London, United Kingdom
Sunday, 4 June 2000

White men can't run

The dominance of black athletes is one of the most explosive issues in modern sport. Everyone is aware of it, but no one mentions it. Now, a controversial new book attempts to wrestle with the most taboo subject in world sport

Andrew Anthony

At the forthcoming Olympics there will be few racing certainties. The best runners might be injured, out of form or, for political reasons, not selected. But there is one prediction that any sports fan can make without even thinking. The winner of the men's 100 metre gold medal will be black.

You could, without any gift of clairvoyancy, go even further and safely forecast that not one finalist will be white. Are black sprinters, then, naturally better? In the current climate of body worship and sports celebrity, it would be hard to imagine a more positive or less derogatory epithet than 'natural athlete'. For black sportsmen and women, however, the compliment often bears a troubling subtext: the suspicion that they possess an unfair genetic advantage. Of course, all elite athletes, even the most chemically enhanced, are by definition natural athletes, winners in the genetic lottery, but there is evidence that athletes from certain racial backgrounds are, so to speak, more natural than the rest.

Earlier this year, a book was published in America that claims to bring scientific clarity to a subject that has long been blurred by myth.

Provocatively entitled Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It, the book has brought up to date a controversy that, in various guises, has been stirring ever since black sportsmen began regularly beating their white counterparts.

One critic, writing in the New York Times, described the book as 'demagogic quackery' and a 'piece of good-old fashioned American anti-intellectualism', while another drew parallels with Nazi ideology. 'Didn't we hear all this in Germany in 1936?' asked Richard Lapchick, the founder of America's Centre for the Study of Sport in Society. Elsewhere the book has been praised as brave, reasoned and honest.

What is beyond doubt is that, regardless of its strengths or flaws, the book plugs into a belief that is widely shared but seldom stated: that people with black skin are better suited to the athleticism of sport than people with white skin. Which is to say, it provides back-up to an unthinking stereotype, not necessarily an offensive stereotype, but one that could easily be conflated with those that are.

It is probably only a coincidence that theories of genetic determinism have taken hold of the world of science at the same time as 'black' athletes have gained supremacy in the world of sport, but their simultaneous triumph has led, inevitably, to much speculation about the genetic edge that black sportsmen and women may enjoy over their white competitors.

The inverted commas are there to signify the near-meaninglessness of the word black as a term of racial description. Indeed, many anthropologists dismiss the very concept of race because population groups can be distinguished by a variety of markers, of which skin colour is arguably the most unreliable and misleading.

Nevertheless if 'black' is used in its loose sense to denote people of African origin, then black athletes enjoy a huge over-representation at the highest level of many sports. For example, on the running track every world record in major events from the 100 metres sprint through to the marathon is currently held by athletes of African origin.

Again, some clarification is required. Even employing a broad definition of race, there are three major ethnic populations in Africa: West African, East African and North African (the last of which is not usually described as black). And on a more fundamental level, it's almost certainly true to say that all of us, of whatever colour or race, originate from Africa.

Even allowing for these qualifications, though, there is no doubt that the patterns of distribution of athletic success among different ethnic groups are strikingly pronounced. Of the 32 finalists in the 100 metres in the last four Olympics, there was not a single competitor who was not of West African origin. Over the same distance, the fastest 200 times ever recorded are shared among athletes of West African descent. More than 50 per cent of the 100 fastest times in middle and long distance running have been recorded by East Africans (around 70 per cent for the 5000 and 10000 metres).

In America, black sportsmen not only lead the way in sprinting but also in the big three sports of American football, basketball and, to a much lesser extent, baseball. Jon Entine, the author of Taboo, also notes, in passing, that in Europe a growing number of black footballers make up the elite of the sport, and cites a figure of 20 per cent as the representation of black players in the Premiership.

There are still many sports - among them golf, tennis, cycling and swimming - in which black athletes are under-represented. The finals of Sydney's Olympic swimming competitions will almost certainly look like a negative of the track sprints. Only one black swimmer has ever won an Olympic medal. Entine says that studies suggest that blacks have denser skeletons, and he speculates that this may be a contributing cause to the minimal black success in the pool. Of that single gold medal victory by Anthony Nesty of Surinam in the 1988 100 metres butterfly, Entine argues that the event is the equivalent of a sprint.

Despite the existence of white profile sports, more often than not the contemporary image of athletic excellence is embodied by a black sportsman: Michael Jordan, Ronaldo, Michael Johnson.

There are a number of questions that might be asked about this situation but perhaps the first is why there should be any questions? Why look for biological reasons to explain black success? Why not just accept it in the same complacent spirit that we accept the supremacy of whites in just about every other field of human endeavour?

Harry Edwards, the sociology professor who organised the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Olympics, believes that there is in fact a consensus of indifference on the matter that amounts to tacit racism. 'Whites,' he says, 'have always been comfortable with blacks working in the fields, whether they're cotton fields or football fields.' He argues that the reasons for black advancement in sport are not to be found in the biological sciences but in the 'social environment and racism' that creates the conditions for that success.

It's certainly true that the history of research inspired by black achievements in sport is not one of which scientists can be proud. All manner of bizarre theories and contrived studies have in the past been presented as established fact, only subsequently to be utterly discredited by experience. In the 19th century the widespread belief that blacks were physically inferior was underpinned by warped interpretations of Darwin's theory of evolution. Indeed, the many theorists claimed that sub-Saharan Africans composed a different, less evolved, inferior species.

The concept of a hierarchy of races saw its practical application in an effective separation of blacks from whites. Blacks were seldom allowed to compete against whites in sport and thus the untruth was able to flourish that whites were by nature superior athletes.

When eventually sportsmen like the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson left that myth lying knocked out on the canvas, it was soon replaced by another. Eugenic science of the early 20th century divided races into stratified categories in which physical strength and intelligence were inversely present.

The legacy of such crude racism is the suspicion that any attempt to attribute a physical advantage to an ethnic group also implicitly apportions a mental disadvantage. And the suspicion is not paranoia. In 1994 Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, a book that examined IQ differences among races and drew heavily on the work of a Canadian psychologist, J Philippe Rushton, a proponent of the inversely proportional relationship between brains and brawn.

Entine is aware of the problem and argues that it's 'time to decouple intelligence and physicality'. All the same, much of the criticism that has been levelled at Taboo in the States stems from a conviction that the ideas explored in the book will have precisely the opposite effect. If the conclusion drawn from black domination of Olympic track medals is that blacks are physically superior, what is to be made of the enormous over-representation of whites on the list of Nobel prize winners?

Los Angeles is an unmistakably multicultural city. During my visit to interview Entine, I met people from a number of ethnic backgrounds. Among them were the Mexican who took my bag to my hotel room, the El Salvadorian who parked my hire car and a loquacious Bajan doorman who regaled me with his grandiose plans. The millionaire Hispanics in baseball and multi-millionaire black basketball players who were interviewed nightly on TV in the course of my stay are exceptional in more senses than just their sporting prowess.

Entine lives near Thousand Oaks, a wealthy suburb, set back from the Malibu coast in the foothills that doubled as Korea in the TV series Mash. On a warm, overcast morning we sat near his large swimming pool, lined with elegantly pruned cypress trees, and talked about his book and its reception.

A short, boyishly trim man with an unconvincing beard, Entine, who is 48, was a place kicker in college American football - the only position realistically available to someone of his economy-size stature. He talks rapidly, his native East Coast rhythms unslowed by the languor of Southern California, and showers you with statistics and references to academic research. The effect is a bit like a flash flood: initially you're startled and awash, then quickly drained. But not noticeably any the wiser.

To say that he is sensitive to the issues his book raises would be like suggesting Carl Lewis was quite nippy. Such is his defensiveness that for the first half hour of our conversation he takes me to task on every other word I use. He disallows 'black' because, as he puts it, 'the concept that skin colour designates your ancestry is very rudimentary and in many cases blatantly wrong'. He rules out 'superior' as offensive. 'I'd never say that black athletes were superior.' And so on until I begin to phrase my questions with such lengthy subclauses and subtle qualifications that by the time I finish asking each one I can barely remember what my original point was.

All this would be reasonable and acceptable if Entine did not open his book with the following observation: 'To the degree that it is a purely scientific debate, the evidence of black superiority in athletics is persuasive and decisively confirmed on the playing field. Elite athletes who trace most or all of their ancestry to Africa are by and large better than the competition.' (My italics).

Is it possible to be more unambiguous? Eventually, when I confront him with the inconsistency of his pedantry, Entine relaxes a little and his speech begins to tally more closely with what he has written. Although the book, which touches on an impressive array of disciplines from anthropology through to the latest evolutionary genetics, is ambitiously detailed, the science, while often compelling, is seriously limited. And what there is Entine tends to stretch a little too far in an effort to cover the evident holes.

Chief among the omissions is any hard evidence, still less proof, that any population group - or rather elite athletes from within that group - is genetically better suited to running faster or jumping higher. In other words, no one has isolated a gene or genes for advanced athletic performance.

For Entine, this is a non-issue. The analogy he uses is of a smoking gun: just because you don't find one at the scene of a murder does not mean that there isn't a corpse.

He points to an accumulation of data that suggests that the best sprinters will always be found among people of West African descent and that the finest endurance runners are more likely to come from East Africa. First he posits athletic performance times - the strongest evidence - and the preponderance of blacks in American football and basketball. Then he allows for the possibility of genetic advantage by citing other genetic differences between races that have been proven - for example, the existence of the sickle-cell gene in tropical Africa. 'Why do we so readily accept the idea that evolution has turned out Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs disease and that blacks are more susceptible to sickle cell anaemia,' writes Entine, 'yet find it racist to suggest that West Africans may have evolved into the world's best sprinters.'

Essentially, though, the only reasonably conclusive physiological evidence that Entine has to support his thesis is research into muscle fibre conducted by a French-Canadian exercise physiologist named Claude Bouchard at Laval University in Quebec City in 1986. Muscles are thought to be made up of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibres - sprinters tend to possess more fast-twitch, while endurance runners are more likely to be endowed with slow-twitch. After sticking long needles into the thighs of volunteer West African and French-Canadian students, Bouchard recorded that the West Africans were twice as likely as the French-Canadians to possess more of the larger fast-twitch fibres.

There are other statistics and studies that are also mentioned - the lower body-fat percentage of African Americans compared to whites, the advanced motor skills of black infants, the greater body density and levels of plasma testosterone of people of African descent - but even put together they do not impress anywhere near as much as the sporting achievements themselves.

Instead you get the sense that the direction of the research is prefigured by the knowledge of black athletic excellence; as if the scientists have set out to prove a hypothesis rather than disprove a hypothesis, which is the more stringent and scientific approach for arriving at a rigorous theory.

'The science is limited,' concedes Entine. 'It's fascinating, it does point in all kinds of directions, and you can speculate. But the fact is the way we tend to speculate is really the important issue.' In fact, Entine himself inadvertently demonstrates the way in which we allow race to colour our interpretation of events. Partly, I suspect, to make the book fit the title, he plays down the contribution of (non-black) North Africans in middle and long-distance running and concentrates on (black) East Africans. He is also not above bringing in misleading evidence to back up his case.

For example, Italy's Pietro Mennea stands out as an anomaly in sprinting. A white man who held the 200 metre world record for 17 years, before Michael Johnson broke it in 1996. Entine notes that Mennea, like many southern European runners, traces 'a significant percentage of [his] genes to Africa as a result of interbreeding'. This is true, but it is from North Africa that Mennea's ancestors hail, a part of the world where, according to Entine, endurance not speed is encoded in the genes.

You don't have to be a genetic dogmatist to realise that the traditional liberal explanation for black sporting dominance is in need of updating. The idea that blacks show greater determination to succeed because they have fought their way out of poverty may hold more true than it should but it is not without flaws.

Clearly the paradigm does not fit Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100-metre champion, who left in his supercharged wake only the affluence of his earlier career as a Porsche-owning stockbroker. And Michael Jordan was hardly a product of the projects.

Entine says that the fiercest criticism he has received has come from white liberals. 'Whites have this knee-jerk reaction. They think because the book is about race it must be racist and so they attack it because they don't want to be seen as racist.' Equally, he says his warmest support has been found among the African-American community - the book's forward, for instance is written by Earl Smith, a professor of American Ethnic Studies. This appears to be an exaggeration. Indeed his two most vocal antagonists are black Americans, Harry Edwards, and another sociologist, Todd Boyd.

Edwards recently said that the data presented in the book amounted to an 'underhand way' of saying that blacks were 'closer to beast ' than they are to the rest of humanity.' Still, Entine is certain that whites in America are obsessed with race in a way that black Americans are not, and that, furthermore, white liberals feel obliged to see any discussion of race as inherently racist. 'I'll tell you this,' says Entine defiantly.'It's very condescending, especially to sports fans and African-Americans and others who I think are far more interested in understanding the world in ways that they see around them.'

Exactly how Taboo will lessen the American obsession with race is not at present easy to see. For all Entine's talk of respecting the 'biodiversity' of humanity, our attitudes to race are not yet so evolved that we are able to take ethnic difference in our stride. Even in Britain - which, if not as afflicted by racial division as America, is a long way from being colour blind - few have the appetite to confront the notion of racial superiority in any form.

When Sir Roger Bannister , the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes, spoke in 1995 as a neurologist at a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting of 'certain natural anatomical advantages' possessed by 'black sprinters and black athletes in general', he provoked a mixture of fear, anxiety and silence. Garth Crooks, the (black) former Spurs striker who is now BBC football reporter, said at the time: 'I don't think it matters what the biological conclusions are. It forges a distinction between black and white athletes which is unhealthy, unhelpful, and untrue.' Linford Christie, the only Briton ever to run under 10 seconds, and a man who has been made acutely aware of his skin colour, was less condemnatory.

But he refused to accept Bannister's argument: 'What Sir Roger said is a cop out, in a way. As long as white people believe that black people can run faster, they always will. It makes my job a lot easier. I'll accept that. But Allan Wells was an Olympic champion. Valeri Borzov was an Olympic champion. So it can be done.'

Not according to Entine. 'I doubt we'll ever see any one who is not descended from West Africa win the 100 metres. If your goal [as a white athlete] is to be a gold medal winner then you're wasting your time. But when you get into 800 metres it starts to change. We shouldn't be surprised if a white wins the 800 metres at the Olympics. It's unlikely, but it's possible.' Christie makes an interesting point and one which Entine only fleetingly reflects upon his book. He concentrates on biology, looks at environmental influences, but largely skips over the question of psychology. To maximise performance, you have to minimise doubt.

But even the highest ratio of fast-twitch muscles, other phenotypic advantages, and extensive training are not guaranteed to deliver an optimum performance. That can only be realised by the willingness of the mind. With Christie, his sheer confidence often seemed to take him past opponents who were, on paper, faster. Self-belief works to expand the sense of the possible. You can see its effects take shape in the clusters of top athletes that seem to form at certain times and places.

Is it not possible that as well as inspiring each other to greater feats, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram also gained a psychological edge over their opponents, who may have not been able to block out the popular wisdom that Britain, in the 1980s, was the home of middle distance running? The first Briton to beat Linford Christie in the 100 metres, to end his decade-long reign, was Ian Mackie, a white Scot. How does he feel competing in an event in which he is expected to lose because his skin colour testifies to his limitations? 'Often in a race I'm the only white man taking part,' he acknowledges. 'But I don't think I'm at a disadvantage. As far as I'm concerned, whoever trains the hardest gets to the line first.'

Mackie says that no black athlete has ever said to him, 'I have a genetic advantage over you'. The subject, he says, never comes up. Of course, that doesn't mean that black athletes don't think about it, if only in an unconscious sense. Either way, Mackie is unfazed. 'I have 4.8 per cent body fat. I may be a freak, I don't know. You can never tell what's going to happen in the future. Hopefully there will be a white athlete that breaks the world record and, hopefully, I'll be that athlete.'

As recently as two decades ago racism was the orthodoxy within British football. It was assumed by many managers, coaches and, infamously, chairmen that black players lacked stamina, disappeared in the winter and, when it came down to getting stuck in, didn't 'fancy it'. The situation has improved dramatically, so that England have been represented by a black captain (Paul Ince) and black players have established themselves at every top club. At least at the player level, the game, unlike, say, rugby union, now looks genuinely democratic and egalitarian.

Although no expert on what he would call soccer, Entine has studied the figures and discerns a disproportionate presence of black players in the Premiership - he states that blacks, who make up one fiftieth of the country's population, account for one fifth of top footballers. From this, he deduces that genes play a vital role. But if it's hard enough proving or disproving the argument in the clear-cut forum of athletics, then it's near impossible to do so with the applied athletics and mixed skills of football.

First, the apparent over-representation of black players is easily explained by other factors. Football has always been a working class game and one that stems from the inner city. The black population in this country is largely working class and tends to be concentrated in the inner city. Added to that, the racism elsewhere in society that may discourage black participation could help direct young blacks towards the relatively meritocratic environment of football.

That said, Entine suggests that, just as blacks have come to monopolise the 'explosive speed' positions in American football - running back and wide receiver, for example - so increasingly will the offensive positions in football proper - strikers and wingers - come to be filled by black players.

Chris Kamara, the former player, manager and now Sky football analyst disagrees. 'There's every type of black player, just as there is every type of white player: fast, athletic, slower and more thoughtful, and skilful.' He says that the stereotypes that once restricted the progress of black players are no longer treated seriously. 'It's not just about explosive strength and power, although quite a few black players have got that, football is more varied than that.'

In the eyes of evolutionary time, a decade or even a century is nothing more than a blink. It is conceivable that genes that evolved in population groups in Africa tens of thousands of years ago have been spread, unevenly, along ethnic lines. Population movements are now much greater and quicker, so much so that the very concept of delineated race is swiftly becoming an anachronism (Tiger Woods, for example, is a mixture of African-American, American Indian, Chinese, Thai and Caucasian).

Just 15 or 20 years ago Finns were seen as the great distance runners. When Roger Bannister crashed through the four minute mile, he was in a state of exhaustion, and the world in a state of shock. Forty five years later, Hicham El Guerrouj finished the same distance more than 16 seconds faster, or over 100 metres ahead, and scarcely out of breath. However rigid and formed things seem to be now, it's as well to remember that they also change. To reach definitive conclusions, still less long-term projections, on race and racing over such an infinitesimal section of history as the last 30 years is a business fraught with many risks.

All the same, science is there to investigate probabilities. And as sportsmen and women move nearer the limits of the possible, the probing role of science grows ever more invasive. In football, for instance, players are now analysed and checked for everything from dietary intake to metabolic structures and musculature growth. That science should explore every factor but race is perhaps an unrealistic wish. It's for the rest of us - participants and fans - to ignore race, or rather not be contained by it. For the history of sport shows that when you near the limits of the possible, those limits tend to recede, naturally.

2000 The Observer


Jon Entine's Response

Andrew Anthony's feature on my book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, was fraught with misleading judgements.

Anthony suggests that Taboo argues that blacks are genetically 'determined' to succeed in sports. Not true. Ancestry only circumscribes possibility, defining the depth of the pool of elite athletes; it says nothing about individual success, which is totally the result of hard work, intelligence, and serendipity. Citing individual exceptions to 'disprove' that scientific reality is as silly as saying that a tall women disproves the scientific reality that men are taller, on average, than women.

Taboo disputes the notion that skin colour itself is a reliable marker of 'race'. Populations are the result of evolutionary adaptations and can be independent of superficial facial characteristics. Blacks of West African ancestry (which includes most British and American blacks) and East Africans both have black skin but have radically different average body-types as a result of different evolutionary forces.

East Africans, Kenyans in particular, are weak sprinters but the world's best distance runners; athletes of West African ancestry are hapless at distance running but the world's premier sprinters. Whites have evolved as the premier wrestlers, weightlifters and field athletes because of more natural upper body strength and East Asians are the most 'flexible' of populations (hence the gymnastics term 'Chinese splits').

Anthony also selectively lifts from other publications to create the false impression that Taboo has been harshly received. 'Didn't we hear all this in Germany,' he quotes sociologist Richard Lapchick. In fact, Lapchick had not yet read the book when the quote appeared; he has since praised the book for its 'fairness and thoughtfulness'.

He also misquotes Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sociologist, writing that, 'Edwards recently said that the data presented in the book amounted to an "underhand way" of saying that blacks were "closer to beast" than they are to the rest of humanity.' Whoops. The quote is not about the 'data presented in my book' since it is a response to a question 11 years ago - and quoted on the first page of Taboo. What has Edwards said publicly about my research? That it 'opens the door to enlightenment'.

Anthony ignores the overwhelmingly positive reviews by African American commentators (see The Black World Today, Washington Post, Emerge, africana.com, Seattle Times, St. Petersburg Times, Hartford Courant, all at: http://www.jonentine.com). Anthony also mocks the science of Taboo, asserting that 'chief among the omissions is any hard evidence'. I guess he forgot to check the 750 footnotes.

Most troubling, Anthony raises the rhetorical question, 'Why look for biological reasons of human differences at all', without presenting the answer. 'I've been asked many times how an academic can waste time studying the differences between black and white people,' Taboo quotes exercise physiologist Kathy Myburgh. 'I said, "Well, if you're a scientist and you're studying obesity, who do you compare obese people with? With thin people. But if you are a physiologist and you want to compare your best runners with those not quite as good, you compare the black ones with the white ones, because the blacks clearly are performing better."' With the genetics revolution fast overturning myths of the causes of human behaviours, it is essential that we maintain a true respect for human diversity and critical inquiry.

Jon Entine
Agoura Hills, California