by Ahmed Olayinka Sule 

In the aftermath of Usain Bolt’s victory in the Olympic men’s 100 metre final, Murad Ahmed of the Financial Times wrote an article titled “Usain Bolt and why Jamaican sprinters are so fast, in which he addressed the issue of Jamaica’s sprinting dominance. However, rather than analyse the various factors contributing to Jamaica’s sporting success, the article rehashed the old white supremacist narrative about black excellence; one that declares there has to be an alternative explanation besides hard work, determination, and environmental factors to justify black success.

Since the Beijing Olympics, Jamaica has become the world’s number one sprinting nation. Prior to the 2008 Games, Jamaica’s track and field team won a total of 7 gold medals. Since Beijing, they have more than doubled that total. With a population of just 2.7 million people, Jamaica is punching well above its weight athletically, attracting the attention of many in the West.

Genetics has become an oft-cited reason used by Western commentators and scientists as an explanation. Shortly before the London 2012 Olympics, Michael Johnson, presented a documentary, titled Survival of the Fastest, in which he argued that present day Caribbean athletes inherited a superior gene due to slave owners selecting only the fittest slaves for onward shipment to the Caribbean and America.

Another argument regularly used to explain Jamaica’s success is the widely quoted fast-twitch muscles theory, which scientists claim enables black athletes to run faster. Jon Entine, in an article titled The DNA Olympics — Jamaicans Win Sprinting ‘Genetic Lottery’ — and Why We Should All Care, wrote, “Bolt and his Jamaican teammates are members of a tiny slice of the world population—elite athletes who trace their ancestry to western and central Africa—whose body types and physiology have been uniquely shaped by thousands of years of evolution to run fast.

Authors have written books such as “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It” and “The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory” to explore the reason for Jamaica’s achievements. Factors such as their well-run inter-collegiate programme, the prevalence of excellent coaches, the impact of their sprinters victories on future generations of runners, and the fact that sport is a space where blacks and whites compete without as many structural barriers as in other walks of life, are often dismissed.

The Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world, featuring 11,000 athletes from 207 countries competing for 306 set of medals in 28 different sports. Despite the variety of athletes competing at the Games, commentators from the Western world have a tendency to fix their gaze on the few black athletes who excel in the sprints (a subset of one of the 28 sports in the Games).

To suggest that a so-called fast twitch contributes to black athletes running fast is simplistic at best and racist at worse. As Harry Edwards, the American sociologist put it; “The myth of the black male’s racially determined, inherent physical and athletic superiority over the white male, rivals the myth of black sexual superiority in antiquity.”

A look at the history books reveals that white supremacy has often used pseudo-science to justify the inferiority of black people, such as asserting black people’s approximation to monkeys. The “fast twitch” theory is a modern day extension of the black brute stereotype, only this time around, black folks have been relegated to fast running animals.

shelly-ann-fraser-pryce-elaine-thompsonWhile the focus has been on the genetic make-up of Jamaican athletes who only started dominating a minute aspect of the sporting universe from 2008, such rigorous analysis is seldom applied to successful white athletes who have dominated other sports. Furthermore, Western commentators have ignored other smaller white-majority nations that have punched above their weight.

Medalspercapita.com examines Olympic glory in proportion to a country’s population. Gold medal per capita is the total population of a country divided by the number of gold medals that country has won at the Olympics. An analysis of the top twenty countries with the highest Gold medal per capita places the much scrutinised Jamaica 10th on the table. In contrast countries like Finland, Hungary, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand and Denmark rank 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th respectively. Yet questions are never asked about whether the genetic coding of athletes from these countries enables them to excel.

Furthermore, Britain ranks 19th on the table, China ranks 77th, and India ranks 101st. Shouldn’t the relevant question be: Why does Great Britain, an island nation of roughly 65 million produce Olympians that so easily trounce those from more populous countries like China and India?

Proponents of the “Black Athletic Gene” often argue that white people excel in sports that use props and technology, such as fencing and cycling, but not in track and field where you have to “lace ‘em up”. Yet this ignores successful white sprinters such as Dafne Schippers and Sally Pearson. While the white gaze has been fixed on Kenyan and Jamaican runners, they have turned a blind eye to white athletes who dominate events like the Ironman Triathlon, an event which comprises of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run.

The most successful Ironman triathletes: Craig Alexander; Mark Allen; Luc Van Lierde; and Dave Scott are all white. Furthermore, the ultra-marathon, which is a long distance footrace longer than 100 km, is also dominated by white athletes. Eight out of the nine best performances in ultra-marathons (ranging from 162km to 426 km) were posted by white runners.

Rather than seek answers to Jamaica’s sprinting dominance, perhaps the West should seek answers to the following: Why are no questions raised when twenty-one white men compete in a 1,000 metre Kayak heat event, yet eyebrows are raised when eight black sprinters compete in an Olympic 100 metre event? Why studies are conducted to find out whether black athletes have a “fast twitch”, yet no studies are carried out to examine whether there is a form of “twitch” that makes white ultra-marathoners run longer, faster and harder? Why is Britain’s recent Olympic success attributed to investment and excellent organisation, while Jamaica’s success is attributed to nothing more than genetics?

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Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also  obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, The Williams Sisters etc. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo

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8 thoughts on “It’s Not About The Genes Stupid

  1. i wonder why people so keen on promoting diversity are so keen to deny its existence? This article is like saying it is white supremacist to say that black people don’t burn in the sun so much, because that is just part of the white superiority narrative of black, er, superiority in the sun. The fact is that different populations have different physical characteristics which may not mean too much for most of the population, but when you are looking at the top tiny percent in elite sports then it does. Obviously money, training, etc etc are important, but your genetic pool in your team can give you an advantage or disadvantage on different sports. East africans are better at long distance, west at short distance, both are rubbish at swimming. East europeans have more upper body strength and so tend to dominate weight lifting and gymnastics. Asians have better reaction times so dominate, eg, ping pong. I don’t know why whites dominate ultra marathons, maybe something genetic or maybe it just hasn’t caught on yet in e africa, but if it does they might wipe the floor.

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  2. What I would like to ask is, the number of children born of Jamaican parentage, born outside of Jamaica who have become successful athletes, such as Denise Lewis,Colin jackson, Jessica Ennis, Carl Lewis etc etc etc, why do we think these people have succeeded?

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  3. European nations attempting to find a reason for their failure. Or is it that the White Supremacy notion of the superior race is incorrect, could that recognize that it’s the black race who is superior after all it is always a black athlete as proven in the 1936 games…….

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  4. I think I disagree with the article. Just because some black people have fast twitch muscle fibres which likely confers them an advantage in short burst activities like the sprint, doesn’t mean national sporting infrastructure isn’t as important.

    The article argues that because white people dominate endurance events the fast twitch fibres theory is wrong, which is false, as it’s over short bursts that the advantage is allegedly gained.

    It also argues that we don’t question why all 21 finalists in rowing are white; I don’t know who ‘we’ are, but it’s quite well known that certain sports are the preserve of a few privileged elites, regardless of colour, though in the majority they’ll naturally be white.

    The article makes the point that because blacks excel at something that we’re trying to find a genetic excuse to justify it. While I agree that this can be a motivation in this situation, as in many others, I think the facts are there and the differences are measurable and objective.

    Brushing over differences with an over-sensitised reaction and denial of evidence, I think retards the dialogue on prejudice and equality. I think it’s natural to over-compensate where there’s a history of oppression, and it’s a good thing to question our motivations for holding perspectives, but (as long as the evidence is solid) I disagree with ignoring racial traits on an ideological basis.

    What I’m saying is that in a situation where there is disparity, e.g. of race or gender, etc., differences will be present, certain groups will excel or be disadvantaged, and it’s our responsibility to try to adjust for disadvantage where possible, and celebrate excellence where we find it.

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    1. I don’t think it argues that at all, it’s pointing out that there’s a double standard when it comes to explaining success. No one bats an eye when white athletes excel, but when b lack athletes do there has to be a specific reason, if that makes sense

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    1. Came across Orlando Patterson’s piece too this week – growing up in Jamaica, you couldn’t hide from athletics even if you tried. These so called experts should ask the people themselves to explain their success!

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