South African Medical Journal

S A M J

December 2000, Vol. 90, No. 12

Special Review:

TABOO: WHY BLACK ATHLETES DOMINATE SPORTS AND WHY WE'RE AFRAID TO TALK ABOUT IT

Reviewed by Tim Noakes, Professor in the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise and Sports Science, University of Cape Town Medical School, South Africa.

Much as we might wish it, science, like sport, is not ever politically neutral. Einstein foresaw this even as American scientists prepared to harness atomic power for what, at the time, seemed a justifiable cause the early termination of the most destructive war in the history of mankind. But the conclusion of that effort caused the end of scientific innocence and the beginning of science's political accountability.

Whilst Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It may perhaps lack the political impact of the first atomic bomb, yet its preparation and publication required real courage. For it confronts certain assumptions of what one may and may not research and discuss publicly in our politically-correct society.

In broad outline Taboo, which has been written "for those intrigued by one of the more remarkable phenomena of our time the monumental success of the black athletes in defiance of considerable odds", addresses three related issues. Each challenges conventional wisdom and exposes prejudice. The result is that this is not a neutral book; it has the potential to invoke either scorn or praise, in equal measure, depending on one's core beliefs.

The first issue, suggested by the title, is a detailed review of ethnic (or racial, depending on one's sensitivities) differences in sporting abilities, most especially in those sports popular in North America and including basketball, football, track and field, and, to a lesser extent, baseball. The book is not a review of all the world's sports. For it is clear that black athletes do not, nor ever will, dominate all sports. There will always be a place for Caucasian swimmers, Asian racket players, Brazilian soccer players, East European gymnasts and so on, amongst many other obvious examples.

Taboo provides the irrefutable evidence that there are some sports in which persons of African descent outperform, to a quite remarkable degree, all the elite athletes from the rest of the world. This challenges the belief that sporting ability is equally distributed amongst all the world's peoples so that regional differences in opportunity alone explain why some countries dominate specific sports. The dominance of international distance running by the East Africans, especially Kenyans, is an obvious example. It becomes even more remarkable when one learns that this Kenyan dominance is expressed by a population of fewer than 3 million from the Western Kenyan highlands. In fact, a majority of these great athletes were born within 100 km of the rural town of Eldoret, where they enjoy little in the way of sophisticated medical or scientific support. The inability of leading sporting nations including the United States and Australia, but also the former German Democratic Republic, to produce equally good male distance runners, argues against a purely environmental explanation for this phenomenon. Similarly, if Kenya provides the ideal running environment, why are there no world-class Kenyan sprinters?

Some Kenyans are also uncertain that their success is due solely to the near ideal running environment of the Western Highlands. Entine quotes the opinion of Ibrahim Hussein, thrice winner of the Boston Marathon: "To be world class, you have to be a natural athlete. It's not that I won't work as hard as the person who does not have as much natural ability. I like people to think I'm a natural athlete. It helps me beat them mentally." Or, according to the first great Kenyan athlete, Olympic gold medallist, Kip Keino: "We are natural athletes. Most of our runners are naturally born athletes. We have only to work on improvement, the technical part of it. We feel that running is in our blood."

Few North Americans are unaware of the unique brilliance of Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, or of the dominance of basketball, football and the track sprinting events by black Americans; or of the concept of the "White Man's disease".

Taboo details how black American athletes, actively excluded from those sports until after World War II, have subsequently risen to a position of unchallenged dominance. Entine notes, for example, that whereas 1 in 90 000 white male basketball players is likely to find employment on the courts of the NBA, the corresponding figure for black basketball players is 1 in 4000. Although baseball is a sport increasingly dominated by athletes from the Dominican Republic and less by black Americans, yet it is baseball that provides one of the most compelling statistics in this book. Using historical performance data, baseball historian Bill Jones compared the subsequent careers of a large sample of black and white baseball players, matched for performance during their rookie year. The results, he found, were "astonishing". Black players outperformed whites in a host of criteria, including the length of their careers, the number of games played as well as all batting statistics including the number of bases stolen. He concluded that: "Blacks are better athletes because they are born better athletes, which is to say that it is genetic, or they are born equal and become better athletes". If the latter postulate is correct, it begs the question: What factor(s) in professional American baseball favour the career development of black compared to white players?

It would, of course, be most interesting if any physiological basis for these specific performance differences between black and white Americans were known. But there are few data. Thus begins Entine's second quest: If there are such manifest racial (ethnic) differences in performance in certain defined, largely North American sports, why are these not actively researched, nor readily acknowledged?

The risk, according to Entine, is that such research may reveal inborn physiological differences, unacceptable to "post-modernistic reasoning". He provides examples of those who have fallen foul of public opinion for even hinting at this possibility. This thinking raises cruel memories of "race sciences", social Darwinism and the eugenics movement. In exploring these delicate issues, this book makes its greater contribution to this most complex debate.

Entine reviews the current theories of human evolution and migration including the "Out of Africa" hypothesis, and the resulting arguments for and against the existence of different human races. He explains that our distrust with the concept of race is a natural response to 200 years of harm caused by "race sciences" which, beginning in the early 1800's, consistently advocated the Euro-centric belief that all the desirable human characteristics are found only in those of Caucasian origin. Social Darwinism and the Eugenics movement then evolved to improve the quality of the world's peoples by propagating good, that is mainly Caucasian, genes and Western culture. It was out of this social construct that ultra-nationalism advanced especially in Germany leading to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Entine chronicles the irony that two of the first great black American sportsmen, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, came to greatness during this period defeating German opponents, symbolically disproving the myth of Aryan superiority. The egalitarian movement that followed the Second World War led to the re-integration of professional North American sports and their ultimate dominance by black athletes.

Clearly any attempt to study physiological differences between groups portends a retreat to the "race sciences" and will be vigorously resisted, not least at an emotional, more visceral level. Despite this, there is a small body of research showing that there may well be physiological and anthropomorphic differences of significance between Africans of predominantly Central West African origin including black Americans; Caucasians; and Africans of East African origin. With the result that West Africans are advantaged in explosive sports of short duration, East Africans are dominant at running distances from 5- 42km, whereas Caucasians are somewhat good at most distances, but become increasingly dominant in the very long distance running races (100km or longer).

Which brings Entine to his third theme, the real Taboo: "The elephant in the living room is intelligence. In the familiar erroneous calculus, IQ and athleticism are inversely proportional." (It must be stated that this is a uniquely North American construct; superior athleticism at least in the other former colonies of the British Empire, has always been a sign of superior "breeding", a mark of nobility.)

Entine argues that it is time to decouple intelligence and physicality; to accept that there is a biodiversity amongst humans; to move beyond the sterility of the nature/nurture debate and to accept that the environment determines biology if not today than most certainly in the past and also in the future. He reminds us that the Human Genome Project may still make believers or fools of us all.

His final conclusion is that race does matter and that there are tiny physiological differences, probably genetic, that explain the African dominance in specific sports: "Humans are different. No amount of rhetoric, however well-motivated, can undermine the intriguing kaleidoscope of humanity. It's time to acknowledge and even celebrate the obvious: "It's neither racist nor a myth to say, "white men can't jump."

To which I would add that although we must certainly guard against the re-introduction of race science, if we are to progress, intellectual curiosity must not be curtailed. For diversity provides the human material to study critical medical concerns. What if the skeletal muscles of West Africans are more powerful, explosive and more durable than those of Caucasians? What if this knowledge were of value in understanding the muscular frailty that develops with age, or perhaps, any differences in disease patterns in muscular disorders between different populations?

Entine's conclusions remain to be proven. His contribution has been to add a dispassionate body of evidence that can no longer be ignored. He has raised the debate above the purely visceral and has posed a significant scientific challenge. Our duty is to provide the necessary intellectual culture in which this challenge can be met.