Opinion and Editorial

Black Magic in Sports is Here to Stay

N. Janardhan
Filed on October 1, 2008

It is a “race” full of colour — the tracks brick red, the lane divisions white, the middle green, but the athletes mostly black. Welcome to the stadiums that are on fire — fiery enough not to be doused, not at least till the magic wand is in the hands of the blacks.

Conjure up any recent 100-metre race and the winner is a black, including the just-concluded Olympics in which Jamaica’s Usain Bolt set a new world record (as was the case in the 200 metres and 4 x 100 metres relay). Change the distance, the course and the event too: the result may not vary. If “black” loosely means people of African origin, then most world records in major events — from the short sprint to the marathon — are held by them. There are exceptions to the rule, but they are negligible. Despite the existence of white sports stars, athletic excellence is more often than not embodied by a Mohammad Ali, Magic Johnson or Tiger Woods.

The most common reason that comes to mind for blacks faring well in sports and music is the colour-conscious social systems they lived and still live in - few opportunities in academic fields leading to excellence in extra-curricular activities. A classic case of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

But Emmy award-winning American journalist Jon Entine thinks otherwise. For him, genetics is the key to success among blacks. In his controversial book, “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It,” he argues that “in almost every sport, blacks have a decided advantage and we ignore scientific truth at our own risk. They are better at sprinting, endurance running and jumping - the sort of skills required for success in most major sports these days.”

Genetics, biology and ancestry form such a lethal combination in blacks that whites can do little or nothing to reverse the trend, says Entine as part of the “race science” theories, adding to sport’s biggest and never-ending controversy and forcing a parallel to the Nazi ideology and the 1936 Olympics. The Berlin event was to be the crowning showcase of Hitler’s National Socialist government. The aim was to prove on an international stage that Aryan supremacy was real. All the sequences fell in line, except one - a black man by the name of Jessie Owens.

Blacks form just about one-eighth of the world population, but make up 70 per cent of players in the US National Football League and 85 per cent of basketball professionals. In England, blacks are just two per cent of the population, but form 20 per cent of league footballers. In America, black sportsmen not only lead the way in sprinting, but also in the big three sports of American football, basketball and, to a much lesser extent, baseball.

Entine cites scientific studies proving that the popular notion that “white men can’t jump” is not untrue. He quotes black tennis great Arthur Ashe’s conviction that “sociology can’t explain it. I have to believe we blacks have something that gives us an edge” and Olympic champion Carl Lewis’s statement that “blacks, physically in many cases, are made better.”

To illustrate these assertions, Entine points out that a vast majority of long distance runners are East Africans, particularly Kenyans from the tiny Kalenjin tribe, or Ethiopians or Moroccans from North Africa, all of whom have a smaller body profile compared to whites, relatively longer legs and better lung power, and because “their muscles have a higher proportion of slow twitch fibres,” which utilise oxygen better.

On the other hand, athletes of West African descent dominate in “anaerobic activities” like football, basketball and sprints because they have the most “mesomorphic physiques, with bigger, more visible muscles including a larger chest. They possess less body fat, a higher centre of gravity, narrower hips, higher levels of plasma testosterone and a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres.”

Entine extends that logic by saying that Eurasian whites are good weightlifters, wrestlers, hammer-throwers and the shot-putters because they have the strongest upper bodies in the world and the Chinese and Japanese are good gymnasts because they are very flexible.

Thus, according to Entine, “the complete domination of the 100 metres by people of West African origin means no white man will ever again win the event. It simply won’t happen.” While that’s a sweeping statement, it is true that the three fastest men sprinters of all time are blacks — Bolt, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay — and they were all 100-metre finalists at Beijing last month; and three Jamaicans took the honours in the women’s segment of the event too.

What this means is: champions are born, not made. “Diet, skill and training make little difference if you’re the wrong colour.”

Like Entine did with the muscle, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in “The Bell Curve,” also controversially examined IQ differences among races, especially in American society.

If we were to put the brawn and brain theories together based on these contentions, we have a “Black Olympics” and “White Nobel.” But the question is: Is it really that black and white?

Critics argue that while it is true that athletes of West African descent living in North America, Western Europe and the Caribbean dominate many sports, contemporary West Africans don’t. In the United States, intermixing between black and white populations means that the African American population, on average, has some 30 per cent ‘white’ genes, which means that West African athletes should be better than them, which is untrue.

According to American anthropologist Lindsay Carter, “From a biomechanical perspective, the answer is ‘yes,’ race and ethnicity do matter. Nature provides an average advantage. But that says nothing about any individual competitor.”

Fact or fiction, truth or fabrication, for now, there’s no denying that “black magic” has added colour to the sporting world.

N. Janardhan is a Dubai-based analyst and can be contacted at njanardhan71@gmail.com

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