Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It

By Jon Entine
Updated: November 28, 2004

Kip Keino

AGOURA HILLS, CA ” It’s Kenya’s national sport, the passion of the masses. Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers of the adoring fans that regularly crowd National Stadium in Nairobi. Coaches comb the countryside to find the next generation of potential stars. The most promising are sponsored at special schools. It’s not an exaggeration to call Kenya’s national sport a kind of national religion.

According to conventional wisdom, this is the sure cultural explanation for the phenomenal success of Kenyan distance runners. Kenya, with but 28 million people, holds more than one third of top times in distance races. Including top performances by other East Africans, that domination swells to 50 percent.

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, not running, but soccer. Despite the enormous success of Kenyan runners, running remains a relative afterthought in this soccer-crazed nation. Unfortunately, Kenyans are among the world’s worst soccer players. Countries in West Africa, home of the last two Olympic gold medal winners, Cameroon and Nigeria, regularly trounce all East African countries, including Kenya. East Africans are also lousy sprinters, which depends on quickness. Indeed, the fastest Kenyan 100-meter time, 10.28, is a half second slower than the best times of West African descended athletes.

What’s going on here? Why is every running record, from the 100 to the 400 meters held by an athlete of West African ancestry, while North and East Africans dominate the longer distances?

The convenient explanation for the tepid performance of Asians and whites in running, and whites in basketball, and increasingly football, is that blacks just work harder at it, in part to escape sometimes desperate poverty. That’s dubious — and maybe racist. Do cultural factors matter? Of course. There are no Texans, white, black or Latin, starring in the National Hockey League. But claims that blacks succeed for cultural reasons cheapens the reality that sports achievement is all about individual accomplishment — fire in the belly, hard work, courage, and serendipity. Consider Michael Jordan, who grew up in the security of a two-parent home in comfortable circumstances. Or Grant Hill, son of a Yale-educated father and a Wellesley graduate. Or one of the world’s top sprinters, Canada’s Donovan Bailey, who was certainly not motivated by a desperate need to escape destitution — he already owned his own house and a Porsche — and traded life as a successful stockbroker to pursue his dream of Olympic gold.

More and more top black athletes are from the middle-class. Moreover, as I document in my book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, the black sports tradition in America is firmly rooted in the scholar athlete tradition; almost all of the great runners, football stars, baseball players, race walkers, and bicyclers, at the turn of the century, were from top universities, usually the Ivy Leagues or Midwest state schools. The classic argument that blacks succeed in sports to escape poverty is less and less plausible and increasingly racist every day.

No amount of political correctness can obscure the reality that the Kenyans’ mediocre success in soccer (and sprinting) comes down to genetics. They are ectomorphs, short and slender, with huge natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow twitch muscles, the energy system for endurance sports. It’s a perfect biomechanical package for distance running, but a disaster for sports that require anaerobic bursts of speed.

“The Kenyans are born with a high number of slow twitch fibers,” states Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute and author of a September Scientific American article on why athletes are more “born” than “made.” East Africans “have 70 to 75 percent of their muscle fibers being slow… Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role. But we argue based on the data that it is “in your genes” whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented. ” There is no question about that. The extent of the environment can always be discussed, but it’s less than 20, 25 percent. It’s definitely a dominant factor, [that is to say,] how they are born.”

Of course, neither culture nor genes alone determines who will become great athletes. It’s biocultural. Taboo documents the wholly uncontroversial fact that different body types have evolved in differing environments over thousands of years: Inuit Indians (Eskimos), biologically programmed to be short to conserve body heat, do not produce NBA centers after relocating to southern Florida. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics, such as skeletal structure, muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, and lung capacity, are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors.

“Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small,” notes Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology, “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.” Genetically based, anatomical differences help explain why athletes of primarily West African ancestry hold 97 percent of top sprint times, including 494 of the top 500 100-meter times, yet are not very good at endurance sports, which requires a much different physiology.

The body type of whites falls in between West African descended and East African athletes. They have more natural upper-body strength, which contributes to their domination of weightlifting, field events such as the shot put and hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws), and the offensive line in football. Where flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events — hence the term “Chinese splits.”

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative mental disease, Tay-Sachs, and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world’s best sprinters and East Asians, the best divers?

Genes circumscribe possibility. “I believe that we need to look at the causes of differences in athletic performance between races as legitimately as we do when we study differences in diseases between the various races,” notes Claude Bouchard, geneticist and director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. “I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. [Critical inquiry] is the greatest safeguard against prejudice.”

Indeed, if we do not welcome the impending genetic revolution with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner. We all lose. The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue but to what end. “If decent people don’t discuss human biodiversity,” writes George Mason professor Walter Williams, who is black, “we concede the turf to black and white racists.”