Monday, 16 September 2013

Race: As Easy As Black And White?

Watching the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, we’ve all noticed it and yet it’s rarely discussed. Why do black athletes so often cross the finish line ahead of their white counterparts?

Of course it can be a tricky subject to broach. Society has moulded us into politically correct lemmings, nervously tiptoeing around topics that could be construed as racist, sexist or ageist – all things we obviously are not.

But why can’t we just call someone black when they’re “coloured”, especially since we whites are the ones who turn green when we’re sick, red when we’re embarrassed and blue when we’re cold? Since when was telling the truth not politically correct?  

I’ve known people to clear their throats awkwardly, around the “festive season”, sheepishly motion to the large green fir covered in tinsel and compliment the beautiful “peace tree”. I remember a patronising e-mail I got from a boss during one of my journalism internships: Josie, it would be tactfully unwise to sign off emails with “Happy Easter”. It might upset the Jews. 

But the truth is, that a lot of running competitions are won by black people. Just Google London’s 2012 Olympics if you have doubts. The white athletes didn’t really have a chance. So without beating around the bush, let’s get down to why.


There are dozens of facts that support my observations.

Every male winner of the 100 meter race at the World Athletics Championships since the inaugural event in 1983 has been black. Every finalist from the last 10 championships - with the exception of Matic Osovnikar of Slovenia, who finished seventh in 2007 - has been black. And it’s not uncommon for all the heats to be dominated by black sprinters.

One pre-dominant explanation is anatomy. Studies have shown that black people tend to have longer limbs, while white people have longer torsos. As a result, black people have a higher centre of gravity, facilitating a faster gait. White people, by contrast, are able to propel themselves through water more rapidly, which could explain why there are more white swimming champions.

Another school of thought claims that blacks have a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fiber and more testosterone than whites, helping them to develop muscles that allow for explosive movement, required for sprinting. Others still take the evolutionary route - black people were just born to run faster than white folk.


In my humble opinion, however - and I’m certainly no medic, engineer or genealogist – there’s a much finer point of the debate that is overlooked too often.

Although since 1968, Kenya has won an astonishing 63 medals at the Olympic Games in races of 800m and above, 21 of them gold, research shows that the vast majority of the winners came from a single tiny region in Kenya’s Rift Valley called Nandi.

So, as a pre-2012 Olympics BBC article puts it, far from being a "black" phenomenon, or even a Kenyan phenomenon, distance running is actually a Nandi phenomenon.

The same analysis applies to the sprints, where success is focused on Jamaicans and African-Americans. Africa, as a whole continent, has very limited success.

Actually, as the BBC article highlights, the combined forces of Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, the Republic of Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Niger, Benin, Mali, the Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Gabon, Senegal, Congo and Angola have not won a single sprinting medal at the Olympics or World Championships. Ever.


The problem seems to be, that we like to generalise. It’s easy for us to say that all Africans and Caribbeans are black and therefore share the same traits – like a knack for running fast or having great endurance – but it’s simply a fallacy.

In reality, genetic variation within different racial groups is actually far higher than genetic variation between racial groups.

So if we were to shade a map of the world according to the number of champion runners stemming from each region, it would be flecked with tiny dots of colour. No whole continents or even countries would be blocked out.

Seeing a tiny group of black athletes beating their white competitors in a 5k run and inferring that all black people must be excellent runners, is therefore a bit like seeing a group of blonde girls sitting in a bar drinking vodka  in Copenhagen and inferring that everyone in Europe must be blonde. Or Danish. Or sit in bars. Or drink Vodka.

Or perhaps a bit like inferring that all green firs decorated with tinsel are Christmas trees. Pardon me, I mean Peace Trees of course.

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