Olympic colors

By Jon Entine



Salon Staff
September 28, 2000 11:33PM (UTC)

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It's obvious that athletic capacity has a large genetic component. However, saying that there is a racial component is something else entirely. Talk about genes all you want, but it's impossible to define race only in terms of biology, and therefore meaningless to talk about the relationship between race and sports.

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-- Mitchell Skinner

As an African-American, male psychologist who grew up in the "inner city," cannot play basketball and excels in tennis, I find it interesting that the author uses the word "racist" so often in his article. Is this a transparent attempt to beat his detractors to the punch or an example of the Freudian defense mechanism of projection?

The author does make some valid points. I started to wonder if some of my views on the subject of race and athletic performance were actually racist until I saw the word "racist" for what seemed like the 15th time in the article. Then I recalled conversations I'd had with people whom I would consider racist who tried to portray their critics as racist for having the arrogance to think they were in a position to defend minorities.

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Jon Entine's use of the word racist to describe those who disagree with him is an insult to the intelligence of the reader and cheapens the emotional currency of the term.

-- David Brantley III

Where aren't the headlines wondering why "whites" excel at hockey and swimming? Why are scientists interested in "empirical evidence" so interested in studying "blacks" but so uninterested in studying the dominance of "whites" in equestrian events? Until white people start studying themselves with the same vigor that they study other races, they will always be accused of being motivated by racism rather than scientific inquiry.

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-- Aran Carlisle

Entine displays too a surprising ignorance of sports. For example, flexibility is not any problem keeping non-Asians out of the top ranks of gymnastics and diving, and the genetic ability of the Koreans, Thais, Malaysians, Filipinos and the rest to do the "Chinese splits," whatever they are, has not yet brought them much success. (Has Entine ever actually watched a gymnastics or diving competition?) And if East Africans have superior aerobic capacity, why don't they dominate the sports that tax aerobic capacity the highest of all, namely rowing and cross-country skiing? Unfortunately for Entine's claims, the highest ever recorded aerobic capacities, for both men and women, belong not to any East Africans, but to Scandinavians. Likewise, while there have been serious efforts to train Kenyans at the elite level in Nordic skiing, based on ideas like Entine's, these have gotten basically nowhere.

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Entine may counter that the reason for East African failure in these sports is lack of white upper body strength. But then, where are the East Africans in distance cycling or speedskating? And where are the blacks of West African ancestry in sprint cycling and sprint speedskating?

It is of course interesting that nowadays the top ranks of the 100 meters reliably consist of runners of apparently West African ancestry. But it is just as interesting that they consist of few actual West Africans. And look at Maurice Greene, this year's Olympic champion and current world record holder: Like most American "blacks," he is, in comparison with any real West African, light skinned. Could it have been those extra white genes which made him the class of the field?

It is an obvious and uncontroversial truism which will not sell any books that athletic achievement is in part a biosocial phenomenon. (Nowadays it is also a pharmacological one, and no one yet knows how to sort out this confounding variable.) The question is, do the biological factors, whatever they may be, reliably sort out along racial lines, and to the extent that they dominate everything else? Entine himself shows that they do not: A tribe or sub-population is not a race.

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There is more genetic diversity within the races than between them. And as far as athletic achievement goes, anyone who knows any athletic history knows that for as long as there has been international competition, there have been cycles of strength linked to nationality or ethnic background: For example, in middle distance running, by Native American, Finnish, Australian, British, Portuguese and now and then Kenyan and Ethiopian running powerhouses, amongst others. A genetic explanation for those cycles is rough going: For example, why do the white Australians, who are genetically so British, do so well in swimming, while the British themselves do not? And why the difference in outcome in the track sprint events between Americans and Caribbeans of West African ancestry, and actual West Africans?

While writing this the Olympic women's marathon was run. The winner, in Olympic record time over a difficult course, was a genetically flexible Japanese who, if she had known better, might have been a gymnast; followed by a genetically muscular Romanian who, if she had known better, might have been a weightlifter. The East African contingent, which did include the previous Olympic champion, finished well back, in third, fourth, ninth and 13th.

-- M. Kary

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Since Neolithic times the populations of Africa have been constantly shifting and intermingling. It's the nature of the continent -- tropical soils are less productive (due to year-round growing seasons) and therefore every few years Africans needed to find better farmland. Because of this, Entine's assertion that Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners are successful because of their genetics is patently false. You see, Ethiopians belong to the Afro-Asiatic cultural group, while the majority of Kenyans are of the Bantu cultural group. This means that, genetically, Kenyans share more in common with West Africans like Cameroonians (who are, by the way, just fine at soccer) than they do with the Ethiopians and Somalis he's grouped them with.

-- Christopher Owens

It is worth remembering, and supportive of Entine's position, that the theory of evolution was developed and accepted without support from genetics and, indeed, far in advance of any knowledge of molecular genetics. Were we to adopt anthropologist Jonathan Marks' insistence on molecular genetic evidence for biological traits, we would be in the curious position of rejecting most of Darwin's work.

Marks' position also leads to the absurd notion that many differences among, say, breeds of animals, might be acquired, since the genes that account for these differences have yet to be identified. I wonder if Professor Marks thinks there might be a way to raise a Pekinese to the size of a Great Dane.

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-- Henry M. Halff

In two words, "thank you"! As a sometime weightlifter (and naturally chunky Caucasian) who has observed and discussed the issue of genetics vis-`-vis athletic performance ad nauseam with friends black and white, and come to the same inescapable conclusions as the author, this issue is a no-brainer. I believe that the main resistance to open discussion of this topic can be attributed to two factors, which also unfortunately dominate and influence almost every substantive matter on the public stage: white fear and black pride.

-- Brendan K. Davis

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who has wondered about the dominance in sports of certain races of people. I too didn't accept cultural background as the difference. Jon Entine gives us a well-written article on the subject. Hopefully this allows more people to talk about a subject that has nothing to do with racism.

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-- Brett Goldstock


Salon Staff

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