Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Maybe Running Far and Fast IS Genetic

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.

BBBZZZZZZEERRRRKKKKKK
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.

Comments

  1. #1 SimonG
    August 24, 2008

    I think that cost could be quite a major consideration. Running is cheap. Sure: at the highest level there are a lot of resources required – coaches, physios, dieticians etc – but you can start running without having to spend much money. That means that poorer communities can have a much greater pool of potential talent.

    The same factor probably accounts for the South American prowess at soccer. All kids need is a ball of some sort and a patch of ground and they can start developing their skills. Some African nations have been getting better at soccer recently, too.

    In the richer nations, black people are often economically disadvantaged. For them, sports can be a relatively cheap leisure outlet, with the added advantage of being a way to acheive wealth and/or status.

    Interestingly, in the English soccer leagues, black players have had a lot of difficulty getting into the highest levels; cricket likewise although it’s changing in both sports I’m glad to say.

    This is not something which could easily be investigated, but it does suggest to me though that cultural and economic factors are more important than any genetic advantage.

    Oh: one other thing. What proportion of the world’s population is black/coloured/whatever? And what proportion of those involved in athletics as children?

  2. #2 Gail
    August 24, 2008

    Wasn’t there considerable noise in the press, when, several years ago, some commentator mentioned that black people (or Africans) were genetically better at running? My memory is very fuzzy; but I do recall that the guy who said so was pilloried in the media for being a racist.

    I would also think that culture and economics are important. In the USA (and many European countries, and Canada), there are many ways to make a decent, comfortable living. Much of Africa is poverty-stricken; so perhaps, if the medal and championship winning runners are economically rewarded, there is a strong incentive for more individuals to dedicate their lives to run.

    Could a case be made for stronger runners and walkers being selected for in various African countries due to their not having as many cars as other parts of the world? That wouldn’t account for a predominance of black American runners, though.

  3. #3 Temaharay
    August 24, 2008

    “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”

    I think Greg is 100% right with his quote. People (even scientists) don’t see Africans as individuals but as a member of “the homogeneous black race.” This why we get so many people trying to prove the “otherness” and the “sameness” of anybody who has the least bit of ancestry from any corner of Africa.

  4. #4 Temaharay
    August 24, 2008

    To be clear. I’m not saying that I think those who are good at what they do (long/short distance running or whatever) are not affected by their genes.

    It’s just when people pull that: “Blacks, as a racial group, are known for X. Why? It’s their shared racial genes.” that is what causes most people to call out “shenanigans!”.

    You have to be VERY clear in what your saying!

  5. #5 Doug Alder
    August 24, 2008

    It’s evolution at work. Look at the historical plains cultures in Africa – Masai warriors, as an example, who could run for days without hardly stopping, and the importance of historical and anthropological importance of stamina and running (hunting widely dispersed prey for example) in those cultures. If you accept Darwinian theory then you have to accept that selection for the ability to run long and fast was of critical importance to survivability. As humankind spread out of Africa that importance was lost as conditions for survival changed. To my mind it’s entirely likely that those environmental pressures over time led to a predominance of slow twitch muscles in plains Africans and fast twitch in those from forested areas (quick speed needed to capture prey). (note – I’m referring to hundreds of thousands of years here, – not suggesting that is the case in Africa today) Has anyone done a study on that? There’s one interesting looking one in Science but I don’t have access.

  6. #6 Karl
    August 24, 2008

    Thank you. Many of your reders may just skim your statement: “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.”
    I wish to emphasize how evident it is. I am totally unfamiliar with distance running. Yet even to me, the difference at the Olympics this year was startling. I noticed it first in (I think) the 10K where 6 of the 7 top finishers were from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya. And they all seem to have the same body type – long and lean (very lean, almost gaunt looking). I think that that implies a genetic component at work.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    August 24, 2008

    Actually, the gene is question is said to control whether someone is a power athlete or an endurance athlete (“the frequency of the 577XX null genotype is lower in sprinting and power athletes and higher in endurance athletes”), not whether they are or aren’t an athlete. So if we’re saying that the sprinters all have Western African ancestry and the marathoners all have Eastern African ancestry, how is this evidence that they are all of a single race as determined by underlying genetics?

    Greg didn’t say that athletic performance doesn’t have a genetic component. He said it’s not a racial trait or a trait that provides any support to the idea of genetically determined races.

  8. #8 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 25, 2008

    Karl: “And they all seem to have the same body type – long and lean (very lean, almost gaunt looking). I think that that implies a genetic component at work.”

    To me it looks like the result of selection and arduous training.

    Training is still the key in top level sports. In order to train for sport (in stead for working for bread) you need a proper cultural environment that accepts the sacrifice. In Eastern Africa running is a matter of pride, so that’s what they do. In South America it’s football.

    Genes are important as enablers. If you have good genes for your favourite sport, you can reach the top easier, and you may even push the limits beyond others. But still you need that training.

    BTW, Africans have more genetic variability than people of other continents. Africa is where humans evolved over millions of years; other populations have passed through a genetic bottleneck in relatively recent times.

  9. #9 Karl
    August 25, 2008

    Lassi:
    1. I said: “And they all seem to have the same body type”.
    This is natural selection.
    2. You said: ” it looks like the result of selection”.
    And you are talking about controlled selection.
    3. Then you said: “Training is still the key in top level sports.”
    4. My argument: All countries runners train – extensively. And they all “select” from the available candidates. So the difference seems to be “natural” selection.
    5. I understand that Africans have more genetic variability. I don’t understand what that has to do with whether there is a certain body type, both morphologically and physiologically, more commom in E. Africa, that suits people to be better long distance runners. In fact, I think that is an argument FOR my position. It implies that perhaps that genetic trait has been reduced everywhere other than E. Africa.

  10. #10 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 26, 2008

    The “selection” part isn’t natural, it is driven by coaches’ idea about who is a potentially good athlete. Genetic variability provides more extremes to select from.
    http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/08/weird_lands_of_the_tails.php

  11. #11 hopper3011
    August 26, 2008

    Jim;
    I used to get riled up when I saw posts like that; now I just take a deep breath and try to pass on by. The level of stupidity it takes to ignore the evidence is breathtaking, although Greg manages to create a classic of misinformation and poor argumentation. I would suggest that he takes a look here:
    http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/toplists/inout=O/age=N/season=0/sex=M/all=y/legal=A/disc=5000/detail.html
    http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/toplists/inout=O/age=N/season=0/sex=M/all=y/legal=A/disc=10K/detail.html
    http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/toplists/inout=O/age=N/season=0/sex=M/all=y/legal=A/disc=HMAR/detail.html
    http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/toplists/inout=O/age=N/season=0/sex=M/all=y/legal=A/disc=MAR/detail.html
    and see if he can so glibly explain those statistics, but if I suggest that, apparently, it would make me a closet racist.
    Apart from Greg’s obvious lack of knowledge on the subject of athletics, the biggest straw man that I can see is this suggestion that any ONE gene is responsible. I would suggest that Greg take on board the idea of accumulation of incremental advantages, which any athlete understands only too well.

  12. #12 Nada Platonico
    August 27, 2008

    John Entine has an essay (in two parts) that can be found here (http://run-down.com/guests/je_black_athletes_p1.php) on the topic; he argues for a genetic connection.

    The dominance of African women, especially in the longer distances, is overstated: only two African women have ever held the world record in the marathon (one broke her own record), the current world record is held by Paula Radcliffe of the UK. The 10,000m record is held by a Chinese woman (set in 1993 so there’s a good chance that it’s a clean (non-juiced) record, unlike Flo-Jo’s spring records and the 800m record, all set in the 1980s and that haven’t even been approached in recent years, though the 800m record looks to be in danger).

    Also, a woman from Belarus won the 100m at the 2004 Olympics.

    Russian women have dominated the middle distances (800m and 1500m), though they had a poor showing in the Olympics (in the latter event, only one Russian made it to the final, though two Ukrainian women finished with silver and bronze).

    If it’s largely genetic, then why isn’t the effect nearly as notable across the gender divide?

    Fyi, I have a post over at my blog on the topic with more details. I’m not a scientist so I don’t enter the genetic discussion too much.

  13. #13 Jim
    August 27, 2008

    The gender disparity is a good question but one that I believe can be answered by the initial lack of opportunities for women to compete at high levels from those countries. To support that statement, I note that I have read comments reflecting precisely that sentiment from some of the current top Kenyan and Ethiopian women.

    Regarding the current women’s 10,000 record, I would NOT say that it is completely accepted as legit. A couple years ago I read a decent argument that the track may have been short (I forget the source). There have also been the usual claims of doping (without concrete proof of course).

    If in the next few years the current women’s records begin to drop and we see the same level of dominance that we now see in the men’s field, then we will be left with the pure question of why people from that area do so well at long distance running. (And I think that dominance will be forth-coming. Just look at the results from this year’s women’s 10000: First and second both from the area in question, and the first women to go sub-30 outside of the afore-mentioned record.)

  14. #14 hopper3011
    August 28, 2008

    If it’s largely genetic, then why isn’t the effect nearly as notable across the gender divide?

    Are you contending that there are no sex-related differences in gene expression?

  15. #15 hopper3011
    August 28, 2008

    Greg didn’t say that athletic performance doesn’t have a genetic component.

    Um, yes, he did:

    Jamaican sprinters make people who are not really thinking about this jump, like pole vaulters, to the conclusion that there must be a gene for running fast that somehow evolved … like Olympic Beach Volley Ball seemingly from sterile sand … despite the numerous hurdles for such an event to happen. Such is the nature of amateur science. (my emphasis)

    As far as I can see there are two MASSIVE red herrings in Greg’s post, as well as an obvious lack of knowledge about athletics.
    The first red herring is the suggestion that any knowledgeable person assumes that there is a “running gene” whether for sprinting or distance – good athletes and good coaches don’t look for a magic bullet, they understand the meaning of the phrase “the accumulation of incremental advantages”, and most would understand a genetic advantage in those terms.
    The second red herring is the suggestion that any knowledgeable person believes that ONLY black people possess the “running gene”. There are ~38 million people in Kenya, many of whom CAN’T run a four minute mile, and there are ~61 million people in the United Kingdom, some of whom CAN run a four minute mile: the reason that Kenya does so well at athletics is that the proportion of the population who CAN is larger than the proportion who CAN’T, and the opposite applies in the UK.
    Perhaps Greg could have at the 5,000, 10,000, marathon and steeplechase top lists here:
    http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/toplists/inout=O/age=N/season=0/sex=M/list.htmx
    and then give us an explanation which doesn’t involve genetics. The incidence of distance running ability which is concentrated in the Kenya/Ethiopia/Tanzania/Uganda area isn’t explainable in any other way, and has nothing to do with racism.

  16. #16 Jim
    August 28, 2008

    Well hopper, I don’t think one could come up with a better argument than your iaaf link. One scan of the men’s 5000 and 10000 leaves your head spinning, especially if know that some of the performances from outside countries are really athletes from the countries in question who emigrated.

  17. #17 hopper3011
    August 29, 2008

    The steeplechase is absolutely stunning – you have to go to 79th place to find a clean non-Kenyan, and 40th place in the 10,000 to find an athlete from outside the Kenya/Ethiopia/Uganda area.
    The 5,000 is a bit more of a mix with Morocco and Algeria in there, but you have to go to 106th place to find a clean non-African.
    The best non-African time for the marathon is 2:06.05 – if Haile went head to head with Ronaldo da Costa, Haile would be over half a kilometre ahead of Ronaldo at the finish.
    I think that the accusations of racism that Greg is throwing around reveal more about his lack of knowledge on the topic of athletics than anything else.
    Everybody trains hard, everywhere in the world – saying that a runner is fast because he’s Kenyan isn’t racism, it is simple acknowledgement that his genetic make-up means that he is likely to get more from his workout than the European athlete who does the same work.
    What it doesn’t mean is that there is a “running gene”, nor does it mean that only East/North Africans have that “running gene”, but it does mean that whatever cumulative genetic advantages certain people have in terms of running ability are more likely to occur within a population from the East/North African area than in an equivalent size population of European descent.
    That’s not racism – that is looking at the facts.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.