So Greg has made it clear that he doesn’t think that there’s any genetic basis for why some groups of people are able run very far, very fast. At the core of this are so-called “racial traits”. Any casual observer of the Olympics will note the dominance of people with dark skin in distance running races, and might lead them to the simplistic notion that “dark people can run really fast”. I agree that that is rather goofy, but the arguments are off the rails in a few places. A case has not been made that there is no genetic basis for this phenomenon.
First, let’s be clear. In the past few decades the dominance of distance runners from the region around the horn of Africa is striking. Look at any world-class race from 1500 meters on up to the marathon and you’ll see win after win and record after record attributed to athletes from countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. And it’s not just the top placings, it’s the depth. Take a look at the 3000 meter steeplechase and count the Kenyans. In contrast, how many people not from this area have gone under 13:00 for 5000 meters? I can only think of three: Bob Kennedy, USA; Dieter Baumann, Germany; Craig Mottram, Australia; all in the 12:50s, yet the world record stands at 12:37.35 by Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia (and before that, 12:39 from Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, and so on). The same situation is echoed in the 10000 meters. This is not to say that their dominance is total. There are notable performances by some Moroccan athletes as well as Paula Radcliffe’s (UK) truly stellar women’s marathon best, but it is far easier to note the exceptions in this situation!
So, we know that these folks are very good, but let’s look at a few of Greg’s comments:
At this point, I’ll add only this one question: Why are we not writing about the Romanian gene for long distance running in women? I know there was only one Marathon winner, but she won by a LOT of distance. Does that not make it more likely to be genetic, because moreness = geneticness? What about the gene in Americans for gymnastics? Or Beach Volleyball?
Nothing against Romanian distance runners or Constantina Dita in particular, but we cannot point to a single race result and expect that to repel the depth of counter wins and depth of performances. After all, who won the men’s marathon this year? What were the placings for second, third, fourth? (Hint: Kenya and Ethiopia figure strongly to say the least) Further, I’d venture that Dita won due to some great tactics, mainly because the chase group felt she took off early and would fade (something that has happened in the past). Fortunately for her, she didn’t fade, and by the time the chase pack realized this, it was too late for them to respond.
As far as the comparison to beach volleyball or gymnastics is concerned, that’s a non-starter. Distance running is all about conditioning and is very short on technique. In other words, you can get quite far on raw, natural talent. The same is not true in sports such as gymnastics, swimming, or the like because of the need for specialized facilities and good coaching. Unlike running, technique is extremely important in these sports and it needs to be learned from people in the know. You could have the perfect physique for gymnastics, but if you don’t have access to apparatus and coaching, you’re going nowhere.
This bit gets under my skin (no pun intended):
The answer to these absurd questions is also absurd, yet true: When black people run, white people take notice. When black people run fast, white people, alarmed, find naturalistic (= as in animals) explanations. But when a group of white people excel (beach volley ball or gymnastics) personal stories of heroics are used to explain the result. Shame.(emphasis in original)
Who are these people that make such claims? As both a spectator and practitioner of the sport, I read a lot about runners and running. A casual look at magazines such as Running Times will point out that, regardless of skin color, the approach is almost always on personal heroics, not naturalistic explanations. For example, consider the cases of Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, and Lopes Lomong, all US Olympic distance runners that came to the US as children (Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, respectively). In all of the articles that I have read about them over the years, I have never seen their prowess explained away due to some genetic superiority. The focus has always been on their “personal stories of heroics”. I’m not saying that no one ever says “He’s fast because he’s black”, but there will always be dumb people saying dumb things, and that doesn’t validate sweeping generalizations.
And so we come to:
So, now we have it. The gene, how it works, what it does. This must explain why all of those Africans win all those races, and why so many elite American athletes are African-American.
The social and economic explanations are no longer as needed. The fact that almost all African elite long distance runners were born and raised one or more miles above sea level and thus developed tremendous lung capacity is no longer as important. Finally, we have a benign race gene for … well, racing.
Huh? What? Oh, that was the “no, that’s wrong” buzzer going off….
Riiight. It’s all because they were raised and train at altitude. Nope. That can’t be it because many coaches, trainers and exercise physiologists noted this many years ago and began prescribing altitude training for their athletes. Some athletes respond well to it, some don’t. Some even simulate “everyday altitude” through the use special low-oxygen sleeping tents, but still, it’s folks from that previously-mentioned pool of humans who consistently outperform the remainder of the contestants. Besides, there are athletes from other parts of the world who were born and raised at altitude and are not “top of the heap”. And who ever said that there had to be a gene for running fast and far?
I don’t think this issue is settled, far from it. I always remind myself that there have been periods when specific groups of people have dominated specific sports (such as the Scandinavian distance runners of the early-mid 20th century). On the other hand, the prevalence of distance runners from the Horn of Africa region has been on-going and deep. I tend to think that there may be some socio-cultural aspects to this, as in one athlete thinking of another “Well, we come from the same background, so if he can set a record, so can I”. After all, “getting your head straight” is extremely important when you’re looking for peak athletic performance. But it might turn out that some odd combination of factors, such as the ratio of tibia length to femur length, body fat distribution, or what-have-you, may be just enough to tip the balance at the edge of sport. I don’t really know. All I can say is that I’m not willing to count out genetic factors just yet.