This book by Jon Entine was published in 2000 and discusses this very sensitive topic in great detail. Entine once produced a special on the domination of black athletes for NBC with Tom Brokow and used much of the material I assume in assembling this book.
I was turned on to this book by Will Carroll's short interview of Entine on a recent Baseball Prospectus Radio show, and like Carroll, I've always been fascinated by the subject and think it deserves more attention.
In short his thesis is that "biology circumscribes possibility":
"the opposing and incompatible claims that black athletic success can be explained by environmentalism or evolution are equally simplistic. Sports success is a bio-social phenomenon. There is extensive and persuasive research that elite black athletes have a phenotypic advantage - a distinct skeletal and musculature, metabolic structures, and other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of years of evolution...Preliminary research suggests that different phenotypes are at least partially encoded in the genes- conferring genotypic differences, which may result in an advantage in some sports."
The book is divided into five sections with by far the largest two (parts III and IV) being a history of race science and sports that covers over a third of the book.
The history is interesting and well written and I especially enjoyed his bios of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis who took dichotomous approaches to their interaction with the white world. He also includes a wonderful description in part II of Kenya's running culture and the domination of Kenyan athletes from the tiny Nandi region of Kenya where more than 20% of all winners of international distance running events are born. Entine calls this region "the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports."
Also in part II he documents very well the domination of those of West African descent in sprinting and East African descent in distance races by noting that (as of 2000) of the top 500 100-meter times recorded African Americans of West African descent hold 494 of those and that East Africans hold over 50% of the top middle and long distance times. He also spends a little time on other sports including the success of black baseball players after Jackie Robinson and how becoming an NBA player is difficult for an African American (1 in 4,000) but far more so for a white (1 in 90,000).
In part VI he discusses women's athletics and focuses in on how the superiority of black females was masked from the mid 1960s through the early 1980s by the steroid culture of the Soviet block athletic machine and how black females have come to the forefront.
Part V, however, is where Entine makes his case for phenotypic and genetic differences between the races that lead to black domination of sports. Specifically, he cites a number of studies and concludes that blacks of West African descent 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
- smaller chest cavities
- a higher center of gravity, a generally shorter sitting height, narrower hips, and lighter calves
- a 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 of life, including infancy (despite evidence of lower calcium intake and a higher prevalence of lactose intolerance)
- modest, but significantly, higher levels of testosterone ( 3 to 19%), 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
He also notes that East Africans tend to:
- have more energy producing enzymes in the muscles
- an apparent ability to process oxygen more efficiently, resulting in less susceptibility to fatigue
- a slighter body profile and a larger lung capacity than whites or West Africans, which translates into greater endurance
- hail from a region 6,000-8,000 feet in elevation which is deemed optimum for middle and long distance training
Entine says that these conclusions aren't really in question and they indicate at least some genotypic difference, all of which makes me wonder why the question is so...well...taboo.
The answer of course is that admitting there are genetic differences in a population that lead to a greater general adaptability to certain sports is inherently connected with the possibility that there are other genetic differences that manifest themselves in the non-sporting world - in other words, IQ or general intelligence leading to success in the modern world.
Entine correctly makes this connection and explores its historical roots time and again and finally makes a plea for severing the link by arguing that even if the former is true, the latter need not be.
Regardless of whether it makes logical sense to sever the link, what I always find so fascinating in this debate is the basic misunderstanding about variation within a population, variation between populations, and their meaning for the individual and for the tail end of the distribution.
First, what Entine is saying is not that every black is a better athlete than every white. Clearly this is not true by observation. In fact, he's not saying anything specific about any individual of any race. What he is saying is that as a population group, West Africans have certain physical traits that are to some extent genetic and that differ from the populations of European whites, Asians, or East Africans.
To illustrate his point think of those characteristics or physical traits being spread out through a population in a standard distribution (a bell curve). Different populations then will have different distributions and if one population generally has fewer of these traits, their bell curve will overlap with that of another population with a higher concentration of the traits but be offset. In that case there will always be many in the second population that have that characteristics in more frequency than many in the first population. Hence the fact that there are some Asians who can out jump some West African blacks. But, and here is the key - the right tail of the second population's distribution will end well before the right tail of the first, and it is here that elite athletes reside. In other words, the phenotypic differences between populations are magnified at the extreme ends of the distribution.
This fact also explains why those, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, who eschew the entire concept of race are mistaken when they argue that race can't matter because there is often more variation within a population than there is between populations. That may well be true but it is the offset or overlapping nature of those population distributions that produces the inequality we see in elite sports.
Entine is also not saying that individual black athletes don't have to train or do not have to be serious competitors. In fact he argues throughout the book that almost all world class athletes require much more than their physical traits to be successful, not the least of which are drive, courage, and sacrifice. However, those physical gifts are a necessary condition for success at the elite level and so phenotypic differences in a population act like a sieve that let pass only those whose traits better adapt them to success. Biology does indeed circumscribe possibility.
From a statistical perspective here is an enlightening paper that outlines this key concept and how it relates to Kenyans and distance running with the central point being:
"Near the limits of human performance, subtle differences between groups become greatly magnified. In world-class competition, whether for Nobel Prizes or Olympic gold, such small variations in group abilities profoundly influence tribal representation in the winner's circle...we estimated the mean difference in sprinting ability between white and African Americans to be about 0.82 standard deviations. Despite this large group difference, if a white and black were selected randomly from their respective populations, the white would have almost a one in three chance of being the faster sprinter. Thus, a gap as big as 0.82 SD, which might go undetected in the ordinary scheme of life, is enough to create an all black elite at the top."
The paper then goes on to perform a statistical test given the distribution of Nandi (Kenyan) and West European elite runners and concludes that "a random Nandi is 524 times more likely to make the 1500m best-runner list than his West European counterpart!...Only 1 in 5000 young Nandi men will be admitted to this exclusive circle. For Euros, the number is 1 in 2.6 million"
This statistical conclusion is buttressed by a anecdote that Entine shares comparing Scandanavian runners with Kenyans.
"he [Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center] brought a half-dozen established Swedish national class runners to...Kenya, in 1990 to see how they might match up against up-and-coming East African schoolboys. It was a demoralizing experience for the Swedes. National champion after national champion was soundly troucned in races from 800 meters to 10 kilometers. Stunned, Saltin estimated that in this one tiny area of teh Rift Valley there were at least five hundred school boys who could best his national champions at 2,000 meters."