Sunday, May 14, 2006

Genes and sprinting

On Friday, USA's Justin Gatlin broke the world record for the 100m sprint, shaving 0.01 seconds off Asafa Powell's 2005 record with a time 9.76 seconds. More noteworthy though, was the time of the man who came second, Nigeria's Olusoji Fasuba. He clocked in at 9.84 seconds, which equals the fastest ever second place, but which also puts him in the top 10 times of all time. At the time I posted this, the website hadn't been updated (waiting for ratification), but my calculation puts him at eighth fastest time. Lest we forget, Fasuba also came second behind Jamaica's Asafa Powell in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

At +1.7 m/s, the wind in Doha was obviously more favourable than in Melbourne, when it was +0.9 ms/s. What's wonderful is that Fasuba is in the mix, coming second behind two sprinters who look set to play world record ping pong over the next few years. Sadly, he might end up like Frankie Fredericks, who has four silver olympic medals, but no gold medals. Something else to note from that race, was the presence of Uchenna Emedolu, and Francis Obikwelu (now running for Portugal), meaning that the race was made up Nigeria (three), USA (four), and the rest - one Canadian.

This reminded me of Jon Entine's book, Taboo (read extract), which caused a bit of a furore. Basically, he was saying that black people, in the form of sprinters, middle distance, and long distance runners, dominate athletics because of their genes. I think his research said that out of all the top 200 times were by black athletes, and possibly most, have been of West African origin. If you take the routes of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, this makes sense, but could get a bit blurry when you include the fewer numbers taken from the central to southern African coasts. Personally, I can actually only think of Fredericks (Namibian) who is explicitly not from West Africa.

The argument of genes being responsible for athletic prowess worries me. Genetics have been used by eugenicists such as Hitler's human-experimenter-in-chief, Josef Mengele, to justify ethnic cleansing. Racist theories have used genes to proclaim that white people are more intelligent than white people, and some say that yellow skinned people (Chinese, Asian etc) are smarter than white people. The hypocrisy of these positions is that many black people are prepared to accept the argument about brawn, but not the other about brain. Many white people are prepared to accept the argument about brain, but sometimes also accept the brawn argument. Presumably, in a world where one can order their food on the internet instead of having to go out hunting for it, physical prowess counts for nothing. They are happy to relegate that attribute to some darker skinned people from the "dark continent".

It is impossible to accept one without the other, so I reject both. There might be specific instances where the physical make-up of a human body determines their athletic ability. But it is interesting to note that while blacks might sprint off in the the distance, whites also swim off in the distance. There have been black medal winners, but they are just as rare as white runners. And as with sprinting, nuture factors should be taken into account. Many more black people will see an athletics career as a way out of poverty, and will possibly make more of an effort in the sport. They will have more role models than they do in other spheres of life, and are likely to think that a career in track and field is a viable one. This is likely to be different with swimming, where financial security matters. Suburbia is filled with pools, and black people are more unlikely to live in suburbia. West Africans are also less likely to be swimming, unless in some obscure riverine village.

There are some rogue athletes breaking the mould. When USA's Jeremy Wariner won the the gold medal in Athens, he was the first white man to win the 400m Olympic final since Moscow '80. In the same Athens Olympics, China's Liu Xiang won the gold, equalling Colin Jackson's 11 year old record. If you think that was a drug induced fluke, he came second in last year's World Championships, but clocked the same time as the eventual winner, Ladji Doucoure. In Athens, Malia Metella won the silver medal in the 1,500 m freestyle, and at the Sydney Olympics, Anthony Ervin won gold in the 50m freestlye (a sprint of sorts). The point is that in both athletics and swimming, there are a few athletes running and swimming against the racial grain. In a perfect world where man would have to run and swim to establish physical prowess, it seems that blacks and whites would balance each other out.

It has already been established that statistics used to claim that African Americans are less intelligent are skewed. The tests are invariably culturally biased, which renders them pointless. In the UK for example, one cannot say that black children perform badly in school, because the underperforming group has been narrowed down to boys of Caribbean origin. These Caribbean boys come from the same gene pool as Caribbean girls and other West Africans, but their performances are different. This makes the question one of nuture, rather than nature.

I can rabbit on about nature and nuture, and their balance, but it's a huge argument. Even the generous folk at wouldn't give me the space needed to do the subject justice. Recommended reading: Race and Sport, and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, review in the Guardian, and the New Yorker.


Noella said...

Wow, no wonder they call you - THE EDUCATOR!! I did not know that there a Nigerian, still running for Nigeria, that was that fast - lets hope that he doesn't become Australian by next year

? said...

firstly, it must be recognised that the association between blacks and athletes is a well established stereotype associated with prejudice and racial attitudes

equally the association between blacks and music is another stereotype

however, it must also be recognised that blacks are in fact proficient in all forms of art and media and perhaps it may be to their advantage to pursue these areas since we live in an undoubtedly white dominated world

this is not to say blacks are incapable of excelling in social political legal (i.e. judges/barristers/solicitors etc) and industrialised fields in specialist technologies for example what might be more important than genetic racism may be the acknowledgement that such stereotypes exist as a result of slavery and the indoctrination arising from our western counterparts, that exist in more subtle forms in contemporary society as we know it,

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a difficult one. I’m tempted to switch into bible bashing mode and jump on the band wagon vehemently arguing against stereotypes and prejudices but there are just some things that keep nagging at the back of my mind.
Taking a step back, its without doubt that historically, all cultures have in time advances at different rates which is why it only irritates me a little that I’m living in the era of the negro dreg (wasn’t it only a couple of millennia ago that the Romans were steadfastly refusing the cross into the Caledonian hell-hole that is modern day Scotland because tucked deeply into the highlands they refused to cross into communed the most savage of savage tribes they’d come across so far). So when people lash out with their stereotypes about blacks being backwards, all I think to myself is “yeah for now we are, give us a couple of centuries and if there’s anything left of the planet I bet you we’ll have a major say in it.”
Once upon a time, when the East Asian empires had dynasties and political and social systems which still baffle me to date, there were white men throwing spears at each other a few thousand miles away.
But then again, I don’t think that any of us can do this topic any justice without mentioning “The theory of Evolution.” Now, I’m not a scientist – I steadfastly and wholeheartedly believe in Christianity and all it has to say about my creation (discarding a lot of literal translations by the way) – but then Evolution gives seemingly “logical” answers to a lot of questions whether they are the answers we want to hear or not.
Basically if you can imagine that the whole planet was one land mass, and then the polar ice caps melted, and then the continental plates got torn apart establishing the land forms which we now identify as continents and blah blah blah…Lets take the case of Monkey A: the African monkey who evolved in modern day Obalende – the bush where the land is always fertile and the rivers always flow – a land where you stretch your hand out of your mud hut and you’ve got dinner – its an easy life. You’ve got food clothing and shelter without even trying and hence you will not really need to “evolve industriously or technologically” at any pace.
Then take the example of Monkey B: the Monkey who evolved in modern day Tokyo – earthquakes aplenty, floods aplenty, infertile land – basically to survive you design yourself technological advancements to counter these natural obstacles. Its very likely that if you give these two monkeys a couple of millennia to go about their business, eventually Monkey B would have built himself a boat and filled it with weapons of subjugation aplenty and sailed to visit Monkey A, with the sole objective of making him his viedenflugen, (like most technologically advanced monkeys tend to do)
Now Monkey A has been chillin by the equator for quite a while living la-vida loca – so he’s very dark cos of all the sunshine, he’s spent centuries chasing animals for a living – he’s very fit and strong. So Monkey B on seeing him might tend to think this strange dark athletic being before him might even be sub-monkey and would no doubt about implementing his most clever subjugation technique using the tools he brought along.
With regards to the unfortunate situations black people, (be it in 1st or 3rd world countries) it’s very easy to say more or less exactly what the problems are and I don’t think they’re genetic at all. A black boy of Jamaican descent who perpetually fails his exams can’t be labelled dull – just very very misled. But then again historically speaking he really doesn’t stand a chance when his mother (and probably only his mother cos daddy aint around. Racist stereotype yes, but more often the norm than not – I’m allowed) didn’t/couldn’t really promote or even enforce the relevance of education into his head because she herself was told by Ekwenzuocha that she’ll never excel at anything other than track and field. Generations of slavery tend to leave the offspring of the enslaved with low self esteem. Now that might be in the genes.
Now like I said earlier, I don’t believe in Evolution and I don’t necessarily think there’s a “logic” to the situation we find ourselves – but then again when people like Hitler and his ilk of ???? have spent centuries ranting on about things like this, then you cant help but hear what they’re saying – not listen oh! Just hear.

Anonymous said...

Aihammed delot you are very inarticulate. Cant you find a shorter way to convey your point accross. You have no point. Just wasting space.

Feyikogbon said...

Great post. I reject the argument that black people dominate the sprint events due to a biological advantage. I also go further to congratulate Linford for rejecting that other stereotype where the UK press were focusing on his 'lunchbox' when the man had just won a World Championship.

Unfortunately due to prejudice Black people have had to excel at the Arts and Sports as they are more objective fields where racism can play less of a role in advancement. If you can run 100m in less than 10seconds then can't no assessment panel take that away from you.