Better trained or simply born to run?
SHORTLY AFTER the teenage Grenadian athlete Kirani James streaked away with the 400 metres in the Olympic final on Tuesday night, BBC presenter John Inverdale turned to his studio guests and posed a potentially incendiary question.
“It’s simplistic I’m sure,” he suggested to former Olympic champions Michael Johnson and Denise Lewis, “in a way there is a certain resignation that Ethiopians and Kenyans will dominate distance running and you suddenly see West Indian heritage athletes dominating the 400 metres. What does that say to runners in this country?”
Johnson, the greatest 400 metres runner of all time, was uncharacteristically equivocal in his answer. “You can’t buy into the clichés and the sweeping generalisations about what makes an athlete successful. Certainly genealogy plays a part in it. It doesn’t mean that if you are of African descent that you are going to dominate sprints and those who aren’t won’t.”
The notion that some ethnic groups might be genetically predisposed to sporting success is fraught with difficulties. Those opposed to such generalities argue that if you suggest, first instance, that African-American or Afro-Caribbean athletes have a genetic advantage in sprinting, you could argue all kinds of traits for different ethnic groups such as intelligence or aptitude.
Johnson himself tackled the question in a recent Channel 4 documentary in which he argued that being descended from the slave trade gave African-American and Afro-Caribbean athletes (as opposed to west African athletes themselves) a leg up.
The theory, often advanced, is that the slave trade was so brutal that only those who were physically fittest survived through the generations.
As Johnson put it: “Slavery was kind of an unnatural selection, a speeded-up evolution, a mass murder of the weakest, only the fittest able to survive and pass on their genes. Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me. I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”
Johnson drew attention to the fact that in the 100 metres Olympic final in Beijing all the sprinters were Americans or from Caribbean islands. In the four years since that nothing has changed judging by the line-up for last Sunday’s 100 metres final. In the intervening years since Beijing, a white sprinter, Christopher Lemaitre, has broken the 10-seconds barrier for the 100 metres, which he did in 2010. Incredibly, that was 42 years since the record was first broken. Hundreds of black athletes have broken it in the intervening years.
Even Lemaitre ducked out of the 100 metres because he was ranked only 10th in the world in the event. He came sixth in the men’s 200m final in a time of 20.19 seconds.
Australian scientists thought in 2003 that they had gone some way to explaining the proficiency of black sprinters by identifying a gene called ACTN3, which is involved in fast muscle twitching and helps gives the muscles the power to run fast. It appears to be more common in Jamaicans and those of west African origin.