Running is the most egalitarian of sports, a natural laboratory. Unlike the props and costumes required for, say, professional football or ice hockey, or the intense coaching demanded of gymnastics an golf, one can just lace up and go for a run. Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila proved this quite memorably in the 1960 Rome Olympics, when—shoeless, coachless and inexperienced—he won the marathon. Raw talent is on display.
Which is what makes the World Track and Field Championships being held in August in Beijing, such an anticipated spectacle. It’s the major global event leading up to next year’s Olympic Games in Brazil.
If there is anything we can be sure, the athletes that win won’t always be the hardest working or the best coached. At the most elite level, the victory is contested by those with the best genes.
Those who do not understand the power of genes might argue that the medal podium for runners should reflect a rainbow of diversity, as no country or region should have a lock on desire or opportunity. But just the opposite has happened in track and field: running has become almost segregated by ancestry.
The trends are eye opening: Among men, athletes of African ancestry hold every major running record, from the 100m to the marathon. Of the past seven Olympics men’s 100m races, all 56 finalists have been of West African descent. Only two non-African runners, France’s Christophe Lemaire, who is white, and Australia’s Irish-aboriginal Patrick Johnson, crack the top 500 100-meter times. There are no elite sprinters who are Asian—or, intriguingly, East African.
The story of distance running is equally remarkable. Runners of West African ancestry don’t tend to do well at endurance races, which are dominated by North and East Africans—note the medal haul in London by Kenyans and Ethiopians. And oddly, East and North Africans are terrible at sprinting.
Can cultural forces explain this?
The most frequently heard reason for this pattern is that African athletes just work harder at running: It’s a way out. That’s the same explanation offered for why ghetto Jewish athletes predominated in semi-pro basketball in the United States in the 1920s or why blacks have emerged to dominate so many sports in America. It’s one of their few outlets, the story goes, to escape the trap of limited opportunities.
According to this narrative, there’s a tradition of running in Africa, and among blacks worldwide, that young athletes emulate; they’ve been running to school since kindergarten; they train harder for a chance at the golden ring that athletic success offers; athletes from other parts of the world have developed a toxic inferiority complex to black athletes and switch to other sports; blah, blah, blah.
No one outside of the most politically correct circles really believes those theories capture much of the real story of black domination of running. Certainly scientists do not. Bengt Saltin, who recently passed away as the director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute, said his research suggested that an athlete’s “environment” accounts for no more than 25 percent of athletic ability. The rest comes down to the roll of the genetic dice—with each population group—that’s the technical term for the term “race” which carries disturbing associations— having distinct advantages. In other words, running success is “in the genes.”
Here are the facts. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types (for example, sprinters have more natural fast-twitch fibers, while distance runners are naturally endowed with more of the slow-twitch variety), reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, and lung capacity are not evenly distributed among populations.
It’s controversial stuff although not to hard scientists. We know that genes matter; what we don’t know, and many not know for years, is what genes or gene combinations matter most.
Michael Johnson, the 400-meter world-record holder, has postulated that black sprinters benefit from the outsize presence of ACTN3. The “speed gene” as it’s been dubbed, makes fast-twitch muscles twitch fast. Lacking the ACTN3 protein does not seem to have any harmful health effects but does affect running ability. Scientists conclude that it is almost impossible for someone who lacks the ACTN3 protein to become an elite sprinter. The so-called sprint gene is more common in those of West African descent than in Europeans, according to a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Is this running’s “smoking gun” gene? No. Sports ability, like IQ, is the product of many genes with environmental triggers influencing the “expression” of our base DNA. But its isolation does underscore that when it comes to performance, genes circumscribe possibility.
As UCLA professor Jared Diamond has noted, “Even today, few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject.”
From the playing field to the doctor’s office
But we have no choice but to face this third rail of genetics and sports. Over the past decade, human genome research has moved from a study of human similarities to a focus on patterned based differences. Such research offers clues to solving the mystery of diseases, the Holy Grail of genetics.
So why do we readily accept that evolution has turned out Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs, Southeast Asians with a higher proclivity for beta-thalassemia, and blacks who are susceptible to colorectal cancer and sickle-cell disease, yet find it inappropriate to suggest that Usain Bolt can thank his West African ancestry for the most critical part of his success?
Human “populations”—cohorts of people with shared genes—exist. But how important differences based on ancestral characteristics remain a controversial subject. The difficulty is sorting out how much of a trait is genetically inbred, how much may be shaped by environmental factors, and what is just plain supposition, sometimes sprinkled with biases.
Small population based differences can define elite athletes
“Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small,” said Robert Malina, a retired Michigan State University anthropologist and former editor of the Journal of Human Genetics, “that if you have a physique or the ability to fire muscle fibers more efficiently that might be genetically based … it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place.”
Malina, and geneticists and sports scientists in general, note that certain characteristics do show up more in one population cohort versus another. Indeed, empirical evidence makes hash of the myth that culture makes the athlete. Look at Kenya: with but 44 million people, the country is home to athletes holding one third of top times in distance races.
What explains this phenomenon? It’s in their culture, say many social scientists. Kenyans dominate distance races because they “naturally trained” as children—by running back and forth to school, for example.
“That’s just silly,” Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer told me. Kipketer the second fastest 800-meter runner of all time and holder of six of the top 20 all-time fastest 800m times. “I lived right next door to school,” he laughed, dismissing cookie-cutter explanations. “I walked, nice and slow.”
What motivated Kipketer to pursue running? Like most young Kenyans, while growing up he hoped that he might catch the eye of a coach who combed the countryside to find the next generation of budding stars. He had dreams of being cheered as he entered the National Stadium in Nairobi. But his childhood fantasy was to be welcomed as a soccer player.
The national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social incentives that supposedly channel a kid into sports—that all speaks to Kenya’s enduring love affair with soccer, not running. Soccer was and is the national sports obsession of Kenyans. And Kipketer, like many Kenyans, was not very good at soccer; despite their zeal for the sport, and all the social incentives to push them into playing high level soccer, Kenyans simply don’t seem to have the genetic package to make them world-class quick burst runners that thrive in that sport. Social and cultural conditioning alone cannot turn athletic coal into diamonds.
But Kenyans from the Rift Valley mountains are naturally diamonds at longer distance running. Many suggest that’s due to the East African’s outsized natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles. That’s a perfect biomechanical package for long-distance running, but a disaster for sports that require anaerobic bursts, like sprinting or soccer. Indeed, Kenya’s fastest 100m time, 10.26, is almost three-quarters of a second slower than Bolt’s world record. There are more than 5,000 times ranked higher than Kenya’s best.
Body types, ancestry and sports
Although people in every population come in all shapes and sizes, body types and physiological characteristics follow a distribution curve as a result of evolutionary adaptations by our ancestors to extremely varied environmental challenges. Elite sports showcase these differences.
Asians, on average, tend to be smaller with shorter extremities and long torsos—evolutionary adaptations to harsh climes encountered by Homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia 40,000 years ago. China, for example, excels in many Olympics sports, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons, according to geneticists, is that they are more flexible on average—a potential advantage in diving, gymnastics (hence the term “Chinese splits”) and figure skating.
Whites of Eurasian ancestry are mesomorphic: larger and relatively muscular bodies with comparatively short limbs and thick torsos. No prototypical sprinter or marathoner here. These proportions are advantageous in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium. Predictably, Eurasians dominate weightlifting, wrestling, and most field events, such as the shot put and hammer.
Check out the results each year at the National Football League combine in Indianapolis. The weights are dominated by white athletes.
At the Olympics, with the exception of North Korea, the top lifters come from a band of Eurasian countries: China, Kazakhstan, Iran, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Despite the image of the sculpted African body, no African nation won an Olympic lifting medal.
What about North American, Caribbean and European blacks who trace their ancestry to the Middle Passage? Shaped by many centuries of evolution in Africa, they generally have bigger, more developed overall musculature; narrower hips, lighter calves; higher levels of plasma testosterone; faster patellar tendon reflex in the knee; and a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy. Blacks in general have heavier skeletons and less body fat—key genetic hindrances when it comes to such sports as competitive swimming.
“Evolution has shaped body types and in part athletic possibilities,” Joseph Graves, Jr. told me. Graves is the Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “Don’t expect an Eskimo to show up on an NBA court or a Watusi to win the world weightlifting championship. Differences don’t necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather with geography and climate. Endurance runners are more likely to come from East Africa and sprinters from West Africa. That’s a fact. Genes play a major role in this.”
There’s no need to make consideration of race in sports a taboo. In fact, sports provide the most rigid laboratory control possible—the level playing field—to guide us through the thicket of ideological correctness.
Posted on: 28/05/2015