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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Race and Sport

What Makes a Great Olympian? Sometimes It’s Genetics

"For the last several years, West African nations—or nations with West African–descended athletes, like the United Sates, Jamaica, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago—have each turned out more elite sprinters than all of white Europe and Asia combined.

Running is the most egalitarian of sports, a natural laboratory. Unlike the props and costumes required for, say, fencing, or the intense coaching demanded of gymnastics, one can just lace up and go for a jog. Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila proved this quite memorably in the 1960 Rome Olympics, when—shoeless, coachless, and inexperienced—he won the marathon.

Theoretically, then, the medal podium for runners should resemble a rainbow of diversity. But just the opposite has happened: running has become segregated. The trends are eye-opening: Among men, athletes of African ancestry hold every major running record, from the 100m to the marathon. Of the past seven Olympics men’s 100m races, all 56 finalists have been of West African descent. Only two non-African runners, France’s Christophe Lemaire, who is white, and Australia’s Irish-aboriginal Patrick Johnson, crack the top 500 100-meter times. There are no elite sprinters who are Asian—or, intriguingly, East African.

The story of distance running is equally remarkable. Runners of West African ancestry don’t tend to do well at endurance races, which are dominated by North and East Africans—note the medal haul in London by Kenyans and Ethiopians—who themselves are often less well known for sprinting...

The director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute, Bengt Saltin, has concluded that an athlete’s “environment” accounts for no more than 25 percent of athletic ability. The rest comes down to the roll of the genetic dice—with each population group having distinct advantages. In other words, running success is “in the genes”.

Here are the facts. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types (for example, sprinters have more natural fast-twitch fibers, while distance runners are naturally endowed with more of the slow-twitch variety), reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, and lung capacity are not evenly distributed among populations...

The so-called sprint gene is more common in those of West African descent than in Europeans, according to a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics...

As UCLA’s Jared Diamond has noted, “Even today, few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject”...

Why do we readily accept that evolution has turned out Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs, Southeast Asians with a higher proclivity for beta-thalassemia, and blacks who are susceptible to colorectal cancer and sickle-cell disease, yet find it racist to suggest that Usain Bolt can thank his West African ancestry for the most critical part of his success?...

“Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small,” said Robert Malina, a retired Michigan State University anthropologist and former editor of the Journal of Human Genetics, “that if you have a 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.”

Indeed, Empirical evidence makes hash of the myth that culture makes the athlete. Look at Kenya: with but 43 million people, the country holds more than one third of top times in distance races. What explains this phenomenon? It’s in their culture, say many social scientists. Kenyans dominate distance races because they “naturally trained” as children—by running back and forth to school, for example.

“That’s just silly,” Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer told me. Kipketer currently holds eight of the 17 all-time fastest 800m times, a middle-distance track event. “I lived right next door to school,” he laughed, dismissing cookie-cutter explanations. “I walked, nice and slow.”

What motivated Kipketer to pursue running? Like most young Kenyans, while growing up Kipketer hoped that he might catch the eye of a coach who combs the countryside to find the next generation of budding stars. He had dreams of being cheered as he entered the National Stadium in Nairobi.

Only one problem: the national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channeling—that all speaks to Kenya’s enduring love affair with soccer, not running... East Africans do tend to excel at long-distance running, and many suggest that’s due to an increased natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles. That’s a perfect biomechanical package for long-distance running, but a disaster for sports that require anaerobic bursts, like sprinting or soccer...

Although people in every population come in all shapes and sizes, body types and physiological characteristics follow a distribution curve as a result of evolutionary adaptations by our ancestors to extremely varied environmental challenges. Elite sports showcase these differences.

Asians, on average, tend to be smaller with shorter extremities and long torsos—evolutionary adaptations to harsh climes encountered by Homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia 40,000 years ago. China, for example, excels in many Olympics sports, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons, according to geneticists, is that they are more flexible on average—a potential advantage in diving, gymnastics (hence the term “Chinese splits”) and figure skating.

Whites of Eurasian ancestry are mesomorphic: larger and relatively muscular bodies with comparatively short limbs and thick torsos. No prototypical sprinter or marathoner here. These proportions are advantageous in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium. Predictably, Eurasians dominate weightlifting, wrestling, and most field events, such as the shot put and hammer. At the London Olympics, with the exception of North Korea, the top lifters come from a band of Eurasian countries: China, Kazakhstan, Iran, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Despite the image of the sculpted African body, no African nation won an Olympic lifting medal."
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