TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It.

Jon Entine's eye-opening book Taboo explains why running is dominated by athletes of African descent. (Second of three parts.)

Story by Jon Entine for Quokka.com

Part Two: Middle Distances: The Only Integrated Olympic Races

The only integrated Olympic races these days (and at the elite level, such multiracialism is decreasing steadily) are the middle distances of 800 and 1,500 meters, which overlap the strong suits of blacks. Whereas runners of West African ancestry monopolize sprinting from 100 meters to 400 meters, with rare exception, they are nowhere to be found at the middle and longer distances. East Africans and Northwest Africans (who have substantial white ancestry, whether Arab or Berber is unclear) dominate in the middle distances.

Only a handful of West African-descended blacks have distinguished themselves in races that demand significant aerobic energy, at distances of 800 meters or more. Malvin Whitfield of the United States won gold medals in the 800 meters in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics in times that by today's standards, set by North and East Africans, are relatively poky. Johnny Gray of the United States had a long career as a world-class 800-meter runner. The racial ancestry of Joaquim Carvalho Cruz of Brazil, a star from the mid-1980s, as with many South American blacks, is not clear because the slave trade drew from western and southern Africa.

While hapless in the sprints, North and East Africans dominate endurance races. Even tiny Burundi has become a power of sorts, winning a gold in the 5,000-meters and coming in fourth in the 10-kilometer event at the Atlanta Olympics, a better showing than the United States. Not surprisingly, all seven members of the Burundi team were slender Tutsis, of the same Nilotic-Saharan background as athletes from the world's top running superpowers, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The last time a non-African runner made a splash in 10,000 meters was in 1989 when Arturo Barrios of Mexico set a world record. That's now the 19th best time. As the economic barriers that long limited the numbers of North and East Africans have eroded, the rest of the world runners drift further and further back in the pack.

Kenya is by far the powerhouse of middle-distance running. Kenyans hold the top 60-plus times in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and more than half of the top times at 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Kenyan men have won the World Cross-Country Championships every year since 1986, and are often so dominant that they would have beaten the rest of the world combined.

The depth of the country's talent is so dazzling that Daniel Komen, considered by many to be the world's premier middle-distance runner in 1996, could not make his country's Olympic team. At the World Juniors in 1994, the Rift Valley native took the 5,000- and 10,000-meter titles. But in the Kenyan Olympic Trials two years later, Komen could not finish among the top three in any race. As a result, he ended up watching the Games on television from his summer training base in the London suburb of Teddington, just a few miles from the fields of Harrow, where Roger Bannister had prepared for his assault on the four-minute-mile barrier four decades before, and where the great Sebastian Coe still lopes through the hills to stay in shape.

Shortly after the Olympics concluded, as if in revenge for not being selected, Komen embarked on one of the great months in running history. In mid-August in Zurich, he crushed then 5,000-meter world-record-holder Halle Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. Nine days later in Brussels he took on Morocco's Noureddine Morceli at 3,000 meters and left him sniffing vapors. The very next week at Rieti in Italy, he broke the 3,000-meter record, running 7:20:67. Komen moved on to Milan, where he won the 5,000-meter Grand Prix finals. In less than a month, a Kenyan Olympic team also-ran destroyed three world records at a variety of distances, earning more than $400,000.

The following year, 1997, Komen added the 5,000-meter record, along with two indoor world marks. Still not in his prime, he has run a scintillating 7:58.61 over two miles, the first athlete to cover that distance in less than eight minutes. While the world rightly considers Bannister's sub-four minute mile a momentous accomplishment, Komen ran his first mile in 3:59.2-then turned in a second mile of 3:59.4.

What's most striking about Komen and many other top East African runners is their remarkable range in middle- and long-distance events. Gebrselassie began the 1999 outdoor track season with 15 world records in his career at distances from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. Kenya's Moses Kiptanui, the first athlete to run the 3,000-meter steeplechase in under eight minutes, and countryman Wilson Kipketer are both capable of record-setting performances over a variety of distances. Ondoro Osoro, primarily a 5,000-meter runner, did nothing less than run the third-fastest marathon in history in Chicago in 1998. He had never even run a marathon in practice. "It truly blows me away," says Keith Brantly, a 1996 US Olympian and one of America's top marathoners, who dropped out midway through the race, of the combination of speed and endurance in East African runners. "It's really nice to be na´ve sometimes and run like it's a distance run and sprint at the end."

Is this success just a temporary phenomenon? Not likely. The dominance shows no sign of waning. The pipeline is full of young Kenyans, who have captured almost every men's new world junior record in road racing in recent years. Among the females, only a few Chinese women have cracked Kenyan hegemony over the world junior circuit. And the staggering reality is that while Kenyans continue to improve in the middle distances, the rest of the world's population has stagnated.



Excerpted from Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, by Jon Entine (PublicAffairs, 2000).