By Janessa Hoyte
In an impressive display of athletic ability and physical endurance two Kenyans, one man and one woman, took first place in the Boston Marathon on April 17. The streets of Boston were crowded with spectators who witnessed Elijah Lagat and Catherine Ndereba victoriously cross the finish line of the 26-mile race, which took them roughly two-and-a-half hours.
In the past few years, people from the small, densely populated, East African country have dominated the Boston Marathon and other races around the world. Why are the runners of Kenya so successful?
In Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, published in January, author Jon Entine attempts to answer this and many other questions about the success of athletes with African ancestry.
Entine is an award-winning producer, formerly with NBC and ABC, and is not afraid to tackle sensitive topics. He and Tom Brokaw took on part of this subject in a controversial 1989 NBC special entitled Black Athletes: Fact or Fiction. Entine, who now writes for various publications, gives an in-depth analysis of the question of black athletic superiority. In a compelling work that highlights major scientific research and racially pertinent historical events, Taboo is thoughtfully analytical.
Is the success of black athletes dictated by genes, and are there cultural factors as well? Entine believes that African Americans, because of their ancestry, have genetic traits that enable them to excel at certain sports.
"Are race genetics significant components of the stunning and undeniable dominance of black athletes?" he asks. "Or is this notion nothing but white voodoo designed to banish blacks to the modern plantation-the track, the basketball court, and the football field-- while whites control the boardrooms?"
It's true that black dominance in sports is strikingly limited to participation as athletes. Rarely do African Americans own or manage sports franchises. But they dominate more and more on the playing field. Fewer and fewer white athletes excel at the top professional levels of basketball, football and baseball.
Entine, who is white, writes: "Check the NBA statistics: not one white player has finished among the top scorers or rebounders in recent years. White running backs, cornerbacks, or wide receivers in the NFL? Count them on one hand."
The book surveys the history of black athletes in America but blends its focus into related scientific research in genetics and biology. Entine presents a range of research about the genetic differences among racial groups and explains in depth the breakdown of world populations.
He pointedly discusses the historic plight of the African-American athlete. He reviews the long struggle of integrating sports. The treatment of black athletes forced to play on segregated teams was deplorable. Many readers are sure to experience strong emotions as they revisit the story of track star Jesse Owens, who broke three world records in the 1935 U.S. collegiate championships, and then won a record four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler's Berlin. Then there's the defiantly proud Jack Johnson who, in 1908, became the first black to fight for and win a heavyweight boxing championship.
Racism towards black athletes was rampant during much of the 1900s, long before the integration of sports took place. Entine cites the views, startling in retrospect, of the Los Angeles Daily Times following Jackson's triumphant knockout of his white opponent, Jim Jeffries. Addressing the black community after Johnson's stunning victory, the newspaper wrote: "Remember, you have done nothing at all. You are the same member of society you were last week... You are on no higher a plane, deserve no new consideration, and you will get none."
Before African Americans showed their prowess in certain sports, they were chastised by the American media for being inferior. But once that claim could no longer be made, the argument that blacks were just dumb jocks who are not smart enough to succeed at other endeavors took over. As a result, Entine says, "...calling a black a `natural athlete' today can put a coach's job in jeopardy."
To support his argument of physiological superiority, a portion of Taboo discusses Kenyans specifically. In a chapter entitled Nature's Experiment: The Kenyan Miracle, Entine talks about how running comes naturally to the Kenyans. He interviews Kip Keino, a star Kenyan distance runner, who explains how as a child he became good at running: "We didn't have a water tap in the house, so you run to the river, take your shower, run home, change, go to school. I didn't even put in a lot of formal training. Everything is running.,
Keino and other Kenyans excel at running as a way of life. But the idea that African Americans have genetic advantages, observable from birth on, is not confirmed in Entine 's work. There may still be other related cultural and environmental factors to which Entine does not give enough credit. Saying that African Americans may be different genetically does not necessarily mean they are inferior or superior to other ethnic groups are points Entine is careful to make even as he attempts to bring ethnic differences to light.
Still, Jon Entine thoroughly explores a topic for which he is sure to be criticized by both blacks and whites. In the end, this book is a thoroughly researched, thoughtful analysis of a highly controversial topic.
Janessa Hoyte, a broadcast journalism major at Boston University, resides in Connecticut.
Copyright (c) Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated May/Jun 2000