Why black athletes are the fastest runners

by Emma Lindsey

8 September 2000                                                                             London

As we prepare to stuff ourselves on the feast of sport known as the Olympics, there is bound to be much preprandial musing on why it is that so many of the world's best runners are black. Staring at the all-black starting line up for the men's 100-metre final, opinion will be sharply split.

On the one hand are those who say it's in the genes; that black people were born not only to run but run faster than white folk: on the other are those who baulk at the very notion, saying that the preponderance of elite black athletes is down to class and society.

Actually both are right. Genetics, in the form of having a higher proportion of "fast-twitch" fibres and more testosterone than whites, may predispose a black individual to run fast. But biology alone does not make champions. As well as graft, focus and a winning mindset, the forces which combine to set those fast-twitch fibres twitching in the direction of the school running track cannot be underestimated.

In my own experience it was touch and go. It was noted at school that I could run fast but my parents, in particular my mother, snuffed out any thoughts of a career on the track. Perhaps as a teacher herself, she was better placed than most parents to see where that road might take me. Instead, I found myself the only black kid in Latin classes.

I am not sure whether that was a such a good thing either but the point is, my teachers were more alert to the potential in a black child for sporting prowess than academic achievements - and this is far from unique.

Oscar Douglas, a black 33-year-old market researcher, was Surrey County champion for triple jump at the age of 14. He says: "I left junior school in the top stream for all my subjects but as soon as I got to high school, and my PE teacher saw that I could jump, the only encouragement I got was from him.

"When it came to my academic subjects I was virtually ignored. My teachers basically wrote me off because I was good at sport." Eventually, Douglas went on to gain a degree in sociology and psychology but he says: "I feel it was despite my teachers not because of them."

The question of race in sport is fraught with myths and entrenched positions. Experts can demonstrate with the aid of obliging Kenyans on a treadmill, the advantages of fast and slow twitch fibres when it comes to explosive power and endurance.

Top geneticist Steve Jones blurs the issue by saying that the idea that black people are good at sport is meaningless - "I've never seen a pygmy win anything and they're black, too..." - in an effort to dismiss the concept of racial purity. Meanwhile, "race scientist" Jean-Phillipe Rushton posits a view which caused riots on his Canadian campus. He says that black people have a narrow pelvis which helps them run fast but that the downside means they are born with smaller heads and, therefore, smaller brains.

Amid all this there is a question which no one really wants to explore. Why is it so hard to believe that black people can run fast and be brainy? For example, the reigning 100m Olympic champion, Donovan Bailey, was a City stockbroker before he turned to athletics.

Rushton's brand of racist "science" highlights the equation that many otherwise rational people carry in their minds: being black plus good at sport equals thick. That is why so many black youngsters are forced into a trade-off between learning lessons in the classroom or learning technique out on the field.

It is why award-winning American journalist Jon Entine caused such a storm with his book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sport And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It. He hit a nerve.

There is a knee-jerk reaction to any discussion which points up the differences between races. But the fact is that, by and large, black athletes of West African extraction, (which thanks to the slave trade, include Caribbeans and African-Americans), tend to run faster than their Caucasian counterparts. Equally, black athletes from North and East Africa have a genetic advantage when it comes to distance running - and again the medal count speaks for itself.

Of course, there are successful white athletes but, overall, black supremacy on the race track is blindingly obvious - of the top 200 official times at 100 metres, not one has been run by a white athlete. Only black sprinters have (officially) run under 10 seconds. Solomon Wariso, a graduate in biotechnology and 400- and 200-metre runner, says: "It's just stating facts that black athletes can run faster and for longer. Among themselves athletes don't even bother to discuss it. It's just like saying the track is red."

Those who adopt the defensive position, and insist that the predominance of black athletes in sport is a coincidence, also buy into the notion that athleticism and intelligence are mutually exclusive. The implication is that black people go into sport because they can't make it in the world of work. It's not true. Like any other field of endeavour, natural talent may well introduce an individual to success but it's hard graft that will nurture the association. Leading sprint coach Mike McFarlane, who has honed the talent of sprint champion Dwain Chambers, among others, says: "We work hard six days a week.

"In the winter when it's cold, that's the time when you know whether you've got the character or the heart and determination to get the best out of yourself."

  • Picture taken from Sportscape: The Evolution Of Sports Photography (Phaidon), £29.95 available next month.


  • Power events which require short, dynamic bursts of energy include the 100m, 200m, 400m, long jump, triple jump, 110m hurdles and 400m hurdles.

  • Black athletes hold the world records in all seven major sprint events, including the two team relays.

  • Kenyans won gold, silver and bronze medals in the 3,000m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

  • At the 1988 Seoul Olympics Kenyans won the men's 800, 1,500, 5,000 and 3,000 steeplechase titles.

  • In 1886 Arthur Wharton, a Ghanaian who settled in the north of England, became the first man to run 100 yards in 10 seconds in the Amateur Athletic Association Championships.

  • Underneath black skin there is more muscle and less fat. White athletes have a greater proportion of fat and less muscle.

  • Research carried out by experts at the Copenhagen Institute of Sports Science on Kenyans from the Kalenjin tribe of the Great Rift Valley, shows distinct genetic characteristics which help them store oxygen in the body and reduce fatigue. This would enable them to cope with hot conditions at high altitude. As a result, the Kalenjin who took part in the trials posted faster running times over 800m than Europeans at the same fitness level.

    © Express Newspapers, 2000