DARE TO ASK: Does race help athlete to excel?
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
Is there a physical difference between the races that would allow certain
races to perform better at certain sports? For example, how many world-class
sprinters are white?
Casey, 22, white, Reston, Va.
It is not PC to suggest genetic differences between races. You are starting
to think outside the box the U.S. media has established for us.
Sid, 34, white, Birmingham, Ala.
To excel in sports requires enormous work. Searching for a racial anatomical
difference belittles the training and practice these athletes undergo. After
black sprinters began to win races, the press mused that perhaps blacks were
good at sprinting, but that whites were better suited for distance running. Then
blacks began to win marathons. The old myths developed to explain away black
successes do not stand up to analysis.
R. Stewart, black, Chicago
Whenever a football coach claims black athletes are faster than white ones --
the Air Force Academy's Fisher DeBerry was guilty of it the other week -- we
know readers will run (some very slowly) to Dare to Ask for facts.
Pundits, including Times-Union columnists, say speed is all about hard work
and dedication. That it's goofy or worse to say genetics play a role.
But we're not talking about pitting Mike Freeman against Dan Hicken in the
100 (for all we know, Donna Hicken would kick their respective aspirations). We
are talking, according to researcher Jon Entine, only about elite athletes.
Entine, a journalist, pored over scientific studies for his book Taboo: Why
Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It (Public
Affairs). He learned that different subgroups of people developed different body
characteristics over time relative to their terrain and living conditions. "It's
not an issue of race, it's about population genetics," Entine said. "Certain
body types tend to do better in certain sports than others. It's not
controversial unless you put it in racial terms."
For example, West Africans tend to have more-developed fast-twitch muscles
(necessary for fast burst activity), less body fat, longer arms and legs
relative to the torso, and smaller lung capacity (for greater sprinting
efficiency). Eurasian peoples have bigger torsos and shorter arms, which makes
them better at strength events such as weightlifting. And on and on with other
Entine's critics say performance differences among the so-called "races" fall
along cultural and environmental lines, and that using genetics as the primary
reason discounts individual effort, opportunity, self-image, discipline,
interests and expectations.
Yes, Entine responds, individual athletes of any race can perform at top
levels in various sports if they work hard, have great coaching and use their
smarts. But some groups of people on average are more suited to certain sports
and tend to do better at the very highest levels, where a tenth of a second is a
"The coach touched a nerve ... but the truth is that 494 of the top 500
100-meter times in the world are held by a person of central West African
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to
Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL
32231. Include contact information.