By Malik, Kenan
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 129, No. 4504
Yes, nature does help to explain African sporting success. If you think that's racist, your idea of race is wrong.
Next Saturday afternoon, in less time than it has taken me to type this sentence, the fastest man at the Olympics will take the l00m gold medal. That man may be the pre Olympic favourite, the American Maurice Greene. It may be Trinidad and Tobago's Ato Boldon. It may even be Britain's Dwain Chambers, who has run in to impressive form in the past few weeks. But whoever it is, of one thing we can be certain: he will be black. The last time a white athlete even appeared in a final, Jimmy Carter was still in the White House. Over the past decade, the ten-second barrier in the 100m has been broken 200 times -- but not once by a white athlete. Nor is it just at the 100m that white runners are so noticeably absent. Every men's world record at every commonly run track distance from 100m to the marathon now belongs to a runner of African descent.
Nor is there any respite for white sportsmen away from the Olympics. The American Basketball Association is 80 per cent black; 60 per cent of American footballers are black. France won the football World Cup of 1998 and Euro 2000 with teams in which more than a third of the players were black. In boxing, the two world heavyweight champions -- Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield -- are black.
What lies behind black domination of sport? The traditional liberal answer points the finger at social factors. Black people, so the argument goes, have been driven into sport because racism has excluded them from most areas of employment. Racism also makes blacks hungrier than whites for success. In the postwar world, largely as a consequence of the Holocaust, there has been a great reluctance to see human differences in biological terms. Human beings, we have come to believe, can be explained purely in terms of culture.
Increasingly, this antipathy to biology is wearing away. Biologists, anthropologists and athletes themselves are looking to nature, notnurture, for an explanation of black dominance. "Blacks are made better," argues Carl Lewis, the African American athlete who won four golds at the 1984 Olympics. The American journalist Jon Entine dismisses the environmentalist theory of black athletic prowess as "political correctness". Entine's book, Taboo: why black athletes dominate sports and why we're afraid to talk about it, was published in America this year to great controversy.
The liberal consensus, Entine argues, has served only to disguise the truth about the black domination of sport -- which is that black people are built to run and jump. It's an argument that's winning a hearing on this side of the Atlantic, too. On 7 September, the BBC broadcast The Faster Race, produced by its Black Britain team, which argued the case for a natural black athleticism. Channel 4 shortly begins a three-part series, The Difference, which explores genetic differences between races in sport, among other areas. It's time we put away our fears of talking about racial differences, the series argues, and face up to the facts of genetic diversity.
The view that black sportsmen and women have a natural superiority rests on the evidence of physiological research, largely into two groups of athletes: East African long-distance runners and West African sprinters. East Africa, and Kenya in particular, is the powerhouse of middle- and long-distance running. The top 60 times in the 3,000m steeplechase were all set by Kenyan athletes, who also hold more than half the top times at 5,000m and l0,000m. Most remarkably, the majority of top Kenyan runners come from one area in the country -- the Kalenjin region, along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley, adjacent to Lake Victoria. Kalenjin athletes have won more than 70 per cent of Kenya's Olympic medals at running events and all but one of all Kenyan-held world records.
A number of lines of research suggest that the secret of such spectacular success lies in superior biology. …