September 27, 2000

Why Blacks Have the Golden Sprint

By Godfrey Robert

SINCE the sprint triumphs of Valery Borzov (Soviet Union) in 1972 and Alan Wells (Britain) in 1980, no white runner has won the Olympic title. In fact, since the Los Angeles Games in 1984, all eight finalists – 40 in all – for the century dash have been coloured Americans or of African origin. And the 10-second barrier for the 100m has never been broken by a white athlete, and the fastest 200 times for the distance are all held by black athletes – all under 10 seconds.

At the current Sydney Games, it was the black flash again, led by American world-record holder Maurice Greene, who beat Trinidad and Tobago's Ato Boldon and Barbados' Obadele Thompson to win the 100m in 9.87sec. What is it about black sprinters that gives them a headstart over the white runners?

"The theory has it that the blacks possess fast-twitch fibres in their muscles that give them speed," says Dr Teh Kong Chuan, director of the Singapore Sports Council's Sports Medicine and Sports Science Division.

No doubt, numerous factors -- genetic, psychological, cultural and financial -- go into the making of a super sprinter, but the right genes may be the most critical.

The fibres within most human skeletal muscles are close to evenly divided between fast-twitch fibres, which contract very rapidly, and slow-twitch fibres, which don't contract as quickly but generate energy much more efficiently.

Super sprinters, therefore, have an unusual abundance of fast-twitch fibres which give them explosive power, while the legs of marathon runners might contain up to 90 per cent slow-twitch fibres that give them endurance for longer aerobic activities.

In a controversial new book, entitled Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It, journalist and author Jon Entine boldly predicts: "No white man will ever again win the 100 m".

Entine claims that blacks are genetically better suited to most sports, adding: "Running is the most democratic of sports. Yet even as the Olympics and the world championships have become more diverse, the colour of the winners has become increasingly monochromatic. "In the world of sports, where black athletic superiority is axiomatic, the monopoly by athletes of African descent is astonishing."

Not everyone would agree easily with Entine's detailed claims. Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at Berkeley and a sprinter of national calibre in the 60s, disputes Entine, countering: "The argument that blacks are physically superior to whites is a racist idealogy camouflaged to appeal to the ignorant, the unthinking and the unaware."

Few would buy that, for the records speak for themselves, and the explosive power of Maurice Greene, Marion Jones and their "shadows", seen recently in Sydney, is further testimony of the black superiority in sprints.

Dr Teh stresses: "With the fast-twitch fibres in the muscles which ensure speed, the main thing left is to build strength. "And that can be done with weights, gym work, proper diet and the taking of supplements."

Another reason offered by Dr Teh is the the black socio-economic status. "Many of them come from poor, harsh backgrounds. They have to fight for survival, and this builds the hunger in them. Sport offers a way out of poverty," says Dr Teh, cautioning that this belief may not apply to all black athletes.

Some studies and research back Dr Teh's argument. Science has it that the genetical advantage of the "right muscles" aside, the social background of some of the "ghetto kids" has helped develop the sprinters.

So the combination of nature (genes) and nurture (the fight to come out of poverty from poor social backgrounds) helps the blacks stand tall in sprinting. The "father" of black sprinting, Jesse Owens, was a good example of someone seeking a better status to get out of the hard life filled with poverty.

The seventh of 11 children (polio victim Wilma Rudolph, who won the women's 100 m gold in 1960, was another, being one of 20 kids) to sharecropper parents Henry and Mary Owens, Jesse moved from Oakville, Alabama, to Cleveland, Ohio in search of a better way of living.

There are others who have fought through adversity. A double gold medallist at the 1984 Olympics, Valerie Brisco-Hooks had family responsibilities at a young age. When she started out at sprinting, she was diagnosed as having gallstones, and the pain was so severe that she was left motionless in bed for long periods. The illness left mental scars and, after marriage and motherhood, she broke through the human barrier, as a matter of survival, to make good.

Gail Devers, the 1992 Olympic 100m gold medallist, has a similar story. She rose to fame by overcoming a debilitating illness, called "Graves Disease", which made her suffer from fits of shaking, uncontrollable menstrual bleeding, severe weight fluctuations and some loss of vision. But all these made her a stronger athlete with a will to win.

Mark Richardson, a black 400m runner with the British Olympic team, duly agrees, saying: "There's a huge number of reasons why black people make great athletes, and most of those are socio-economic. "You don't need to have much money to take part in track-and-field -- you just need some clothes and a pair of shoes, and you're off."

Since the modern Olympics was initiated in 1896 in Athens, it was not until 1932 that a black sprinter won the Olympics. Eddie Tolan, a graduate of the University of Michigan, put the blacks on the sprint gold-medal rostrum with his 10.3sec 100m dash in Los Angeles. This was followed by Jesse Owens (1936), Harrison Dillard (1948), Jim Hines (1968), Hasely Crawford (1976), Carl Lewis (1984 and 1988), Linford Christie (1992) and Donovan Bailey (1996).

Among the women were Wilma Rudolph, Evelyn Ashford, Wyomia Tyus, Gail Devers and Florence Griffith-Joyner, who is probably the greatest, as her world record of 10.49sec, set in 1987, still stands.

Today, black athletes are increasingly dominant in track-and-field because speed and strength seem to be god-given gifts. And they don't just come from the United States, the African countries, South America or the Caribbean. Even Europe, especially Britain, is inundated with them. Black seems to be the universal colour of golden sprinting.

The writer is Contributing Editor (Sports) of The Straits Times. He can be reached at