Skip to main content

Event: Is Race Really the Dominant Factor in Sprinting Prowess?


I know that the London Olympics is all done and dusted now, with the countdown to Paralympics in sight. Though while Bolt made history with his second Olympic win in the 100 metres sprint (achieved only my Carl Lewis), the discussion of black peoples presence in athletics (namely sprinting) has been the most popular topic of the Olympics.

Michael Johnson's documentary for channel 4 could be seen to have started the discussion off (or at least raising it publicly). Survival of the Fastest, to my dismay, opted to draw parallels with the world’s fastest black athletes and their country of origins connects to slavery and the slave trade. The show focused solely on male athletes from America and Jamaica. It also lacked substance since the show only offering up slavery as the reason for black people’s success on the track. The show's theory was (loosely) backed up by the work of Jamaican geneticist Dr. Rachel R. Irving, who has spent many years analysing the DNA of Jamaica’s top athletes.

Not best pleased with Johnson's TV offering and the continued ignorant debates which followed, I attended a London event just before the start of the Olympics where none other than Dr. Rachael Irving and Vilma Charlton, of the Jamaican Olympic Association, spoke candidly about the science of sprinting and if race really is a dominant factor in sprinting.

The answer to the million pound question is 'its complicated', while yes being black may give you an advantage in running, the reasons for this are just as much about ones environment and culture as opposed to our DNA.
Irving and Charlton explain the scientific breakdown to what makes a good sprinter, with indicators such as height, weight, anatomy, genetics, environment and culture all being in most cases the general rule to for good sprinters (though there are always exceptions to the rule). With this frame work both Irving and Charlton ran through how and why black athletes, particularly Jamaicans, have the advantage.

Irving's book DNA on sale at the event

Firstly the controversial stuff, DNA research. While this is a very tricky area in science to enter into, there is no denying that racial categories exist, therefore research is needed in understanding the racial properties in the different races/colours nature intended us to be. Personally I'm all for race DNA research (within reason), as I strongly believe that a good understanding of ethnicities and it diversities is detrimental in the flight against racism.
According to Dr. Irving, geneticists has identified a 'sprint gene' which can be found in all of us, though depending on the levels it exists in us is what determines whether we could be the next Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Much of the science of this 'sprint gene' went over my head, though the basics is that this gene enables a more efficient lung and muscle capacity, which comes in very handy if your a sprinter.  The controversial stuff is that black people generally test to having higher levels of this in comparison to other ethnicities. Interestingly enough this gene is said to be traceable to West Africa, which means that Caribbean and American top sprints will have had to have come from a near pedigree lineage of West African descent!

Though this is just one string in a sprinters bow, potentially having the 'sprint gene' can mean nothing if anatomically you’re not built to run, or if your culture and environment are not correct.
What is meant by environment is landscape, apparently more natural environments work in sprinters favours, it is said that Bolt's early surroundings of fresh air and the hills and pains in Jamaica’s Trelawney county helped nurture his sprinting capability. Another important factor (which some would say is the most important factor) in Bolt, Blake or Powell’s sprinting success is culture. While America endorses American football and England endorses football, Jamaica endorses track and field.
Running is a very big part of Jamaican culture, with Jamaican youth’s par taking in the competitive sport at very early ages. It’s also important to note that like American football and European football, track and field in Jamaica has the potential to give misfortunate youths 'a way out'; this can play a big part in the motivation of black athletes.

It is with this that we can understand why Jamaicans in particular are good runners; it’s also helps to explain why their West African counter parts don't do so well in the same category. Its not that West Africans can't be good sprinters it’s just that they don't nurture it as much as Jamaicans do.
Other cultural traits that can be a factor in sprinting is diet, the dietary habits of Jamaicans such as yam, various other root vegetables and fresh fruits are meant to support sprinting ability.

Charlton's book Jamaican Gold on sale at the event

The event essentially wrote the wrongs of Johnsons TV programme, instead of telling the audience why Jamaicans/black people are fast it let you make your own conclusion based of the scientific facts, observations and theories formed by professionals in the field. I also appricated the section in the presentation which discussed athletes of Jamaican origin who run for other countries, such as Linford Christie or Ben Johnson. This I felt made the talk not just more objective but also more credential.

For a girl not particularly interested in sports, I left the event feeling like one clued up spectator, I learnt about the art of running, the science of running and also that the world’s fastest man Bolt, does not typically fit the sprinter profile yet his performance on the track speaks volumes.
What I took from the talk was that it may be possible that black people are genetically predisposed to be better at pyhsical tasks such as sports like running (though more research is needed to satisfy me), though one cannot rely on DNA alone. What gives Jamaicans the upper hand in sprinting seems to be a combination of their environment and culture, which not only nurtures sprinting but also provides motivation and determination for their athletes.  

The organisers with the event speakers

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Music Review: The Weeknd Trilogy

Rarely do I buy new music these days, with it being even more of a rarity that I buy music from male artists. Reason being that I just can not stomach the lies and hypocrisy commercially viable male solo artists spin with their predictable music and unoriginal public image clashing fiercely with the reality of their private lives.

With music today being so limited in the topics sung about and (in making myself sound old - which I'm not) the lack of experience, soul and true artistry in today's predominately young artists, I was surprised and delight to find out about Canadian singer The Weeknd. I'm told that this artist has actually been around for a while, though it is only now that The Weeknd's music is reaching commercial heights with the song Wicked Games played regularly on the radio. While I have liked the song since hearing it, it wasn't until I had seen its music video that I really became interested in what this young male solo artist has to offer.

Wi…

Rise Of The Beta Male

Interesting article in last week’s Shortlist discussing the demise of the 'Alpha' male and rise of the 'Beta' male.
In a nutshell, the article was discussing recent culture changes in male behaviour and attitudes which has contributed to the emergence of the Beta male.
Beta males are smart sensitivity men who invest in their appearance, they are said to have turned their backs on the old Alpha male ways of male domination, aggression and exploitation, instead they embody intelligence, charisma and are liberal thinking. According to the article beta males are changing the way we do business!

I was pleased to see that the article had made a connection with this new male attitude and behaviour to the adaption (for the better) to the feminist movement and the study's of masculinity, since the process of women demanding and slowly achieving gender equality has encouraged many men to relieve themselves of the emotional castration once promoted as the alpha male image of…

Book Review: We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity

We Real Cool take's a deep look at black masculinity and offers up a fantastic critical analyst of the pros and cons of being a black male in the US.
Hooks acknowledges early in the book that as a female her view point on this subject maybe subjective, though We Real Cool is written with much intellect and heart. It is with great passion for her black males that Hooks writes with, saying that the lack of critical writings on the subject by black males was the catalysis for why she wrote the book.

The book is a real eye opener on the issues and daily assault out black males face and easily related to black males in the UK. Hooks dicusses black male incarceration, Hip-Hop & gang culture, black male misogyny and absentee fatherhood. As a female reader the book spoke volumes to me, and in usual fashion Hooks drew from her personal experiences and relationships with black males when writting the book. This not only helped draw parallels between the black males in my life (i.e. fat…