I was the only black boy in my Primary school. Maybe because of that fact I was also the fastest runner. I won the sprint in sports day every year that I was there. But things changed once I got to secondary school. I was no longer the only Black boy in the school, and I was no longer the fastest runner in my year, or even in my class. My dreams of a career in athletics soon dissipated, but I still enjoyed watching it on TV.
I vividly remember watching the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea when Britain’s Linford Christie, lined up against America’s Carl Lewis and Canada’s Ben Johnson. (Johnson went on to win the race but was stripped of the medal after he tested positively for steroids). Its been a long, long time since a white man won the 100m at the Olympics. Every winner of 100m at the World Athletics Championships since its inauguration in 1983 has been Black. After the long dominance of the Americans, now the Jamaicans have taken over. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing JA won six gold medals in sprints. But whether they are representing Jamaica, Britain, American or Canada as Black men in the diaspora they are all the descendants of slaves which were taken from West Africa.
Just as those of West African descent dominate the sprints, those of East African descent dominate distance running.
In September 2011 Mo Farah became the first British athlete to win a gold medal in the 5,000 meters at the World Athletics Championship. This came just a week after he had won a silver in the 10,000 meters, and a year after he had won the double in those same distances at the European Championships. He is a hot favourite and a prime medal hope for team GB at this year’s Olympics. But what is so special about Mo that he has succeeded where previous great British distance runners like David Moorcroft and Brendan Fraser before him had failed? Is it just raw talent, is it his dedication to training (he has moved his whole family out to Portland in Oregon to a training facility sponsored by the athletics clothing giant Nike) or is it the fact that he was born in Somalia? The winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at this years Olympics (whether its Mo Farah or not) will almost certainly originate from East Africa.
What I’m saying here is hardly profound – it is blatantly obvious to anyone with eyes, but it’s the truth that dares not speak its name. Sports commentators and university academics alike have been sacked from their posts for making such observations. Why? Because it is feared that if we acknowledge that certain races can be physically superior to others, then it might also be valid to suggest that certain races are intellectually superior/inferior to others.
In the run-up to this year’s games the media started to tentatively address this elephant in the room. In July Channel 4 aired a programme hosted by four times Olympic 400m gold medallist Michael Johnson. Entitled ‘Survival of the Fastest’ it noted that, regardless of nationality the most recent 100 meters champions had been born in Jamaica, that this was due to the fact that during slavery the most troublesome and aggressive slaves had been dumped in Jamaica, thus giving Jamaicans a gene pool swimming in testosterone, and their athletes more of the explosive power and aggression needed for sprinting.
The very next week the BBC jumped into the debate with Born to Run – The Secrets of Kenyan Athletics aired on BBC 4. The programme tried to explain Kenya’s dominance of distance running (Kenya has won 21 Olympic golds at distance events since 1968), but unlike the Michael Johnson programme the interviewees here were less willing to offer a genetic explanation. Interviewer Eamon Coghlan pressed Kip Keino (Olympic Champion in 1968 and 1972) to explain the secret of Kenya’s success, but all he would offer by way of explanation was ‘hard work, and self-discipline’. Keino is not just being coy.
90% of the top-performing Kenyans come from the Kalenjin tribe in the Great Rift Valley region of western Kenya, where there is a great tradition of running. It is no co-incidence that all of Kenya’s success stories come from poor rural areas and small farms. The children run miles to and from school every day. The high altitude and year round mild climate help, but after Keino’s success in 1968, all those children had a role model and a practical example of how athletics could be a way out of rural poverty and into international fame and fortune.
In Kenya, just like in Jamaica, over time a strong culture of excellence and fierce competitiveness has produced more champions, who in turn inspire more children to dedicate themselves to chase that dream. Growing up in grinding poverty is a great motivator for those who need to dedicate years of their lives to the pain and self-sacrifice that attaining sporting excellence demands.
The genetic argument proffered in the Johnson doc is a facile one. I wonder if such geneticist would argue that England’s most high profile footballer David Beckham was so skilled because of the favourable footballing gene pool to be found in east London?
Presumably the aggression and explosive power so useful to sprinters would also be pretty useful in boxing, and yet Jamaica has yet to produce a single boxing champion. It was infact Cuba that used to dominate boxing in the Olympics, a combination of the inspiration given by triple Gold medal winner and national hero Teofilo Stevenson and the fact that unlike their British and American counterparts, Cuban amateur boxers did not have the option of turning professional.
Professor Ellis Cashmore, author of Making Sense of Sport had this to say on the genetic argument.
“It’s a very tired old, invidious argument. There’s no such thing as a perfect gene pool. Genes mix up, we are all hybrids. Social environment, encouragement, and other outside influences that bare on the psychology of the athlete, are more important. I think that the desire to triumph outweighs all the other factors.”
In truth Jamaicans are not a separate race – their genetic make-up is very similar to that of the majority of African-Americans – they are both descendants of slaves taken from the same part of West Africa who then mixed with their European slave masters and the indigenous Indians.
It is environmental factors that explain why it is that Black Jamaicans now dominate, whereas before it was the Black Americans. In the U.S. unlike in J.A, track and field athletics don’t get that much attention. It is way behind in the queue after American football, Baseball, Basketball and Boxing. Poor Black kids in the ghettos who want to turn their sporting talents into a lucrative career have a myriad of sports to choose from, whereas in J.A. they only have one. Whereas an athletically talented African American kid has to chose whether he wants to be the next Le Bron James, or Tiger Woods, or Floyd Mayweather, every Jamaican schoolboy wants to be Usain Bolt.
Genetics and body types do undoubtedly play a part in sporting performance. You will note that rugby players, shot putters, discus throwers all tend to be endomorphs (thickly set and stocky) whilst distance runners, basketball players and high, long and triple jumpers tend to be ectomorphs (tall and skinny). Short and stocky basketball players, or tall and skinny rugby players don’t stand a chance. But just having the right phenotype does not give you a free pass to sporting excellence.
British athlete Mo Farah nicely illustrates this interplay between genetics and environment. The reason that he is the first UK athlete to win a middle distance gold medal is because he is the first UK distance runner to come from Somalia. The reason that despite their perfect distance running genetics that Somalian athletes hardly ever feature on the medals podium is because the country is a failed state, that for the last two decades has been without a functioning government (that is why Farah’s asylum seekers parents moved to Britain in the first place) – hardly ideal conditions to produce a top class athlete. Mo is a world champion because of his East African genetics combined with access to the world class training facilities in Britain and America and his incredible dedication and self-sacrifice.
Usain Bolt did not just roll out of bed one morning and break a world record. Of course it takes years of dedication and sacrifice, no doubt helped by the inspiration of local role model. Women’s tennis was once the exclusive preserve of whites, but is now dominated by the Williams sisters’. If their success inspires a whole generation of Black girls to take up the game, who then go onto dominate the grand Slam circuit we will no doubt be watching TV documentaries in a few year’s time examining the genetic advantage that Black people have in tennis. And that’s not something you ever thought you’d see 10 years ago.