“The blacks, physically, are made better.”
—Carl Lewis, nine-time Olympic gold medal winner in track and field.
In most sports, they form the foundation of victory. Nowhere is this more cut and dry than in sprinting, where legacies often boil down to a matter of milliseconds.
Few athletes in history have developed more efficient fast-twitch muscles than four top track stars in this year’s Olympics: Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay. In 100 meter races, they have produced the top 21 performances ever. In the 200m, they had notched nine of the top 11 times.
In London, though, Europe’s fastest man is expected to loosen this quartet’s vice grip on the world’s biggest stage. 22-year-old Christophe Lemaitre enters Thursday's Olympic 200m and a following 4X100m relay with one of the event’s most intriguing stories. Lemaitre didn’t even start sprinting until age 15. In the next five years, he demolished one record after another in his native France while growing to 6-feet-3.
At a 2010 meet, Lemaitre became the first white European or American to run 100 meters under 10 seconds. His 9.98 time was good, but far off Bolt’s 9.58 world record. Still, Lemaitre had proven himself as a clear exception to a rule that had become more and more ironclad since south Arkansas native Jim Hines first broke the 10-second barrier in the 1968 Olympics: black sprinters dominate.
Is there value in discussing the race of Olympic sprinters?
I admit it: A vast slippery slope stretches before us. Many people, Lemaitre included, hesitate to even bring up racial barriers in a Western society which strives for meritocracy. In November, 2011, he told the New York Times he feels it’s possible the black monopoly on track has built “a bit of a psychological barrier” for some aspiring white athletes and that his performance could help “advance and make the statement that it has nothing to do with the color of your skin and it’s just a question of work and desire and ambition.”
Lemaitre’s sentiments had already been espoused by the college coach of Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson (fourth all-time in the 200m) and Jeremy Wariner, a white 400m champion.
“White kids think that it’s a black kid's sport, that blacks are superior,” Baylor University’s Clyde Hart (a Hot Springs native) told Sports Illustrated in 2004.”There are plenty of white kids with fast-twitch fibers, but they’ve got to get off their rumps. Too many of them would rather go fast on their computers in a fantasy world. It’s not about genes, although they may play some part in it. It’s about ‘Do you want it badly enough?’”
No matter how badly we as Americans want to believe it, we know there’s more to success than willpower and work ethic. We know these attributes don’t develop in a vacuum. Nurture has something to do with it. So does nature. Indeed, some scientists believe they have pinned the ratio in regards to foot speed. According to the director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute, an athlete's “environment” can account for 20 to 25 percent of his speed, but the the rest is determined before birth.
To figure out nature’s role in such a complicated field like heredity, I don’t hesitate using science as a guide. Then again, my race wasn’t the target of the 19th and early 20th century “science” which disparaged it as lazy, stupid and weak to point of subhumanity. Racist propaganda filling medical journals from this era was a major reason the Civil Rights Era didn’t arrive until nearly a century after Emancipation.
Certainly, science is still subject to its practitioners’ biases. All the same, I believe modern scientists—products of the Civil Rights Era—are far more willing and able to acquire results closer to the truth than, say, 100 years ago.
This matters because some people believe anti-black agenda still undermines some science, even when its results indicate black superiority in certain sports: “The whole idea is to convince black people that they’re superior in some areas - sports - and therefore by definition must be inferior in other areas,” African- American track coach Brook Johnson said in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. “It’s interesting the white people always have the best talent in the areas that pay the best money.”
Much of today’s race research involves genetics. One common theory in this arena, reiterated by Michael Johnson last month, postulates today’s superior athletes benefit from a “superior athletic gene” that emerged from centuries of descendants surviving extremely trying conditions in trans-Atlantic voyages and work as slaves. Some anthropologists, however, discount the idea that body types emerging in certain slaves have led to a difference in athletic ability.
Another commonly held theory maintains blacks have anatomical features that provide a built-in advantage in some aerobic sports.
By 1984, there had been more than 200 studies comparing the physique and body composition of athletes, according to Taboo by journalist Jon Entine. The results, according to Entine, found people with West African ancestry generally have: faster patellar tendon reflex in the knee; bigger, more developed overall musculature; narrower hips, lighter calves; significantly higher levels of plasma testosterone and a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate to more explosive energy.
Some scientists vehemently disagree with Entine, though. Dr. Yannis Pitsalidis, who works at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, doesn’t put much stock in the existence of genetically homogeneous groups defined by skin color. “It is estimated that the level of genetic diversity between human populations is not large enough to justify the use of the term 'race',” Pitsalidis wrote in an e-mail. If “race” as a biologically valid term doesn’t hold water, nor would the idea of athletic superiority between them.
Still, it’s clear some mix of nature and nurture makes Christophe Lemaitre the increasingly rare exception. Why shy away from this? “It’s the exaggeration, not the core of the truth, that stirs the ire,” Entine wrote. “The difficulty, of course, is sorting out how much of a trait is genetically inbred, how much may be shaped by the environment, and what is just plain poppycock.”
It’s worth the effort, and better than the uninformed alternative—reflexive anger, hatred or disgust.
Yes, debate surrounds the definition of the word “race” itself. More important than settling on a bullet-proof definition, though, is simply caring what that word means to each other. There is healing in the act of trying to understand how differences in skin color can affect how we see the world.
Real, honest dialogue is a platform for the elevation of our entire society—a process that demands listening and thinking in lieu of instant reactions.
This isn’t a contest.
Follow this column's award-winning author here. The piece was originally published in Sync magazine.