My Word
by Tom Derderian

Taboo––The Nose on My Face
While sitting in the stands at the New England Track Championships with the athletes of our Greater Boston Track Club (GBTC), one of them grabbed my arm to compare its color with hers. She noted that mine was darker. I noted that she was African American. I looked at her closely with my dark eyes set one on each side of my enormous nose and noticed that she had a very small nose. My nose is so big that I can always see it. It is like living on both sides of the Great Wall of China at the same time. I looked at the nose on this sprinter and wondered how she breathed through such a little thing.

Our noses are different. I got mine from from my Armenian ancestors. She got hers from her West African ancestors. Our skin is about the same color. Neither of us is good at digesting milk. But she can sprint, and I can’t. So I began to wonder about noses, skin color, athletic ability, and why people don’t like to talk about such differences. But people will talk about noses because noses are funny. Also I wondered why GBTC won the meet on the speed of our sprinters (most are black) and our distance runners (none are black). Similarly, while watching the Olympic Trials, my half-Armenian daughters asked why all the sprinters had dark skin and the three women winning the 10,000 were all blonds. Some things are obvious only to children who ask questions that adults think are taboo: are there real genetic differences among populations, or are they skin deep?

After the track meet I continued wondering about genetics, so on my family’s Cape Cod vacation, between wandering runs on soft sand, I carefully read the book by reporter Jon Entine called TABOO—Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. The reading changed my thinking. Until reading Taboo (Public Affairs, 2000, 387 pages) I thought Kenyan dominance at Boston was like the Finns in the 1950s and the Japanese in the 1960s. Finnish-American clubs invited housed, and fed the runners from their homeland. The Japanese were (and still are) wild about the marathon, so they came to Boston in teams, and each group in their time seemed unbeatable. But Kenyan dominance is orders of magnitude stronger than that of any other group in the past. (Speaking of population genetics—when I was in Japan I found my 5’7" to be the tallest in a crowded subway station—not to mention the relative size of my nose.)

I had thought that the physical performance differences between genetic populations could not be measured like those between individuals, so that superficial cultural differences selected top athletes—for instance, Kenyans can run long distances because they didn’t have school buses. I thought the Kenyans’advantage is that they live at altitude, get high status from runing well and making enough money to buy a farm, so all the Kenyan kids want to be runners, unlike U.S. kids who want to be all kinds of different things. I thought the U.S. population of 250 million needs only incentive and a good scouting system to match Kenya (population 30 million). I thought the United States just has to organize and try harder. I wanted to think that under the skin everyone is the same. I did not want to think the differences in athletic performances between populations were genetic and physical. Entine in Taboo reports research that shows the obvious can be quantified in populations: white men can't jump, and East Africans can run long and not grow weary, because the muscles and mechanics of motion are different from birth. There is not space on this page to recite the differences and cite the science as Entine does.

Lots of people have gotten mad at Entine and called him racist for reporting that certain groups are athletically, genetically superior to others. But Entine has convinced me that they are indeed superior. I understand that, because I have a genetically superior nose, since I come from a group endowed with them. Of course such endowment entitles me to nothing and correlates to nothing else—not intelligence, worthiness, rhythm, or judgment. The dumb jock notion—that brains or brawn each occur only in the absence of the other—has destroyed reasonable discussion of the genetic athletic differences in populations.

Athletic ability is obvious in competition and can clearly be measured in each event and quantified easier than intelligence, which is often in the mind of the beholder rather than in the stopwatch and tape measure. Entine makes the case that East Africans are born long-distance runners and West Africans are born sprinters and jumpers. I have no doubt that American society and specifically metropolitan Boston where I live is racist—why else do so many black faces fill the streets of certain poor neighborhoods in Boston while mostly white faces populate the spacious surrounding suburbs? That disparity is not a choice.

There is nothing racist in reporting that the genetics of East Africa produce a population from which the world's best long-distance runners emerge, and that they will dominate top-level distance events. In fact, Entine reports that one tribe in Africa is superior to all others in producing top long-distance runners. It is not racist to see that the best sprinters in the world are from West Africa or trace their ancestry to West Africa, and that they will dominate. Neither is it racist to note that the world's biggest noses emerge from Armenia.

Entine investigates the science of these differences. They are not black and white. Skin color is a small difference. Most black skinned population groups have no special athletic abilities. It is what is under the skin that defines athletic ability. Entine reports differences among popula tions in mitochrondria —real physical stuff that produces and delivers energy more efficiently—and muscle fiber type and mechanics. I have not space here to reproduce Entine's arguments.

So after my vacation of reading and running I came back and talked about Taboo with one of GBTC's 800-meter runners, a white guy. He looked at me as if I had just wasted my breath. He said, "Of course black guys on average are faster, but what does that have to do with the specific black guy standing next to me at the next meet?" He said the idea was as irrelevant to competition as knowing what the average weather in the United States is to telling you what clothes to wear in Boston today—or as irrelevant as the nose on my face.

Tom Derderian's nose can be found coaching at Greater Boston Track Club practices, or see a picture of it on the club’s Web puge,