Is it in the Genes?


By S.L. PRICE – Dec 8, 1997 – Sports Illustrated archives

The best athletes on the planet are black. Stop the conversation
right there and few will argue the point. It’s always the next
comment that burns down the house. For if there were no want or
need to decide why blacks have come to dominate the sporting
scene, a lot of old white men would not have disgraced
themselves. Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder wouldn’t have been fired by
CBS in 1988 for proffering a half-baked theory based on the
breeding practices of slave owners. Dale Lick, whose hope for
the presidency of Michigan State sank in 1993, might be in East
Lansing today had he not once said, “The muscle structure of the
black athlete typically is more suited for certain positions in
football and basketball.” And Jack Nicklaus, who dismissed the
absence of blacks in golf by saying, “Blacks have different
muscles that react in different ways,” wouldn’t cringe each time
he sees Tiger Woods tee off.

The urge to explain the black domination of sports has stained
so many careers that it’s a topic few want to touch. “Most
people are afraid of dealing with the subject, afraid of being
labeled,” says David Hunter, an exercise physiologist and head
of the department of health and physical education at Hampton
(Va.) University, who recently completed a survey of studies of
race and sports in this century. But, Hunter notes, “if we say,
‘This might cause problems, let’s not study it,’ we simply
perpetuate whatever thoughts we’ve had.”

The “problems” Hunter speaks of stem from the longstanding fear
that casual theorizing about black physical superiority will
inevitably–if illogically–lead to the kind of negative
stereotyping found in the 1994 book The Bell Curve, by Richard
J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which suggested that blacks
aren’t as smart as whites. But scientists such as Hunter argue
that if we’re willing to concede a genetic predisposition to
sickle-cell anemia or the early onset of adolescence among black
girls, then we should at least discuss the possibility that
blacks have physical traits that give them an advantage over
whites in sports.

As blacks, who constitute 13% of the U.S. population, have
become the overwhelming majority in the NBA and the NFL and at
the elite levels of some other sports, the issue has reached the
mainstream press. In 1992 Runner’s World magazine printed a
story titled “White Men Can’t Run” that cited a variety of
scientific studies–most of which found physiological
differences between racial groups–that may explain why blacks
dominate both sprinting and long-distance running. In 1995 Roger
Bannister, a respected physician and the first man to run a
sub-four-minute mile, helped bring the debate further into the
open. “As a scientist rather than a sociologist,” Bannister
said, “I am prepared to risk political incorrectness by drawing
attention to the seemingly obvious but understressed fact that
black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have
certain natural anatomical advantages. Perhaps there are
anatomical advantages in the length of the Achilles’ tendon, the
longest tendon in the body.” He also mentioned blacks’ “relative
lack of subcutaneous fatty insulating tissue in the skin” as a
possible physiological advantage. Then last May, in The New
Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell advanced a genetic argument in
support of the notion that blacks are athletically superior.
Clearly, the genie is out of the bottle.

Most scientists who study the subject, however, reject the
simplistic reasoning that if blacks dominate sports, they must
inherently be better athletes. “You’ve got to be very careful
generalizing from the athletic population to the broader
population,” says Robert Malina, director of the Institute for
the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State. “Athletes are
probably the most rigorously selected segment of our population,
the cream of the crop. They are statistically aberrant.”

Hunter, who is black, is a practitioner of hard science who
believes what social scientists believe: that social forces–the
emphasis on certain sports in black communities, the conviction
that sports offer one of the few avenues to success for
America’s racial underclass–play the major role in the
development of athletic excellence. But Hunter also has one foot
planted in the other, more controversial camp. He knows that
there are observable and quantifiable physical differences
between black and white Americans, and he wonders if they
provide an advantage in sports.

Generally accepted research has shown that African-American
children tend to have denser bones, narrower hips, bigger
thighs, lower percentages of body fat, and longer legs in
relation to their upper bodies than white kids, and tests have
also shown that they run faster and jump higher. That a
combination of narrow hips, powerful thighs, low body fat and
long legs seems perfect for sprinting and jumping has been lost
on no one looking to explain black excellence at those skills.

Top athletes, however, don’t always conform to laboratory
theories. The physical differences found between black and white
Americans are interesting–and perhaps telling–but until large
numbers of elite athletes are studied, it is irresponsible to
declare that one physical trait accounts for the minute margin
that separates the sprinter who sets a world record from the one
who finishes 10th. Carl Lewis may be tall, long-legged and
narrow-hipped, but in his prime he was beaten four times by Ron
Brown, who was noticeably shorter and stockier.

“It’s that logic–Aha! We found a difference! African-Americans
have narrower pelvic girdles!–that most people fall into,”
Hunter says. “But if you test whether, independent of race, a
narrower pelvic girdle is a predictor of speed, even though it’s
a tremendous theoretical model, it doesn’t hold true. Not
everyone in the NBA, whether he’s African-American or Caucasian,
is 6’6″, and not everyone has a certain percentage of fat.
There’s not a single characteristic that is unique and always
present and responsible for the performance. If there were, I’d
be able to predict at an early age who should go into certain
[sports]. I’d be a billionaire.” At the same time, Hunter
acknowledges that a variety of physiological factors contribute
to an athlete’s success, and that the lack of one of those
characteristics in a successful athlete does not disprove its

The study of race and athletic performance is best described as
intriguing but immature. Geneticist Claude Bouchard of Laval
University in Quebec has determined that certain human athletic
traits, such as anaerobic power and training capacity, have a
powerful genetic component, suggesting that, to a significant
extent, athletes are born, not made. One Bouchard study that
compared black West Africans with white French Canadians found a
higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers and anaerobic
enzymes–both thought to be essential to explosive sprinting–in
the West Africans, but Bouchard is the first to point out that
he was not studying athletes. Until he does, he can only
speculate about how the differences he found relate to athletic

Others who have performed studies have come away convinced that
there is a marked difference in performance between the black
and white groups they examined. They just can’t say why.
Gladwell’s New Yorker essay used as its foundation the work of
Yale geneticist Kenneth Kidd, which found that the DNA of black
Africans contains more genetic variation than is present in the
peoples of all the other continents combined; from this finding
Kidd theorized that a higher than expected percentage of black
Africans–and their descendants in the Americas–would have rare
genetic combinations of one sort or another, including the
combinations that would endow them with exceptional athletic
talent (or an exceptional lack of athletic talent). Swedish
scientist Bengt Saltin, whose comparison of Kenyan and Swedish
distance runners found the Kenyans’ muscles better suited to
that athletic test, believes the difference could be caused as
much by the Kenyans’ high-altitude environment as by genetic
factors. Tim Noakes, the South African sports physician whose
testing of black and white South African marathoners showed that
the blacks possessed higher levels of energy-producing enzymes
in their muscles, allowing them to train harder longer, isn’t
sure whether the cause of that difference is genetic or

Hunter performed studies that, in lab testing, showed no
difference in anaerobic power between black and white children.
His field testing of the same group showed that the black
children jumped higher than the whites by an average of some
10%. “The phenomenon of African-Americans performing better than
whites in certain areas does exist, and it is worth studying,”
Hunter says. “But we don’t have the answers yet, and it would be
irresponsible for us to make them up.”

Sums up Malina: “The scientific basis is just not that
extensive.” Especially when you consider that black may be the
most slippery term in the debate. West Africans and Kenyans are
both black, yet the first are thought to have bodies perfect for
sprinting, while the Kenyans are distance legends. That the
African continent may hold more genetic variants than anywhere
else in the world would help explain this divergence. But what
about the differences between either of those groups and

Though most black Americans descend from slaves taken from
western Africa, 90% have some white ancestry, which renders the
terms black and white particularly imprecise when applied to
African-Americans. Does the fact that an NBA player like the
very light-skinned Doug Christie, who may well be more white
than black, can leap just as high and with as much body control
as the dark-skinned Dominique Wilkins prove that it’s wrong to
assume that blacks are inherently better jumpers than whites? Or
does it suggest that even a small degree of black ancestry
confers upon someone the genetic variation that can lead to
exceptional athletic ability?

As is the case with so many other questions about race and
athletic performance, scientists do not yet have definitive
answers. Given the logistical difficulty of testing large groups
of top athletes under laboratory conditions, and the complexity
held within the 100,000 genes that shape a person’s
characteristics, the only safe conclusion is this: Sports’
nature-versus-nurture debate is a long way from being resolved.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Credit nature or nurture–or both–but 95% of the starters in the last two NBA All-Star Games were black. [Overhead view of four basketball players in game]

B/W PHOTO: BOB MARTIN One theory suggests that black Africans’ genetic diversity could be a key to their running talent–and to the athleticism of so many African-Americans. [Three Kenyan runners]

B/W PHOTO: DUOMO/WILLIAM R. SALLAZ Studies have found black children to have longer legs, narrower hips and greater jumping ability than whites. [Four basketball players]

B/W PHOTO: JOHN HUET [See caption above–children on soccer field]

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