Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On black athletic superiority

One need only look to look at the annals of athletic success to see that blacks are obviously superior athletes. No white athlete has reached an Olympic 100m final in over a quater of a century. 82 people have run sub 10 second 100m. Only one of them was white. This is just sprints. Just look at the huge amount of long distance running medals that have gone to Kenya. In 2011, the NBA reported that only 17% of the players where white.

The idea has been put forward that those of West African descent are better at sprinting - as is show by the dominance of Afro Americans and Jamaicans for example, and that long distance running is the domain of East Africa - Kenya and Ethopia, for example.

Indeed, there's genetic evidence too - the ACTN3 gene helps with sprinting (by affecting muscle composition - it makes more "fast twitch fibres, which are the kind for explosive power, and not so good for prolonged endurance) and is found in 98% of Jamaicans. Indeed, the slave trade has been put forward as an explanation of how this situation could have evolved - the slave trade selected those that were fitter, and thus their athletic dominance was born.

The case seems clear cut: black people make better athletes.

The trouble is, it's all nonsense. To explain why, we need to consider a few things, because there is a predominance of black athletes.

Before we begin, there is a related, and important, point to make. When talking about differences in populations, you're never far from cries of racism (or sexism or any other -ism). This is because people tend to think of traits of populations as discrete points, and not overlapping bell curves. People misinterpret a saying like "Women are better at visual memory" as meaning that all women are good at visual memory, and all men are bad at visual memory.

Here's a simple example. Men are taller than women. Here's a graph to show this:

As you can see - men tend to be taller than women, but there is considerable overlap with their heights. So it is when it comes to other differences. Saying that one group perform better than another is not to say that the other group are incapable. Their performance will overlap like the graph above. Also, such data do not support discrimination. Just because men are better at mentally rotating shapes, doesn't mean that women can't, and so, one should always base one's assessment of an individual on their own merits, and not from whatever particular group(s) they belong to.

So, with that out the way, back to the black athletic superiority.

Firstly, the notion of race is a misleading one. Genetic studies show that genetic diversity is greater within a population than it is between populations. If the zombie apocalypse happens and all that remains of humanity is the Masai tribe from Africa - the entire genetic variability of Homo sapiens will be found within their members. Of course, this is counter intuitive because we can't see genetic differences with our eyes - we can only see the colour of their skin, the shape of their face, how their hair grows etc. However, these differences are superficial and trivial in the grand scheme of things.
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a population geneticist from Stanford University says "Classification into races has proved to be a futile exercise... All populations or population clusters overlap when single genes are considered, and in almost all populations, all alleles are present but in different frequencies. No single gene is therefore sufficient for classifying human populations into systematic categories."

Which leads us to ACTN3 gene mentioned earlier. 98% of Jamaicans may have it. But so do 82% of Europeans. And in Kenyans it's more prevalent than in Jamaicans - which is curious given their dominance in the long distance running. Genes may help, but aren't the entire story. Athletic success is largely down to one's environment - where one lives, the societal factors there, the facilities available.

Take Kenyan long distance runners for example. 90% of their runners are actually found within a sixty mile radius around the town of Eldoret. The conditions there are perfect for developing long distance running - it's at high altitude, which helps the athletes produce more red blood cells and move oxygen around their body more efficiently; children have to run to school - sometimes as far as 20km, that's a lot of running for a child, and by the time they're grown, they can reap the athletic rewards; since Kip Keino in 1968 children aspire to be athletes; running is cheap to get into unlike other sports; traditional Kenyan diet is very good for long distances runners; and Kenya has developed a good system for developing and nurturing promising young runners. All these factors contribute to their success.

This leads on to another point. One of over generalization - it's not being Kenyan that means you've got a better chance at making it as a long distance runner, it's being a Kenyan around the town of Eldoret. Likewise, generalizing that all black people are naturally better athletes because of those that do dominate the sport is likewise an overgeneralisation. There are a lot of African nations that aren't producing a surfeit of athletic success.

So what about the NBA line up and other stats about the predominance of black athletes? The overrepresentation of of African Americans in sport is mirrored by their underrepresentation in positions of economic power, suggesting that socio-economic factors are involved. If there are barriers to positions of economic power, then it makes sense to go into sport where such barriers don't exist.

Does this false notion that black people make better athletes matter though? Racism sadly isn't a thing of the past and so surely it's good that black people can show the world what they can achieve?

Sadly this isn't the case.

Received wisdom used to hold that:

"The Negro does well in certain disciplines because he is closer to primitive man than white people. It is not long since his ability to run and jump meant the difference between life and death in the jungle. He has supple muscles and his light-minded disposition is useful in the mental and physical relaxation necessary for someone who runs and jumps" Dean Cromwell, leader of the American team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

These sentiments haven't entirely disappeared - black athletes are rated higher in natural athletic ability than in sporting intelligence. White athletes are rated higher in sporting intelligence than in natural athletic ability. When listening to exactly the same radio basketball commentary, those that thought the player was black rated them as high in natural athletic ability. Those that thought the player was white, rated them as low in natural athletic ability, and an inferior player. This was for the exact same commentary.

Stereotypes influence how we see the world and other people, and can lead to unconscious discrimination, which can help perpetuate the false stereotypes. White athletes getting passed up for sporting opportunities and black scholars missing out on potential educational success, can lead to disproportionate mixes of the two in various fields.

Stereotypes also affect how we, ourselves, behave, via what psychologists call the Stereotype Threat. White and black former high school athletes were given a golf putting task. Both groups performed equally well, until you told them that it was a measure of "natural athletic ability", then the whites' performance dropped. It's not just in sporting tasks. A standardized test was given to undergraduates. When told it was a measure of intellectual ability, white students out performed the black students. When the test was presented as a laboratory tool, with no relevance to intellectual ability, the scores between black and white students were the same.

There may be a predominance of black athletes, but this is not because they are naturally better athletes than non-black people out there. Likewise, there is a predominance of white people in other areas of life, but this is not because they are naturally better at them than black people.

The information for this post mostly came from the excellent book Bounce by Matthew Syad which you should read.


  1. Ok, but you never really explained what environmental factors lead to blacks dominating sports. You said a little about the Kenyan's but that's it.

    If 98% of Jamaican's have the ACTN3 gene, while only 82% of whites, then I think I can still say that Jamaican's, and maybe blacks in general, are better athletes.

    1. As far as environmental factors that lead to blacks dominating sports, use your imagination. More black families than white occupy lower socio-economic standing in the US, so when choosing sports, black children typically gravitate towards low-cost sports such as football and basketball, whereas typically white families can afford for their children to play baseball or hockey. As a result we see more black athletes in the NFL and NBA and fewer in the NHL and MLB. This is one example and there are many more possible explanations

    2. Then why don't we see minorities of similar socio-economic status to blacks also gravitating toward basketball. For example, we don't see many latino players in the NBA.

  2. >If 98% of Jamaican's have the ACTN3 gene, while only 82% of whites, then I think I can still say that Jamaican's, and maybe blacks in general, are better athletes.

    Not true. 1. There's still environmental factors. 2. Jamaicans aren't "all blacks." 3. ACTN3 gene =/= "better athletes.

    Oh, and he did state environmental SES & stereotype threats as a reason why black athletes are more represented in America.

  3. Well put. This is a hard argument to make because it requires so much data to be convincing. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this kind of thing in "Outliers," but relates it to specific people – Bill Gates, for example.

  4. Olympic Bodies: They Just Don't Make Them Like They Used To (NPR)

    "Runners with higher centers of gravity can fall forward faster — and the taller you are, the higher your center of gravity.

    Athletes of West African descent have a center of gravity that is 3 percent higher than Europeans, and they tend to dominate sprinting events."

  5. Thanks for the comments all, and for the link Anonymous #4.

    I bet that, like the graph of height above, the centre of gravity is generally higher for those of West African decent, but that there is some overlap. However, the point I was trying to make is that people think that black people are naturally better athletes - whatever the sport.

    Maybe those of West African decent do make better sprinters - but it seems unlikely to me, as, for example, there aren't any well known Brazilian sprinters. It's the influence of being in Jamaica or USA at the moment - the systems set up there for training sprinters etc.

  6. Kenya also has another dedicated program that identifies talented recruits early, in a sport played by everybody as much as running, with a strong incentive and desire nationally and by the athletes to succeed.

    It's called soccer, and Kenya is always trounced by the west african nations.

    In genetics, there is a always a range of genes that impact a given trait or set of traits. Really good fast twitch muscles on a gigantic 400 pound man is pretty useless. There's body shapes as well, muscle/fat distribution.

    Sprinters are born, but to a lesser degree, so are elite distance runners. There are some people out there that can run far faster on a month's training than 90% of a local 10K field.

    Of course you fall back on the assumption that saying that black athletes tend to be better athletes means ALL black athletes are better than white athletes, which is stupid. Most sane people inherently understand the bell curve aspect of genetics.

  7. Wouldn't you also need to look at the proportions of people in just beneath top level compared to the top to determine the impact of genetics as well. Simply because at most levels beneath the very best hard work and upbringing will have a greater impact.

    In contrast, at the olympics, winning margins can be easily inside 1% and so any genetic advantages start to become the difference between gold, silver, bronze etc.

    Essentially, at the olympics the average distribution of characteristics in a population doesn't matter, only the distribution at the end of the scale (although social factors still enable the optimisation of those at the ends [see Jamaica]).

  8. Two Points: Your own example disproves your thesis. Compare the bell-curves for women and men...For some reason you have no difficulty admitting that men are taller (typically) than women are.

    Yet the same bell curve shows that IN-group differences between women and men are wider than the BETWEEN group differences. That does not disqualify your conclusion, in your own arguments.

    This is the same result that you quote for various genetic markers...that within-group variation exceeds between-group variation...

    but in the one context you want to claim no meaningful differences when you want to deny the role of genes.

    The gap in height for men and women which you accept and endorse as meaningful is not that different from the Racial Gaps for IQ scores and Standarized Test scores like the SATs and ACT.

    The patterns of variability are pretty much the same...but in one context you clearly admit that a genetic basis applies, but you use the very same distribution of differences to argue that NO genetic basis applies in sports or IQ or college success.

    Very self-serving analysis you have there.


    If all that explains Black athletic success is Socioeconomic, and due to sports being the way out of the ghetto, then how do you explain that American Blacks do not have much success in other athletic endeavors, like distance running and swimming...Those domains are wide open opportunities that Blacks normally do not succeed at to the same degree.

    Why don't all those Black kids who cannot make the football team try running the 5,000 meters? Running is running, isn't it? (no, but you want to claim it is).

    Like it or not, body-type plays a significant role in which sports success will be more likely to be found.

    Like it or not, there are biological/genetic factors which predispose Blacks descended from West Africans to excel in certain sports involving sprinting/jumping, while Blacks descended from East Africans excel in the stamina-related distance races.

    Your reasoning is little different from the racists when you selectively interpret data in only the way which supports your agenda.

  9. The athletes dominating the sprinting world are the decendants of West Africans that survived the slave ship journey. Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Tim Montgomery, Donovan Bailey, Leroy Burrell, Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson and the list goes on.. All descendants of West Africans who survived the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

  10. The athletes dominating the sprinting world are the decendants of West Africans that survived the slave ship journey. Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Tim Montgomery, Donovan Bailey, Leroy Burrell, Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson and the list goes on.. All descendants of West Africans who survived the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

  11. One does not see any black athelete domination in other field events such as the shotput, the hammer throw, the javilin or the discus. The reason is obvious: Speed and/or quickness is not as important in those events as strenth.
    Where speed and quickness are what is important, black atheletes dominate, period. From what I have read the reason is black athelets have more of whats called quick-twitch fiber muscles. Also according to an article in the L.A. Times many years ago, Mel Counts a 7 foot white NBA basketball player who played alongside Wilt Chamberlain on the LA Lakers team had a 7 foot reach as well. Wilt who was 7 Ft 1 had a reach the was 7 foot 10 inches (or 2 inches shy of 8 Feet) Any way you look at it, that is an avantage when going for a rebound or getting off a shot!


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