The Race To Swift: Do You Have The Right Ancestry.

How much do genes effect your sporting ability? Studies presented here will give a glimpse of why some groups may perform better at a specific sport than others. Read on ...

Let's start with a few safe predictions. All of the sprinters in the men's 100-meter final at the Athens Olympics in 2004 will trace their ancestry to West Africa. Almost all of the world-class throwers will be white, and mostly of Eurasian ancestry. And, except for the marathon, there will be almost no athletes of Asian ancestry appearing in Athens finals.

On the other hand, elsewhere in the Games, Asians will flourish in diving, some gymnastic events, judo and table tennis.

A peculiar but decided trend is unfolding: over the past 40 years, as equality of opportunity has steadily increased in sports, spreading to vast sections of Asia and Africa, equality of results on the playing field has actually declined. The more democracy on the playing field, the less at the finish line.

On the one hand, the social and economic barriers limiting participation in sports are crumbling; on the other, the winners in many events are increasingly limited to participants from specific regions of the world.

Click Image To Enlarge.
Per Capita Concentration Of Raw Athletic Talent.

It's not surprising that the United States would dominate peculiarly American sports such as basketball, but who can fathom the trends in world sports, such as running. Why is it that every running record from the 100 meter dash to the marathon is held by an athlete of African ancestry? Is it racist to be curious about such phenomena?

Nature Versus Nurture

Absolutely not, say a growing chorus of geneticists, anthropologists, and physiologists. 'Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that play the most important roles in sports,' states Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center and one of the world's premier sports medical researchers.

'But based on the data, it is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented, or whether you will become talented. The extent of the environment can always be discussed but it's less than 20-25%.'

Too many sociologists, however, even discussing these trends trivializes the success of all athletes, but most pointedly blacks.

"What really is being said in a kind of underhand way," insists Harry Edwards of University of California at Berkeley, "is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make-up than they are to the rest of humanity. And that's where the indignity comes in."

Ellis Cashmore of Staffordshire University dismisses the role of 'special inborn ability' as 'absurd, especially when we consider anthropologists' dismissal of the concept of race itself.'1

For many years, such righteous dismissals seemed like the moral and scientific high ground and a bulwark against the historical tendency to misuse genetics to support theories of white superiority. Ironically, today, with a far more nuanced understanding of the relationship of population genetics and environment, the formerly righteous position has become untenable - and even, in its own way, racist.

What Is More Important For An Athlete: Environment Or Genetics?


Cultural Factors

Do Cultural Factors Matter? Of course: there are no great international cricketers from Texas - black or white! Does that mean that nature - genetically influenced (though not determined) factors such as body size and physiology - are always trumped by nurture - hard work and opportunity?

To help answer this question, let's briefly examine the history of distance running. For decades, the 'Flying Finns' were the world's best, their wins multiplying in tandem with their growing nationalist tradition of success (a situation replicated in the javelin).

The Finnish were eventually eclipsed by the great Anglo tradition in running, led in the 1980s by Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett. By the last decade of the 20th century, as the door of opportunity opened to less developed nations, the centre of gravity shifted dramatically and decisively toward North and East Africa.

According to some, that cycle of history itself suggests that no population has a lock on distance running success. Surely, they say, Kenyan dominance will eventually fade, much as it did for the Finns and Brits, and the trend will shift once again to another nation? Not so fast.


    To flesh out this debate, it's instructive to put Kenya under a microscope. This small East African country, with a population of less than 30 million, is home to the greatest per capita concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of the world (see map above). The national sport is the passion of the masses.

    Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers of the adoring fans that regularly crowd the stands at the National Stadium in Nairobi. The best players are national icons. The selection process to spot the great stars begins at a young age.

    Coaches backed by government money comb the countryside to find the next generation of potential athletes. The most promising of the lot are sent to special schools and provided extra coaching. It's not an exaggeration to call Kenya's most popular sport a kind of national religion.

    According to conventional and socially acceptable wisdom, this is a familiar story - the sure cultural explanation for the phenomenal success of Kenyan distance runners.

    There's only one problem: the national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channeling - all these relate to Kenya's enduring love affair with football! Despite the enormous success of Kenyan runners in the past two decades, running remains a relative afterthought in this football-crazed nation.

    Yet, while Kenyans and other East Africans sweep upwards of 60% of the world's distance running events, they are among the world's worst football players - and sprinters. Despite an elaborate school system and the expenditure of vast amounts of the country's sparse sports resources, Kenya has flopped in trying to replicate its wondrous distance running success in football.

    In the sprints, after an intense decade-long national recruitment and training effort, the best Kenyan time ever in the 100 (10.28 seconds) ranks somewhere near 5,000th on the all-time list.


Body Types & Muscle Fibers:

    So where does that leave the sociological argument that nurture trumps nature? Does anyone really believe that Kenyans, known for their legendary tough training regimes, suddenly become softies when the distance is 100 meters rather than 42,195m?

    No amount of political correctness can obscure the reality that East Africans have a distinct, genetically-endowed body type and physiology. Kenyans are ectomorphs, short and slender, with huge natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles, the vital energy system for endurance sports. It's a perfect biomechanical package for distance running, but a disaster for sports - like sprinting and football - that require anaerobic bursts of speed.

ad What Is Your Body Type? Take Our Test!
What body type are you? How can you tell? Take our simple test and know! Learn how to train for your body type and what the differences are.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

    Science certainly does not support the popular notion that Kenyans prevail in distance running because they train harder or run huge distances as kids - myths frequently peddled by the media.

    For every Kenyan athlete who runs 100 miles a week, there are others who get along on 30, and did not regularly run extraordinary distances as children. 'I lived right next door to school,' laughs Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, world 800m record holder. 'I walked, nice and slow.'

    Though individual success is indeed largely about opportunity and 'fire in the belly,' when it comes to the patterns that we see in sports, genetic traits proscribe possibility. While a driven Kenyan could potentially transform himself into a decent sprinter in spite of having the ideal genetically endowed body type of a distance runner, thousands of years of evolution have left a distinct footprint.

Muscle Fibers: How Do They Differ?
Our body is composed of many different groups of muscles and each person has a unique composition of muscle tissue in their body.

    'Kenyans and other East Africans are born with a high number of slow-twitch fibers,' notes Saltin, who outlined his widely-embraced findings in a cover story, 'Muscles and Genes,' in Scientific American last year2. The bio-cultural epicenter for world-class distance running - where evolutionary factors and social conditions come together in a feedback loop - is the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria.

    This is home to the Kalenjin, a loosely-named population of 1.5 million people, who win almost 40% of major international distance events. One tiny district, the Nandi, with only 500,000 people - 1/12,000th of the planet's population - sweeps an unfeasible 20% of such races.

    While Kenyans and other East Africans hold more than 60% of the world's top endurance times, athletes of West African ancestry, including most North American, British and Caribbean blacks, are among the world's worst distance runners. The ectomorphic body type so common among East Africans is not common in whites and is almost non-existent in those with roots in West Africa.

    They tend to have small and efficient lungs, muscular 'mesomorphic' lower bodies and a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers which contribute to explosive speed.

    This is an exceptional biomechanical package for sports requiring fast bursts of effort. West African ancestral populations represent about 8% of the world's population, 12% in the U.S., and a mere 2% in Britain - but are vastly over-represented, especially when social and cultural factors are taken into account.

    Twenty-five percent of England's Premiership footballers, 84% of American basketball players, 70% of U.S. footballers, and 40% of baseball players are blacks of West African ancestry. The figures in sprinting are even more overwhelming: in the 100m, the purest test of speed, blacks of West African ancestry hold the top 220 times and 494 of the top 500 times.

    Yet, while runners of West African descent win upwards of 95% of the elite races (not all of course - human variation and individual drive ensure there are no guarantees in sports), there is not a single elite distance runner from West Africa.

    For the nurturist argument to prevail, one would have to believe that British and American blacks are hard-training sprinters but lazy distance runners; or that they respond to financial incentives in the 100 meters but shrug at the prospect of 6-figure fees and purses in elite distance races.


    In other words, all the determination in the world cannot turn 100-meter champ Maurice Greene into a first-rate marathoner - or Kenyan distance runner Joseph Chebet or Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi into a world-class sprinter.

Fire In The Belly:

    Frankly, such claims that blacks succeed for cultural reasons diminish the reality that sports achievement is all about individual accomplishment, that 'fire in the belly.' It's hard work, courage and serendipity that separate champions from other elite sportsmen and women.

    Consider Michael Jordan, who grew up in the security of a two-parent home in comfortable circumstances. Or one of the world's top sprinters, the Canadian Donovan Bailey, who was certainly not motivated by a desperate need to escape destitution: he already owned his own house and a Porsche, and traded life as a successful stockbroker to pursue his dream of Olympic gold. More and more top black athletes are from the middle class.

    Why is the success of blacks and other minorities such as Aboriginal Australians explained away by cultural channeling? Sports success is too complex a phenomenon to be tidily settled by such facile sociology. How do we explain the success of the majority of athletes, of all nations and ancestral heritage, who live in comfortable circumstances?

    The classic argument that blacks succeed in sports to escape poverty is less and less plausible and more and more racist every day.

    Genes may not determine who are the world's best runners, but they do circumscribe possibility. Kenyans and other East Africans have an innate capacity, not an innate ability, to thrive in distance running; individual effort and courage separate the pretenders from the stars. Success in sports is a bio-social phenomenon.

Rethinking Race, Science and Sports

Why does the claim that sports success depends in part on genetics get some people so nervous? After all, it's conventional science that different body types have evolved in response to differing environmental conditions in different regions of the world. The elephant in the living room, of course, is 'race.'

Fascination about black physicality and black anger about being caricatured as lesser human beings have been part of the unspoken side of the dialogue on race for hundreds of years. The fear is that some might conclude that if blacks are faster on average, they must, as part of zero-sum reasoning, be weaker mentally. But that's a conclusion not supported by science.

What have scientists documented? 'Evolution has shaped body types and in part athletic possibilities,' says Joseph Graves Jr, an evolutionary biologist and author of The Emperor's New Clothes: Theories of Race at the Millennium.

"Don't expect an Eskimo to show up on an NBA court or a Watusi to win the world weightlifting championship. Genes play a major role," adds Graves, himself an African American.

What does that mean? After all, the fact that significant differences exist between populations would seem to conflict with a spate of declarations proclaiming that 'humans are 99.9% the same' and 'race is biologically meaningless.' Indeed, the arguments by Edwards and Cashmore rise (or in this case, fall) from such beliefs.

The paradox revolves around a common misunderstanding about the notion of 'race' - in particular, the popular notion that races are discrete groups, each with distinct genetic profiles. Race is a term soaked in much folkloric nonsense. The concept of race is somewhat akin to an omelet masquerading as an egg.

It's a pretty messy concept, sometimes referred to as 'fuzzy sets' or extended families.

Despite its notorious history, racial terminology can be helpful, such as when used in medicine. Many traits are correlated, such as dark skin color and the presence of the sickle cell gene. But such links are not absolute. Blacks who have evolved in cooler climates are no more likely to contract sickle cell than are non-blacks.

Genetic factors help explain the prevalence of any number of population-specific diseases and physiological responses to drugs. Tay-Sachs is a neurological disease more common among European Jews and their descendants. Northern Europeans are more susceptible to cystic fibrosis.

A hereditary disease that affects young children almost exclusively of eastern European Jewish descent, in which an enzyme deficiency leads to the accumulation of gangliosides in the brain and nerve tissue, resulting in mental retardation, convulsions, blindness and, ultimately, death.

Blacks are genetically more susceptible to any number of diseases, including sickle cell and heart disease. These are all 'racial' differences of a kind, although the interaction of genetic and environmental factors is extremely complex.

Cycle Cell:
An abnormal, crescent-shaped red blood cell that results from a single change in the amino acid sequence of the cell's hemoglobin, which causes the cell to contort, especially under low-oxygen conditions. Also called drepanocyte, meniscocyte.

With these many exceptions in mind, no serious scientist would subscribe to the dogma that grips the post-modernist sociological community. Today, no credible scientist disputes that evolution, along with local social conditions, has helped shape Kenyan distance runners, white powerlifters, with their enormous upper-body strength, and athletes of West African ancestry who are explosive runners and jumpers.

In discussing basketball, for instance, Jared Diamond, the UCLA physiologist and Pulitzer Prize winner (for Guns, Germs and Steel), writes that the disproportionate representation of African Americans is not because of a lack of socio-economic opportunities, but on account of 'the prevalent body shapes of some black African groups'.3

Most scientists are quick to point out that this is not a 'black and white' issue, but the consequence of thousands of years of evolution in varying terrains. Modern humans are made up of overlapping, soft-edged genetic clusters.

Although humans share most of their estimated 40,000 genes, there are as many as 500,000 gene components, or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), many of which are more common among people from one geographical region than from another.

A Single Nucleotide Polymorphism or SNP (pronounced snip) is a DNA sequence variation, occurring when a single nucleotide: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) or guanine (G) - in the genome is altered. A variation must occur in at least 1% of the population to be considered a SNP.

SNPs make up 90% of all human genetic variations, and occur every 100 to 300 bases along the human genome. Two of every three SNPs substitute Cytosine (C) with Thymine (T). Variations in the DNA sequences of humans can affect how humans handle diseases, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, drugs, etc.

SNPs are of great value to biomedical research and in developing pharmacological products. Because SNPs do not change much from generation to generation, following them during population studies is straightforward.

SNPs are generally considered to be a form of point mutation that has been evolutionarily successful enough to recur in a significant proportion of a species' population.

'The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations,' stressed Graves. 'There are some group differences. We see it in diseases. But that's a long way from reconstructing century-old racial science.'

Each sport demands a slightly different mix of biomechanical, anaerobic and aerobic abilities. As a result of evolutionary adaptations to extremely different environments that became encoded in the genes, athletes from different insular populations tend to have rather distinct physical and physiological characteristics. As a result, they frequently excel in specific events.

Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting, wrestling and field events, such as the hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 performances).

Evolutionary forces in this northern clime have shaped a population with a predilection toward a mesomorphic body type - large and muscular, particularly in the upper body, with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium.

Click Image To Enlarge.

Certain East Asian populations tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat - part of the evolutionary adaptation to harsh climes encountered by Homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia about 40,000 years ago. As a result, athletes from this region are somewhat slower and less strong than whites or blacks, but are, on average, more flexible.

These characteristics are key potential advantages in diving, some events in gymnastics (hence the term 'Chinese splits'), and figure skating. They also have quick reaction times, which undoubtedly contribute to their success in racquet sports.

Chinese Splits:
A lower body flexibility move that involves bringing the legs straight to the side with both the knees pointed forward or up. much more difficult than the front splits.

And though they generally are not competitive at jumping and sprinting because of squatter bodies and the predominance of slow-twitch fibers, East Asians are competitive at long distance races, including the marathon, in part because of higher levels of body fat.

It should come as no surprise that the world's most remarkable ultra-endurance runners, the 4,000 or so Native American Tarahumara of Mexico, have East Asian ancestry. (The Tarahumara are considered the least-assimilated people in the Americas; like the Nandi, they subsist by herding, agriculture and hunting. They also love to run: it is not uncommon for women to run up to 40 miles as part of social game-playing.)

The Tarahumara are a Native American people of northern Mexico, renowned for their long-distance running ability.

Originally inhabitants of much of the state of Chihuahua, the Tarahumara retreated to Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental on the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century.

Current estimates put the population of the Tarahumara in 2003 at between 50,000 and 70,000 people. Most still practice a traditional lifestyle, inhabiting natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs, as well as small cabins of wood or stone. Staple crops are corn and beans; and goats and cattle are also raised for food.

With widely dispersed settlements, the people have developed a tradition of long-distance running for intervillage communication and transportation. Their word for themselves, Raramuri, means runners or flying feet in their native tongue.

The Tarahumara language is in the Uto-Aztecan family. Although it is in decline, with pressure from Spanish, it is still widely spoken.

Popular thinking still lags behind the genetic revolution. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," notes Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the American Journal of Human Biology, "that 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."

Although scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to biologically based differences, it is indisputable that they exist. Such characteristics are not distributed equally among populations.

The genetics revolution has decisively overturned the belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa for experience to write upon. Some functional characteristics do differentiate population clusters - most clearly in the proclivity to certain diseases and in body types.

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out groups with distinct susceptibilities to different diseases - yet find it racist to acknowledge that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters and jumpers and East Africans into the best distance runners?

In light of recent advances in genetics and the science of human performance, extremists claim that we should not discuss these 'racial' or patterned biological differences appear quaint, dangerous and perhaps even racist. Limiting the pejorative use of that problematic concept of race - an admirable goal - is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which it is based disappear. Although people share a common humanity, we are different in critical ways.

The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue - but to what end. Athletic competition, which offers a definitiveness that eludes most other aspects of life, is a perfect laboratory for a serious exploration of the complex relationship of genes and culture.

'I believe that we need to look at the causes of differences in performance between races in sports as legitimately as we do when we study differences in diseases,' says Canadian Claude Bouchard, sports physiologist and geneticist, and director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University.

'I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. [Critical inquiry] is the greatest safeguard against prejudice'

Indeed, if we do not welcome the impending genetic revolution with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than a source of distrust.

Finally, it should never be forgotten that genes are not the ultimate factors in elite performance. While genetics will determine if you have a chance to be an elite athlete, intelligence, dedication and serendipity are the final arbiters of who wins and loses.

'It's the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,' Sir Roger Bannister told me on a visit to his home at Oxford University. 'But one would have to be blind not so see a pattern here. I hope we are not at a time and place where we are afraid to talk about remarkable events.'