April 18, 2000
raises Taboo topic of genes and sports
Yet again, seven of the top 10 male runners in yesterday's Boston Marathon were Kenyans, nine of the 10 were Africans. Will a white American ever win the Boston Marathon again?
Almost certainly not, says the author of a provocative new book on African-American dominance in running in particular and sports in general. And it's got nothing to do with Kenyans running long distances in high altitudes, or with environment at all.
It's about genes, biology and evolution - the sort of claims that bring charges of racism raining down on any white man who dares raise them. But Jon Entine, a white man, has raised that possibility again in "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It.''
The book grew out of a 1989 NBC documentary he produced with Tom Brokaw that produced such vitriole toward Entine he is still reeling. He went out of his way yesterday to emphasize not only his good liberal credentials but the fact that "Taboo's'' thesis has been better received this time around, particularly in black publications.
So far, he said, there's only been the occasional abrupt cancellation from a TV or radio host nervous about resurrecting the inevitable stereotype: superb athletes, stupid athletes. Entine insists he's only talking about the former.
"This is no proxy for white supremacy. But just acknowledging biological differences is a very racialized subject in the United States,'' he says. "If you tell a Kenyan they're a great athlete with great natural ability, that's much more positively associated there.''
His theory on Kenyans as long-distance runners: They're the best because East Africans are built for middle and long-distances. It's about body and muscle type, he said, not training regimens.
"If it were, all those white Americans and Europeans who've flocked to Kenya would've been helped,'' he said. They weren't.
West Africa, however, the ancestral home of most African-Americans, has produced no great distance runners but the best sprinters in history, Entine says. Again, it's about body type. Not environment. Not training.
While every single world record from 100 meters to marathoning is held by someone of African descent, "Taboo'' reports, the top 200 runners of 100 meters are all of West African ancestry. The fastest times in the 200, 400 and hurdles are held by West Africans, too.
Needless to say Entine is not without crtiics. Some say "Taboo'' yet again denigrates African-American achievement in sports. Why is it that when white men superachieve - a Cal Ripkin or Larry Bird comes to mind - we talk about character, mental discipline, hard work, determination and savvy. But with blacks, it's all about bodies, not brains?
Others question whether rigorous training precedes biological adaptation, whether what's true for black Africans is necessarily true for black Americans. They also say no one has isolated a gene for speed or muscle strength and wonder: Why even bring up this potentially devisive subject?
Because, argues Entine, at a time when researchers are linking genes to everything from predispositions for certain diseases to certain personality types, it seems ridiculous to ignore links to physical skills because we are uncomfortable talking about it.
Meanwhile all is not lost for the biologically challenged white male athlete. (Researchers know less, he says, about women athletes).
Blacks will never dominate in world wrestling or weightlifting, Entine argues, because of white's superior upper body strength. Even though 80 percent of NBA players and 65 percent of NFL players are black, whites hold their own not just where you'd expect (75 percent of quarterbacks) but among offensive linemen: center guards and tackles.
In a piece on the NFL draft, USA Today just noted that the top five 40-yard dashers were black but the top five benchpressers were white. Last but not least, Entine says, white men who can't jump can take solace here: They reign supreme now and perhaps forevermore in the hammer throw and shotput.