4 September 2000

Sporting colours

Kenan Malik

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It

by Jon Entine [PublicAffairs: 2000. 400 pp. $25, 17.50]

Saturday week, the Olympic men's 100-metre champion will cross the finishing line less than 10 seconds after leaving the starting-blocks. The winner may be the United States' Maurice Greene. He may be Trinidad's Ato Boldon. He may even be Britain's Dwain Chambers. But whoever takes the gold medal, one thing is certain: he will be black. Indeed, it's a racing certainty that all eight finalists will be black, just as they have been at the past four Olympics.

Almost as certain is that every race from the 100 metres to the 5,000 metres will be won by an athlete of African descent - just as they were in Atlanta four years ago.

What lies behind such black domination of the track? And not just of the track.

Sixty per cent of American footballers, for instance, are African American. Among basketball players, the figure rises to 80%. Of basketball stars, almost 95% are black. The traditional liberal answer points the finger at social factors. Blacks, so the argument runs, have been driven into sport because racism has excluded them from most other areas of employment. Racism also makes blacks hungrier than whites for success, and so they more often end up on the winners' rostrum.

American journalist Jon Entine dismisses this as "political correctness". The liberal consensus, he argues in Taboo, has served only to disguise the truth about the black domination of sport which is that blacks are naturally built to run and to jump. There are two parts to the genetic story that Entine wants to tell about black domination. The vast majority of top-class long-distance runners are East Africans, and in particular Kenyans, mostly from the tiny Kalenjin tribe. Entine pulls together a number of lines of research which suggest that Kalenjin athletes are successful in the endurance events because they enjoy a slighter build than whites, have relatively longer legs and larger lung capacities, and because their muscles have a higher proportion of slow-twitch fibres and so are better able to utilize oxygen.

By contrast, Entine argues, athletes of West African descent dominate in "such anaerobic activities as football, basketball and sprinting" because they have the most mesomorphic physiques, with "bigger, more visible muscles including a larger chest". They possess less body fat, a higher centre of gravity, narrower hips, higher levels of plasma testosterone, and a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres.

For Entine, such physiological and biomechanical differences demonstrate the natural superiority of black athletes. For Entine's critics, on the other hand, the very search for such differences demonstrates a racist outlook. "Some things are better left unsaid," claimed The New York Times. Entine acknowledges that this kind of research could be used for racist ends. Some controversial scientists, such as J. Phillipe Rushton, claim that there is a trade-off between brain and brawn, and that black athletic superiority has been purchased at the price of lower intelligence. But, as Entine rightly argues, however offensive such claims may be, the cause of anti-racism is not strengthened by ignoring science or censoring data. The real trouble with Taboo is not that it treads on dangerous ground, but that its thesis that white men can't jump (or run) does not convince.

The most basic problem is Entine's confusion of racial and population differences. It is true that gene frequencies vary across populations, so that some populations may be more athletically talented than others. But this is not the same thing as saying that blacks are "born to run". As population geneticists never tire of telling us, 'race' has little biological validity. It is certainly possible to divide humanity into a number of races, as we conventionally do, according to skin colour and body form. But it is also possible to do it in many other ways—using, for instance, blood group, lactose tolerance, sickle cell, or any other genetic factor, as the basis for our new 'races'. Genetically, each would be as valid a criterion as skin colour. The current division of the world into black, white and Asian races is, in other words, as rooted in convention as in genetics.

Entine rejects such criticisms as mere 'semantics'. But his own argument shows why it is not so. According to Entine, East Africans are naturally superior at endurance sports, West Africans at sprinting and jumping, and "whites fall somewhere in the middle". But if East and West Africans are at either end of a genetic spectrum of athletic abilities, why consider them to be part of a single race and one that is distinct from whites? Only because conventionally we use skin colour as the main criterion of racial difference.

Entine also ignores evidence that does not fit his thesis. It is true that athletes of West African descent living in North America, Western Europe and the Caribbean dominate many sports. But contemporary West Africans don't. This is the opposite of what one should expect if athletic ability was predominantly genetic. In the United States, considerable intermixing between black and white populations has meant that the African-American population embodies, on average, some 30% of 'white' genes. Hence African Americans should be poorer athletes than West Africans. The reverse is true.

Entine suggests that West Africans are built to jump better than whites. But in the three jump events—high jump, long jump and triple jump blacks do not dominate whites in the way they do on the track. The pole-vault an event that requires both sprinting and jumping ability—is almost entirely white, as are field events such as discus, javelin and shot-put.

Entine points out that a cluster of South Pacific islands, such as Samoa and Fiji, have in recent years produced an extraordinary number of American football and Australian rugby players. Such islanders, Entine argues, "tend to be large and explosively fast", implying that their success somehow gives credence to his 'blacks are bred to run' thesis. In fact it does the opposite: genetically, there are few populations in the world more different from sub-Saharan Africans than Pacific islanders. For whatever reason Fijians and Samoans excel at sport, it is not because they genetically resemble Nigerians or Kenyans.

The most irritating aspect of Taboo is Entine's constant dismissal of critics who include the eminent scientists Richard Lewontin and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza—as "postmodernists", or simply motivated by ideology. Such bluster cannot hide the gaping holes in his argument. Is athletic talent at least in part inherited? Undoubtedly. Are there genetic differences between populations? Clearly. Are West Africans and Kenyans genetically built for running? Possibly. Are blacks naturally better athletes than whites? Not necessarily. After all, how many African pygmies have you seen garlanded with Olympic medals?

Kenan Malik is an avowed post-modernist Marxist and freelance writer living in London, UK.

Macmillan Publishers Ltd.