30 Jan 2000

Race Relations

A controversial new book has revived the thorny topic of black sports prowess

By Steven Downes

Ian Mackie narrowly missed qualifying for the 60m final at yesterday's AAA indoor championships in Birmingham. The Scot, the first Briton in a decade to

have beaten Olympic champion, Linford Christie, was among the favourites for the sprint title, a first step towards his goal of emulating Christie at the Sydney Games this year.

But according to a new book, Mackie - as a white man - might as well have not bothered even turning up, since one of his black British relay teammates, Dwain Chambers and Julian Golding, was certain to win. "No white man will ever again win the 100m," says journalist and author Jon Entine. "It simply won't happen."

In a controversial new book, Entine airs a subject that has been shrouded in silence for years, mainly because of a social taboo that has grown stronger in these politically correct times. Entine's book is titled Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. In it, >Entine claims to prove that blacks are genetically better suited to most sports, a View some respected figures in America have roundly condemned.

Harry Edwards is now a sociology professor at Berkeley, but in the 1960s he was a sprinter of national calibre. Edwards was one of the instigators of the Black Power demonstrations by medal-winning sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium in Mexico in 1968 and he disputes Entine's claims. He said: "The argument that blacks are physically superior to whites is a racist ideology camouflaged to appeal to the ignorant, the unthinking and the unaware."

Entine's book relies largely on American sports, and on running events, for

its foundation. "Running is the most democratic of sports," he writes. "Yet

even as the Olympics and the world championships have become more diverse, the colour of the winners has become increasingly monochromatic. In the world of sports, where black athletic superiority is axiomatic, the monopoly by athletes of African descent is astonishing."

Entine offers various statistics to justify his arguments (see panel opposite). Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell, born in the Caribbean but brought up in Toronto, held national age records for the mile when in his teens. "Blacks dominate sports because they lack opportunities elsewhere. What you are not supposed to say is what we were saying in my track days - that we were better because we were black," he said."There is a point when it becomes foolish to deny the fact of black athletic prowess, and even more foolish to banish speculation on the topic."

One attempt to answer such questions has been research by Kenneth Kidd, of Yale University. Kidd has examined the DNA strings of two tribes of pygmies in Zaire and the Central African Republic, and compared them with the DNA found elsewhere in the world. "In almost any single African population, there is more

Other genetic studies in other areas of Africa tend to confirm this. For instance, in Taboo, Entine makes much of Kenya's dominance of the marathon - in 1999, for instance, 47 of the world's top 100 marathon performers were Kenyan. According to Entine, while athletes of west African origin are genetically gifted for speed, runners from east Africa are the world's greatest distance runners. This much is indisputable, as the Kenyans have proved. But there is doubt as to whether this is due simply to genetics. The renowned Swedish exercise physiologist, Bengt Saltin, compared sedentary adolescents in Kenya and Denmark and found little genetic advantage for the Kenyans as distance runners.

When Saltin observed Kenyan runners training, he discovered a marked difference: they would perform more than half their weekly miles at close to 90% maximum effort, far higher than many Europeans ever manage, even in race conditions. This strongly suggests the Kenyans' ability to drive themselves to the limits of endurance has helped them to dominate athletics. Nobody, however, has yet discovered a gene for determination.

Mark Richardson, the 400m runner, is one of Britain's world-class athletes. He rejects the notion put forward by Entine that genetics are the sole reason for the successes of he and his black teammates.

"There's a huge number of reasons why black people make great athletes, and most of those are socio-economic," Richardson said. "You don't need to have much money to take part in track and field - you just need some clothes and a pair of shoes and you're off."

As Richardson points out, the top three British 400m runners of all time are separated by just one-hundredth of a second, and his friends and rivals Roger Black and Iwan Thomas are white.

"Other sports, such as tennis, rowing, rugby or golf, have relatively few black people taking part at elite level. That's because it is expensive to join the local club, or to buy the equipment. That has a huge impact on who is able to take part in the sport," said Richardson.

While Entine's work deals with one taboo, he has overlooked another sporting subject which many people avoid talking about: drugs. The use of performance-enhancing substances has distorted athletic results over the past three decades to an inestimable degree, making comparison of results almost worthless.

The only recorded and certifiable programme of drug use was in East Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, when their women dominated athletics, swimming and several other sports. But nobody in the past half-century has suggested Germans are genetically superior.

BLACK POWER: THE TELLING STATISTICS

  • At the last four Olympics, all 32 finalists in the men's 100m–the race that decides the Fastest Man on Earth–have been black of west African descent.
  • More than 80% of players in America's professional basketball league, the NBA, are black, although African-Americans like Michael Jordan make up only 13% of the population.
  • In American football, 67% of the players are black. Yet people of West African origin make up only 8% of the world's population.
  • In Britain, 20% of professional footballers are black, even though blacks make up only 2% of the population.
  • The 10-second barrier for the 100m metres has never been broken by a white athlete. The fastest 200 times for the distance are all held by black athletes–all are under 10 seconds.
  • 47 of the world's top 100 marathon runners in 1999 came from Kenya.