February 21, 2000

Natural Born Runners

by Richard Yallop

In some sports, black athletes can boast almost total dominance. Are some races better equipped genetically? Richard Yallop looks at an issue where prejudice has generally come out the winner..

When Patrick Johnson explodes from the blocks in his 100-metre head-to-head with Matt Shirvington at this week's National Athletics Championships many white Australians will see him as the stereotype of the "natural" black athlete.

Some will remember how Johnson, born of an Aboriginal mother and Irish father, won the 100m at the 1996 Australian University Games in 10.73 seconds, even though he had run only a couple of races in his life.

How could Johnson run such a fast 100 metres when he had received almost no formal training? Had he inherited powerful muscles from his Aboriginal mother's genes? Or sporting aptitude from his father, who had once boxed?

What is it about black athletes such as Johnson and fellow runner Cathy Freeman, the current world 400 metres champion? How is it that male athletes of African ancestry hold every single world track record? Why do African Americans in the US dominate such sports as basketball and American football?

Respected US journalist Jon Entine seeks to explore this enigma in his controversial new book Taboo -- Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It. He also seeks to explode the myth that if black athletes are naturally gifted, they are also intellectually inferior and indolent, because they do not have to work to achieve their success.

The myth stretches back to US slavery and theories that plantation owners bought and bred the strongest and most powerful slaves, who were the ancestors of today's black sporting champions.

Dismissing such theories, Entine relates how early accounts of black sporting success often used imagery focusing on the primitive or animal aspects of African Americans.

Celebrated New York sportswriter Paul Gallico, later a successful novelist, once described boxing champion Joe Louis as "the magnificent animal''. According to Entine, implicit in most descriptions was "the prejudice that brains and brawn are inversely proportional''.

Prejudice is not confined to the US. Johnson's Canberra coach Esa Peltola recalls how some within the athletics community reacted when he said he intended working with Johnson. People told him that because Johnson was part Aborigine, he wouldn't stick with it and he wouldn't do the work.

There were shades of the criticism that tennis champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley used to receive after her early-career comment that she had gone "walkabout'' in one of her matches. The remark came to be used against her as a put-down of Aborigines' lack of resilience and reliability.

When the then 23-year-old Johnson burst onto the athletics scene in 1996 it was difficult for onlookers to attach the other black stereotype -- intellectual inferiority -- to him. At 16, Johnson's father took him to Canberra to give him an education, and Patrick won a scholarship to the Australian National University. Fluent in Cantonese, he was employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, furthering his ambition to be a diplomat.

Johnson was reluctant to talk to The Australian about black athletic success because, according to Peltola, "he doesn't buy into the 'black speed' thing. He's proud of his heritage but he thinks he's Patrick Johnson, individual, rather than Aboriginal Patrick Johnson, or Irish Patrick Johnson.''

Evonne Cawley's husband Roger also rejects any attempts to generalise on what makes black athletes successful. "Evonne was a one-off, and unique,'' says Cawley. "It was love of the game that drove her on, and if the challenge wasn't there, she lost interest. The closest I've seen to Evonne is Cathy Freeman: she really, really loves what she's doing.''

Entine describes his book as "an attack on simplistic stereotypes''. He says it has been well-received in African American circles, even though it is considered politically incorrect by some. Politically incorrect because, in stressing the importance of genes in athletic success, it backs the idea of the natural athlete. By doing that it undermines the hard work black athletes put into their success.

It also casts doubt on the popular sociological explanation that blacks succeed in sport because it offers a way out of poverty.

Entine says: "It's pretty lame to suggest that simply a fierce hunger by Kenyans to escape the clutches of poverty can explain the country' s spectacular running success.''

He supports his argument about genetic importance by studying successful Kenyan middle distance athletes from the Kalenjin tribe living in the hills near Nandi. There are plenty of environmental factors at work, with many boys forced to run to school, and the young men brought up in a culture of endurance. But studies have shown that the Kalenjin also have a physiological aptitude for endurance running inherited in their genes.

Entine acknowledges the close inter-relationship between genetics and environment. He tells The Australian: "There's no question East Africans have larger lungs, a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscles [which help endurance running], and an ability to withstand lactic acid [produced when the body is stressed]. We know that's genetic, but all those genetic adaptations are deepened through living in that environment.''

Entine argues there are also physiological reasons to explain why athletes originating from West Africa dominate the sprint events: these include a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscles, which produce more explosive energy, and greater muscle mass.

He quotes a study by researchers from University College, London, who found that 90 per cent of athletic performance could be determined by genetic make-up.

Entine observes: "Genes set parameters, but it is life experiences that 'express' biological capabilities.''

His conclusions about the importance of genetic inheritance do not excite Australia's athletics community. Peltola, a Finn who coached in Scandinavia and the Middle East before coming to Australia, says: "I've coached all types of people, and I don't believe skin colour is a factor at all. What might be a factor is climate, which dictates the kind of activities people have, and which might encourage the growth of fast-twitch muscle fibres. The genetic side is the base, but then everything else -- childhood, family, climate, society -- has a big influence. It all comes down to the individual athlete. You must have the physical talent, but if you don't have the head for it, you won't make it to the top level. With Patrick, his intelligence and psychological ability is more important than his talent.''

Peltola also coaches Aboriginal hurdler Kyle Vander-Kuyp, and he says the only factor he and Johnson share in common is "the ambition to do well''.

Australian Institute of Sport physiologist David Pyne says that the argument is, in a sense, immaterial: "It doesn't matter how they came to be good; the real question is, how do you make them better? Wherever you come from, you've got to work hard to achieve.''

That message is repeated by NSW state athletics coach Keith Connor, who won a bronze medal for Britain in the triple jump at the 1984 Olympics. Connor, of African origin, made an impassioned appeal to "stop trying to take away people's achievements by making generalisations".

"Sportspeople, no matter how talented they are, have to work hard. What made me a triple jumper was four years of hard work and the attitude that `I'll show these guys','' he says.

"It's not just a genetic pool; it's also to do with hard work, opportunity, desire, and cause.'' So what if blacks are good at track? asks Connor. Does anyone investigate why whites are good at swimming, or tennis?

The whiff of racism contained in the study of black athletic success is what made it a taboo topic in the US. Entine argues that to ignore it is to ignore what science and genetic advances can teach us about human diversity and the fact that different peoples have different talents. It also risks a retreat into centuries-old prejudice.

"It's time to acknowledge and even celebrate the obvious,'' writes Entine. "It's neither racist nor a myth to say that `white men can' t jump'.''

Copyright 2000 News Limited.