The Story Behind the Amazing Success of Black Athletes, by Jon Entine

The Race to the Swift or the Swift to the Race

Here's a safe prediction: all of the athletes who line up at the final of the men's 100-meter sprint in Sydney trace their ancestry to West Africa. It's also unlikely than any sprinter other than one with West African roots will ever again hold the unofficial title of "world's fastest human." Even more startlingly, athletes who trace their ancestry to Africa, home to roughly 1 in 8 of the world population, or 800 million people, dominate elite sprinting and road racing: an athlete of African origin holds every major world running record.

The controversial question is why?

To many sociologists, the answer is 'racism'. "What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way," comments Harry Edwards of University of California/Berkeley, "is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make up than they are to the rest of humanity. And that's where the indignity comes in."

Most hard scientists take a different view. "If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," says biological anthropologist Vincent Sarich, also of Berkeley, "then you could probably be led to believe just about anything."

What are the scientific facts? What is behind the extraordinary reality that over the past 30 years, as equality of opportunity has steadily increased in sports, spreading to vast sections of Asia and Africa, equality of results on the playing field has actually declined. Greater opportunity has led to greater inequality in performance at the elite level between ethnic groups in a range of sports.

  • Blacks of exclusively West African ancestry make up 13 percent of the North American and Caribbean population but 40 percent of Major League baseball players, 70 percent of the NFL, and 85 percent of professional basketball.
  • Nigeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, and South Africa have emerged as soccer powers. Africans have also become fixtures in Europe's top clubs even with sharp restrictions on signing foreign players. In England, which was slow to allow foreigners and has a black population of less than 2 percent, one in five soccer players in the Premiership is black.
  • From Wales to South Africa, rugby has been played almost exclusively by whites because of historical social restrictions and taboos-except in New Zealand where Maori and Pacific Islanders have risen to the top ranks far out of proportion to their numbers. Maori women have also become the stars in netball, which demands extraordinary quickness.
  • The outsized success of Australian athletes with primarily Aboriginal genes in running, tennis, boxing, and rugby and a recent six-fold surge in the number of Aboriginal players in the Australian Football League.

Are these purely cultural phenomena as socially-acceptable wisdom suggests? And why is this subject so taboo?


Athletic achievement has long been a Catch-22 for blacks. When an athlete lost a running, it encouraged racist notions that blacks were an inferior race, too frail to handle the challenge and not smart enough to plan a race strategy. But winning only reinforced the equally pernicious stereotype that blacks were less evolved than whites or Asians. That is the fate that befell Jesse Owens after he shocked the 1936 Olympics, held in the capital of Hitler's Germany. His four gold medals were subtly devalued as a product of his "natural" athleticism.

The racist stereotype of the "animalistic black" is rooted in hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, and racism. In the nineteenth century, white Europeans were enraptured by pseudosciences such as phrenology. Racial and ethnic groups were ranked by skull size that supposedly proved that white males were intellectually superior. Jews, blacks, and other minorities were targets of the most egregious generalizations, usually associated with physical characteristics and intellectual prowess.

Since World War II, in an understandable reaction to extremist race theories that provided intellectual fuel for Nazism, it has been widely held that the very concept of race is a meaningless social construct. "Race science" as it was then called, was based largely on the notion of skin color, which scientists had come to realize explained only a tiny fraction of the evolutionary history of the genes that make us human. And since the world's major populations separated only an eye blink of historical time ago - from 5,000 to 100,000 years ago - many scientists also came to believe that natural selection could not have generated anything more than superficial differences like skin color. Those beliefs fed the stereotype that athletic success was entirely social and cultural - the product of hard work and opportunity, with population genetics playing no significant role.

Now science can definitively state that the post WWII anthropological orthodoxy - what is referred to as environmental determinism - is clearly wrong. The genetics revolution now sweeping the world has decisively overturned this belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa for experience to write upon. Evidence spilling forth from the Human Genome Project shows that some functional characteristics do differentiate population clusters - most clearly in the proclivity to certain diseases and in athletic ability - although the classic racial trichotomy of sub-Saharan black/European white/Asian is indeed fuzzy around the edges and potentially misleading.

How have racial differences evolved?

Although the move out of Africa by modern humans to Europe and Asia occurred rather recently in evolutionary time, scientists now know that in relatively few generations, even small, chance mutations can trigger a chain reaction with cascading consequences resulting in significant racial differences or possibly even the creation of new species. Economic ravages, natural disasters, genocidal pogroms, and geographical isolation caused by mountains, oceans, and deserts, have deepened these differences over time. This is the endless loop of genetics and culture, nature and nurture.

Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors. Scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to biologically-based differences, most notably in isolating the causes of population specific diseases such as Tay-Sachs, which afflicts Jews, and sickle cell, which targets blacks.

Popular thinking still lags this genetic revolution. "Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," notes Robert Malina, a Michigan State University physical anthropologist and 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."

Although scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to those biologically-based differences, it is indisputable that they exist. Each sport demands a slightly different mix of biomechanical, anaerobic, and aerobic abilities. Athletes from each region of the world tend to excel in specific events as a result of evolutionary adaptations to extremely different environments that became encoded in the genes.

Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting, wrestling and all field events, such as the shot-put and hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws). Evolutionary forces in this northern clime have shaped a population with a mesomorphic body type - large and muscular, particularly in the upper body, with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage, particularly in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium.

East Asians tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat, evolutionary adaptations to harsh climes encountered by Homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia about 40,000 years ago. As a result, athletes from this region are somewhat slower and less strong than whites or blacks, but more flexible on average - a key potential advantage in diving and some events in gymnastics (hence the term "Chinese splits") and figure skating. That anthropometric reality severely hampers Asians from being great sprinters or leapers: not one Asian male or female high jumper makes the top 50 all-time. It should come as no surprise that the world's most remarkable ultra-endurance runners, the 4,000 or so Native American Tarahumara of Mexico, have East Asian ancestry.

The cluster of islands that straddle the international date line in the South Pacific, including Somoa and American Somoa, have funneled hundreds of players into American football and Australian rugby. Polynesia is a hotbed of human biodiversity. More than likely, its inhabitants trace their ancestry to southern Asia by way of Africa. Polynesians, especially the Samoans, are amongst the worlds most mesomorphic body types. A number of studies have shown that muscle bulk and the degree of muscularity especially in the thigh and buttock are important predictors of success in rugby players whereas the opposite applies in such sports as distance running. This genetic admixture helps in part explain why athletes from this region are large, agile, and fast.


Africa is the world's sports hothouse. With the breaking of Sebastian Coe's 18-year-old 1,000-meter world record in 1999 by Kenyan Noah Ngeny, every men's world record at every commonly-run track distance belongs to a runner of African descent.

World Running Records

distance athlete time date ancestral origin
100-meters Maurice Greene (USA) 9.79 6/16/99 West Africa
4x100m Relay Marsh, Burrell, Mitchell, Lewis (USA) 37.40 8/8/92 West Africa
110m Hurdles Colin Jackson (GRB) 12.91 8/20/93 West Africa
200m Michael Johnson (USA) 19.32 8/1/96 West Africa
400m Michael Johnson (USA) 43.18 8/26/99 West Africa
4x400m Relay Young, Pettigrew, Washington, Johnson (USA) 2:54.20 7/22/98 West Africa
400m Hurdles Kevin Young (USA) 46.78 8/6/92 West Africa
800m Wilson Kipketer (KEN) 1:41.11 8/24/97 East Africa
1,000m Noah Ngeny (KEN) 2:11.96 9/5/99 East Africa
1,500m Hicham El Guerrouj (MOR) 3:26:00 7/15/98 North Africa
Mile Hicham El Guerrouj (MOR) 3:43:13 7/7/99 North Africa
3,000m Steeplechase Bernard Bermasai (KEN) 7:55.72 8/24/97 East Africa
5,000m Halle Gebrselassie (ETH) 12:39.36 6/13/98 East Africa
10,000m Halle Gebrselassie (ETH) 26:22.75 6/3/98 East Africa
Marathon Khalid Khannouchi (MOR) 2:05:42 10/25/99 North Africa

While Africa is the mother-lode of the running world, talent is not evenly distributed across the continent but is concentrated in three areas: a swath of western African coastal states, notably Senegal, Nigeria, and Cameroon, extending south to Namibia; the northern African countries of Algeria and Morocco; and a long stretch of eastern African states from Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya to mountainous South Africa. However, there are a range of structural traits shared by genetically-diverse African athletes: low body fat, longer legs in comparison to the rest of their bodies, and narrow hips.

Although sub-Saharan Africans share many characteristics, different environments also have left distinctive evolutionary footprints. Athletes who trace their ancestry to western Africa, which has been geographically, and genetically, somewhat isolated from the north (by the harsh desert climate) and the east (by the Great Rift Valley) - are the world's premier speedsters and jumpers. Studies have shown that athletes of West African origin hit a biomechanical wall after about 45 seconds of intense, anaerobic activity (distances longer than 400-meters in sprinting and all measurable distances in swimming, in which Africans are believed to be genetically disadvantage on average) when aerobic skills come into play.

Such absolute domination is even more remarkable considering that African athletes have clearly had less access to the latest in sports medicine, technology, coaching, and opportunity. Yet it is indisputable that the highest level of athleticism among males athletes is disproportionately linked to Africa. For all practical reality, men's world championship events might as well post a sign declaring, "whites need not apply."

Remember the last time a non-black set the men's world record in the 100-meter sprint? One has to go back to 1960, when German Armin Hary won the Olympic gold medal in 10.2 seconds. The best time by a white 100-meter runner is 10 seconds, which ranks well below two hundred on the all-time list. There are also no sprinters of note from Asia, which has more than 55 percent of the world's population, even with the Confucian and Tao traditions of discipline and an authoritarian sports system in the most populous country, China.

Today, blacks of West African ancestry monopolize the 100 meter distance. They are quicker out of the starting blocks and demonstrate blazing speed. Former "world's fastest human" Donovan Bailey clocked a mind-bending 27 miles per hour at the mid-point of his record-breaking sprint at the Atlanta Olympics. Dozens of blacks have cracked the 10-second barrier. While blacks of West African ancestry hold the fastest two hundred 100-meter times, all under 10 seconds (which no white, Asian or East African has ever broken) they are hapless at longer distances that demand endurance.

All of the thirty-two finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races are of West African descent. The likelihood of that based on population numbers alone-blacks with ancestral roots in that region represent 8 percent of the world's population - is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001 percent.

There have been a small handful of non-West African 200- and 400-meter runners over the years. In 1979 Italy's Pietro Mennea shattered the 200-meter record running 19.72 seconds, still the best time by a non-African. Although he ran in Mexico City's 7,300 foot altitude and was aided by a tailwind of 90 percent of the allowable limit, Mennea's moment-in-the-sun is invoked as "proof" that whites can run as fast as blacks. Mennea's record held for seventeen years before being pulverized in 1996 by Michael Johnson in a stunning 19.32, an improvement of more than 2 percent, an unheard of breakthrough in sprinting. Intriguingly, Mennea traces part of his own ancestry to Africa. Many southern Europeans, who are disproportionately stand-outs in running, trace a significant percentage of their genes to Africa as a result of interbreeding.

Whether or not genes confer a competitive advantage on blacks when it comes to stealing bases, running with the football, shooting hoops, or jumping hurdles remains the $64,000 question. Since the first known study of differences between blacks and white athletes in 1928, the data have been remarkably consistent: in most sports, African-descended athletes have the capacity to do better with their raw skills than whites. Blacks with a West African ancestry generally have:

  • relatively less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs and proportionately more lean body and muscle mass, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps, and bigger, more developed musculature in general;
  • denser, shallower chests;
  • higher center of gravity, generally shorter sitting height, narrower hips, and lighter calves;
  • longer arm span and "distal elongation of segments" - the hand is relatively longer than the forearm, which in turn is relatively longer than the upper arm; the foot is relatively longer than the tibia (leg), which is relatively longer than the thigh;
  • faster patellar tendon reflex;
  • greater body density, which is likely due to higher bone mineral density and heavier bone mass at all stages in life, including infancy (despite evidence of lower calcium intake and a higher prevalence of lactose intolerance, which prevents consumption of dairy products);
  • modestly, but significantly, higher levels of plasma testosterone (3-19 percent), which is anabolic, theoretically contributing to greater muscle mass, lower fat, and the ability to perform at a higher level of intensity with quicker recovery;
  • a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy.

Relative advantages in these physiological and biomechanical characteristics are a gold mine for athletes who compete in such anaerobic activities as football, basketball, and sprinting, sports in which West African blacks clearly excel. However, they also pose problems for athletes who might want to compete as swimmers (heavier skeletons and smaller chest cavities could be drags on performance) or in cold-weather and endurance sports. Central West African athletes are more susceptible to fatigue than whites and East Africans, in effect making them relatively poor candidates for aerobic sports.

White athletes appear to have a physique between central West Africans and East Africans. They have more endurance but less explosive running and jumping ability than West Africans; they tend to be quicker than East Africans but have less endurance.

Still, it should not be forgotten that ancestry is not destiny. "From a biomechanical perspective, the answer is 'yes,' race and ethnicity do matter," says Lindsay Carter, a physical anthropologist at San Diego State University who has studied thousands of Olympic-level athletes over the years. "All of the large-scale studies show it, and the data goes back more than a hundred years." But he adds a critical caveat. It is critical to remember that no individual athlete can succeed without the X factor - the lucky spin of the roulette wheel of genetics matched with considerable dedication and sport smarts. "There are far too many variables to make blanket statements about the deterministic quality of genetics," Carter says. "Nature provides an average advantage, yes. But that says nothing about any individual competitor."

Continue on to Part II

Jon Entine is the author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It."

© 2000 by Jon Entine. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. For more of Entine's work and reviews, visit his site at