary development of the sickle-cell trait that stems from their western African ancestors combating widespread malaria, which then lessens a carrier’s ability to produce energy by way of oxygen, led to a shift toward muscle that functions well anaerobically. This resulted in the presence of more fast-twitch fibers.

Journalist Jon Entine presented similar hypotheses of West African descendents in his 2000 book, “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It.” A follow-up on a 1989 news documentary on the same theme he wrote with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Entine attempts to argue from strictly a genetic-based perspective.

“To the degree that is purely a scientific debate,” he wrote, “the evidence of black superiority in athletics is persuasive and decisively confirmed on the playing field. Blacks not only outnumber their nonwhite competitors, but, by and large, are the superstars.”

Edward Jones, a researcher at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., made similar assertions after leading a study on the subject that appeared in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics in 2010. Though Jones admits some cultural elements may have an effect, he said the research pointed to the longer limbs with more compact widths providing blacks a natural athletic edge.

“There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites,” he told the website Live Science soon after the results were published. “These are real patterns being described here. Whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian, most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa.”

In the ongoing debate of nature versus nurture, Jim Holt, a science and philosophy writer for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, criticized this overall theory, specifically questioning Entine for acutely emphasizing inherited differences between races and in turn completely ignoring the role outside factors play despite, in Holt’s own opinion, the former being “utterly swamped by environmental influences.”

Epstein does not make the same choice to overlook the function geographic conditions and the place practice and hard work play in the complete equation.

After traveling to Jamaica and seeing the running culture that exists there, he concludes that while its people may possess some genetic advantages, it is the environment that plays perhaps an equal role in the small country producing an overrepresentation of top-flight runners and medal winners at the international level. At the national high school track and field championships, universally known there just as “Champs,” Epstein writes that the “atmosphere has its fervor in common with Texas high school football” and is a system that funnels its best athletes through the sprint pipeline, whereas a place like America pushes its finest prospects to several different professional sports leagues.

He rhetorically asks, “In what country other than Jamaica could a boy with blinding speed and who stands 6’4″ at the age of fifteen, as [Usain] Bolt did, end up anywhere but on the basketball or volleyball court or the football field? If he’s born in the United States, Bolt is no doubt ushered toward the path of towering speedsters like Randy Moss (6’4″) and Calvin Johnson (6’5″), both large, fast NFL wide receivers.”

“When a nation has a clear, top sport the way that Jamaica does with sprinting where everybody’s made to do it,” he said by phone, “that’s the best genetic filtering mechanism you could possibly have. There, instead of having to go looking for the best genes, it’s like they all come into the pool on their own and then you can just pick and choose.”

Epstein suggests the same scenario is true of Kenya and its world-class distance runners. The East African nation, like its similarly prodigious marathon-running neighbor, Ethiopia, has a genetically blessed populace, built for running long distances—what with shorter legs that provide for an extremely efficient economy of movement, not to mention growing up in high altitudes, and running everywhere including to school. In addition, both maintain a cultural focus on the singular sport that almost certainly helps keep the world’s cream of the crop in the discipline. Still, there are even other, mostly unseen factors.

“For years,” Epstein writes, “the rest of the world was helping Kenya by getting slower. Even before Kenya commandeered the international running scene, the countries that had dominated distance running—Britain, Finland, the United States—were growing increasingly wealthy, increasingly overweight, increasingly interested in other sports, and increasingly less likely to train seriously in distance running.”

“The genes didn’t go away in Finland,” an elite running coach tells Epstein, “the culture did.”

In his general investigation of “naturals,” as Epstein puts it, with regard to the debate over if blacks are innately designed as better athletes, he concludes that it remains more complicated than scientists can comprehend, even today, but that it is surely a product of both a person’s hardware and software. He summarizes it more simply: “In reality, any case for sports expertise that leans entirely on either nature or nurture is a straw-man argument. Athletes are essentially always distinguished by both their training environments and their genes.”

Follow me on Twitter: @kfixler

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