Why is it that the next Olympic sprint champion will be black?

By Shekhar Bhatia

3 September 2000                                                                             London

IN less than a fortnight the Sydney Olympics will burst into life and, as has been the case at the four previous games, the man who will be crowned the fastest on earth will be black. A white man has never been able to break the 10-second barrier for the 100 metres, although black athletes have performed the feat more than 200 times.

When the black sprinters step onto the podium to collect their medals, they will begin to enjoy the fruits of years of hard work, endless training hours and sheer determination, such as displayed by US sprinter Maurice Greene on Friday. He clocked the year's world best 100 metres time of 9.86 seconds in Berlin But scientists - and some black athletes themselves - are questioning just how much of their success is also down to having a genetic advantage over white rivals.

Britain's world champion hurdler Colin Jackson has joined the controversy by stating that black Olympians have inherited their supreme athleticism from ancestors. And a major BBC documentary will this week throw further light on the matter. Claims of racist stereotyping are made in the programme, which puts forward reasons such as blacks having "narrower pelvises" as to why they can run faster.

Top runners say their successes are down to years of training and a love of their sport, while some political commentators claim that to distinguish sporting prowess on the colour of a person's skin is racist.

SIR Roger Bannister, who first broke the four-minute mile and is a respected neuro surgeon, was criticised when he said he felt it was obvious that "black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages".

But Jackson, the 110-metre hurdles world record holder told the Sunday Express: "We have a built-in survival mechanism from the abuse of slavery, years back. We have got it from our ancestors and this has made us a little bit superior.

"We are the offsprings of the strong ones basically so obviously that helps us on that front, in that terminology. I think the fact that sport offers so many opportunities for black people means we can go into it without qualms and whatever happens, happens.

"It takes some time for everything to change [from the days of slavery] and the offspring now are the ones who survived everything from then, like diseases." Asked if it could be argued that black people naturally run faster, he replied: "I've been beaten by white guys so I guess that can't be true."

And asked why a white man had not been able to break the 10-second barrier for the 100 metres, he said: "Perhaps there hasn't been the desire more than anything else. Perhaps they think 'Oh, we are not going to get into this event'. No doubt there are people out there who can do it. It is just that perhaps they would rather do the discus or the 1,500 metres or another event."

American Author Jon Entine, who wrote a book on race and genetics which caused heated debate, said: "Genetics sets probabilities. It's like the structure of a house. If you haven't got the genes you can't make yourself into an athlete.

"We have a phenomenon in the United States particularly but also around the world where the most visible sports, the ones where the social and economic barriers to participation are lowest, are dominated by people of African ancestry. It's just a subject that we all talk about, black and white, many times with racist overtones. And I was out to do damage to some of those racist notions."

British scientist Jean- Phillipe Rushton, who caused outrage in 1989 when he claimed to have found scientific evidence of an inherited link between race, intelligence and brain size, said: "Blacks have a genetic edge when it comes to sports. They have more testosterone, they're more explosive. They have a narrower pelvis which makes for a more efficient stride."

Scientists tell the programme that underneath the black skin there is more muscle and less fat and within the muscle there are twitch fibres which help a person to move faster or slower.

They claim black sprinters have more of the former variety which, it is believed, assist faster reactions. These, they argue, are the foundations of genetic advantage.

Professor Bengt Saltin of the Copenhagen Institute of Sports Science confirmed the importance of fast and slow twitch fibres and has closely studied the successes of African athletes.

He said: "It's a strong genetic component what type of muscle fibres you have, either slow or fast, and the West Africans have maybe already 70 to 75 per cent of the fast type when they are born and that's needed to run the 100-metre race in around 9.9 seconds."

But former champion discus thrower and Black Panther political activist Harry Edwards, who orchestrated the famous clenched fist protest, has rubbished the genetic theories.

He said science does not have the necessary knowledge to map out any particular set of trait characteristics which make black people better at sport. "It just doesn't make sense," he said.

Black sports stars pointed out that other attributes were important when going for gold.

British sprinter Dwain Chambers said: "You have to have the ability to go out and work hard to be a world champion."

American world 400-metre record-holder Butch Reynolds said: "I think it's three ingredients that really make a world champion; spiritual belief, mental foundation and physical strength."

Jackson said: "I've been pretty lucky, I've had first of all great genetics from my parents - that helps a lot, fantastic coaching, I've a great training group around me and the right motivation to be out there and do the work so I think that's the reason why I've been fortunate to be in the position I'm in."

While scientists lay bare their belief that genetics helps black athletes make it to the finishing tape first, the people who spend the long, lonely hours keeping in shape are quick to differ.

MIKE McFarlane a leading coach who nurtures Britain's top sprinting talents like Chambers, said: "We work hard, six days a week. In the winter, when it's cold and I'm wearing my woolly hat and my gloves and maybe a track suit on with sweatshirt and stuff like that, we're out here working and those are the times when you know whether you've got the character or the heart and determination to get the best out of yourself and be a potential world champion."

British geneticist Steve Jones said: "I think the word race is one of those four-letter words, a bit like the word gene actually which is hard to define.

"This idea that somehow black people are good at sport is simply foolish and meaningless. I've never seen a pygmy win anything and they are black too."

The real argument, however, will be settled on September 23 at 10.20am when the starting pistol is fired for the final of the men's 100 metres.The Faster Race, a Black Britain Olympics Special, is on BBC2 on Thursday, September 7 at 9.50pm.

© Express Newspapers, 2000