Olympics 2008: Biological Questions And Answers

Why did

Jamaicans
, led by triple world record-setter Usain
"Lightning" Bolt, dominate the 100 and 200 meter
sprints in the
2008 Olympics?

This question can be
answered at two very different levels: the superficial
and the fundamental.

The former, the
horserace type of question—i.e., Why did the Jamaicans
surge ahead of the

Americans
between 2004 and 2008?—is the more
interesting one to most people. They want to know which
Thoroughbred to bet on in the next race, not why

Thoroughbreds
are faster than

Clydesdales
.

In contrast, more
fundamental questions about matters that don`t change
rapidly—e.g., Why have people related to Usain Bolt
genealogically,

men of West African descent
, made up all 56
qualifiers for the finals of the

100 meter dash
in the last seven consecutive
Olympics?—are not terribly welcome.

It`s not just that
the answers tend to imply

profoundly unsettling things about humanity
. But
also … how do you make money off them?

For example, consider
the climactic event of the 2008 Olympics, the men`s
marathon. If it had been won by, say, an
African-American named D`Shawn, there would already be
literary and movie agents winging their way to Beijing
to try to sign him up for an inspiring autobiography,
television movie
, and
motivational speaking
tour about how he had "shattered
stereotypes
"
that men of West African descent
are better suited for the 100m than the marathon.
Stereotype Shattering is

big business in the modern world.

Unfortunately for
would-be promoters, the 2008 marathon medals were
actually earned by a Kenyan, a

Moroccan
, and an

Ethiopian
, boringly reaffirming

all the stereotypes about who is best at distance
running
.

Nobody in America was
wowed that a

5`-4" and 112 pound Kenyan
won the marathon.
(Actually, it was the first time a Kenyan was victorious
in the Olympic marathon. The top Kenyan marathoners, no
fools, focus more on the spring and fall marathons, such
as the

Boston
and

New York,
which pay winners in money rather than in
medals.)

Yet, it`s precisely
this ho-hum several-decade-long stability in the racial
heritage of the winners of the various men`s

running events
that makes the demographics of
running a topic of fundamental interest.

Running is certainly
among the most primordial and universal of sports. It`s
the one about which we can most accurately say: We
evolved
to do this. We are more likely to be
descended from humans who outsprinted charging predators
or outjogged wounded prey than from those who did not.

Of course, other
sports—whether the pole vault, rhythmic gymnastics, or
BMX bike-racing—all make use of evolved skills. But the
connection is more indirect. The sports closest in
naturalness to track and field (which the rest of the
world tellingly calls "athletics")
are the fighting sports—boxing,

wrestling
,

judo
and the like. But they are all hedged in with
complex rules to keep the competitors from doing too
much damage to each other. In contrast, in running, the
gun goes off—and the first one across the finish line
wins.

This very lack of
complexity makes
running less than fascinating as a spectator sport
—except
at the

quadrennial Olympics
when the weight of history and
the four year wait until the next Olympics bears so
heavily on the competitors` shoulders.

Fans who keep up with
track and field in-between Summer Games tend to be

statistics-loving nerds
. This has kept the sport
relatively popular in Europe, where the main spectator
sport,

soccer
, was traditionally almost bereft of
statistical interest.

Here in the U.S.,
though, baseball absorbs more of the attention of the
numbers-obsessed fraction of the public.

Nonetheless, it`s
time to think about the fundamentals of running success.

During much of the
20th Century, the backgrounds of the best runners were
constantly changing, making it hard to draw inferences
about natural talent. The first Olympics were dominated
by

Chariots of Fire
-style English schoolboys and
their American cousins. Then emerged Finnish
"scientific runners"
such as

Paavo Nurmi,
followed by long-legged
African-American and

studious Japanese sprinters
, and so forth.

In the last quarter
of a century, however, we seem to have reached an
equilibrium point. The racial patterns have stabilized.
Each distance having its dominant ethnicities.

I`ve created tables
of the

200 fastest times
by racial background for each of
the major distances from 100 meters to the marathon
(42,000 meters). My calculations aren`t perfect, but I
spent a lot of time looking at pictures of runners to
ascertain their race. For example, the great Cuban 400m
and 800m gold medalist at the 1972 and 1976 Games,

Alberto Juantorena
, wore his hair in the `fro style
popular at the time. These days, however, the balding
Juantorena looks

quite white
.

The results are most
informative. For example, here is a graph showing
performances by West African runners and their black
cousins in the New World.

Blacks
of West African descent utterly dominate the 100 meter
dash, accounting for all but one of the 200 quickest
marks in history. They`re almost as dominant at 200m,
not quite as overwhelming at 400m, and only modestly
competitive at 800m. They aren`t world class at any
longer lengths, although a black Brazilian did once

run a fast marathon in the 1990s.
(Brazilian blacks
appear to average more East African ancestry than
American and West Indian blacks.)

In
contrast, this graph shows the strengths of the three
African distance running powerhouses. The Kenyans (green
line) are not competitive in the short sprints but
occasionally show up in the 400. They are tremendously
strong from 800m through the marathon.

The Kenyans` northern
neighbors, the Ethiopians (red line), don`t emerge until
3000 meters (I`ve averaged the 3000m steeplechase and
the 3000m flat race). They peak at 5000 and 10000
meters.

The northwest
Africans (from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) aren`t
competitive below 800m. Their most famous runners
specialized in the 1500 but they are competitive at all
the longer distances.

Both the
black-skinned Kenyan and brown-skinned Ethiopian runners
come overwhelmingly from highland portions of their
countries, where evolving an efficient use of the
limited

oxygen
is crucial.

Moreover, the "running
tribe
"
of Kenya, the Kalenjin, had

a history of cattle rustling
on foot, sending young
men to steal neighbors` cows and stampede them home. The
slower ones got spears in their backs, while the faster
ones got multiple wives.

Ethiopia tends to
produce superstar runners with long careers, such as

Haile Gebrselassie
and

Kenenisa Bekele
, while Kenya burns through countless
speedy farmboys.

The differences
between East Africans and West Africans are often

overemphasized
. While the former tend to have more
aerobic capacity and slow twitch muscle fibers and the
latter more musculature and more fast twitch fibers,
black Africans tend to share the body structure most
efficient for running. As
O.J. Simpson,
who once shared a world record in the
sprint relay with his

USC
track teammates,

explained in 1977
:


"We are built a little
differently, built for speed—skinny calves, long legs,
high asses are all characteristics of blacks."

The Northwest
Africans, such as 2004 Olympic hero

Hicham El-Guerrouj
, in contrast, are primarily
olive-skinned Caucasians. Many

Berbers
and Arabs live in the tall Atlas Mountains
of the Maghreb, but it`s not clear whether their runners
are predominantly highlanders. El-Guerrouj, for
instance, grew up on the Mediterranean. More research
into northwest African runners is needed.

People of European
descent (blue line) appear to be about equally strong at
all distances, but do relatively best at the lengths
where West Africans and East Africans aren`t as
specialized: 400 to 1500 and again at the marathon.

East Asians are
noticeable only in the marathon, although there have
been several good-but-not-great Japanese sprinters. In
the 100, Japanese have comprised four of the 64
semifinalists over the last four Olympics, and they
account for

one of the top 200 times
at 200 meters.

Not shown on these
graph are all the regions with negligible
representation. In particular, South Asia is a

black hole
for sports other than

cricket
.

It`s true that each
culture has its peculiar favorite length—Americans in
the 400, Kenyans in the 3000m steeplechase, and

Maghrebians
in the 1500.

Still, hereditary
differences are the simplest explanation for why
track-crazy countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco
can`t buy a sprinter, while Jamaica can`t produce a
competitive miler. Runners and coaches always have an
incentive to explore longer and shorter distances.

The relationship
between amount of effort and amount of success in
running is usually assumed to be high, but the
relationship is complicated. Sprinting requires less
exercise to be world class than just about any other
sport. In preparation for winning four gold medals at
the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Carl Lewis

worked out eight hours per week
.

The money in
sprinting isn`t as big as in

football
, but, then, you don`t

get knocked down by trained professionals either
.

Distance running is
much harder, of course, but it`s not at all clear that
white people suddenly got lazy when the East Africans
emerged.

Consider who runs
cross country in American high schools. I looked up the
185 boys who had recorded the

300 fastest times
in high school cross country
running (5000 meters distance) in America in 2006. Here,
roughly, are the demographics weighted by number of
times in the top 300:

  • Non-Hispanic
    White 82%
  • East African 9%
  • Spanish Surname
    5%
  • Black American
    2%
  • American Indian
    1%
  • East Asian 0.7%

  • South Asian
    0.3%

Clearly, the East
Africans are wildly over-represented (just as they are
on Olympic medal stands), since they must be well under
1% of the US population. They are as common as all other
minorities combined!

If you subtract the
East Africans out, you get whites at 90%, whereas they
make up less than 60% of the teenagers in America today.
That`s rather interesting for what it might say about
willingness to put in enormous amounts of effort. (Cross
country requires minimal cost, other than shoes, so it`s
wide open to the less affluent.)

An anonymous
commenter on my blog explained:


"Distance running is
mostly a

smart kid
sport at the high school level. It doesn`t
require a lot of hand-eye coordination, but rewards
determination and self-discipline and gets you the
varsity letter that makes you look well-rounded to

college admissions boards.
And for bright kids with
mile a minute brains, the repetitive, exhausting nature
of distance running helps calm the mind and helps these
kids get a little centering in their lives."

Similarly, in the
U.S., marathon running is an upscale hobby. It`s

#27
on the list of

Stuff White People Like.

The number of Americans finishing a marathon keeps going
up yearly, although the average time of finishers has
slowed dramatically as the white population ages.

Nevertheless, running
is in decline as a spectator sport in the U.S. outside
Oregon.

One problem is that
doping—most notably, with steroids: artificial male
hormones—was long a more visible problem in track than
in, say, baseball. This is in part because running is
more one-dimensional of a sport than baseball.

It`s also because
track cracked down harder on dopers. In September 1988,
two athletes heavily juiced on steroids set famous
records. At the Seoul Olympics,

Ben Johnson
won the 100 meter dash in 9.79 seconds.
Stateside,

Jose Canseco
became the first baseball player to hit
40 homers and steal 40 bases in one season.

Johnson`s medal and
record was stripped from him two days later. But
baseball didn`t get around to drug testing until this
decade, after muscleheads like Mark McGwire and Barry
Bonds had made a joke of the record book.

Runners continued
doping, of course, but a new milestone in punishment was
reached recently when sprinter Marion Jones, the
American heroine of the
2000 Sydney Games,
was sent to prison for
lying to federal agents
about her use of
performance-enhancing drugs.

Samuel Johnson

observed
, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in
a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Similarly, the current imprisonment of the celebrated
Jones has likely concentrated the minds of American
Olympians wonderfully.

And, in answer to the
superficial question about why Jamaicans outsprinted
Americans in 2008, American fear of getting caught
probably accounts more than anything else for the
performance of American sprinters in Beijing relative to
their West Indian rivals.

The Jamaicans and
their even smaller neighbors such as Trinidad and the
Bahamas have long been contenders, but seldom gold
medalists. The lengthy career of the regal sprinter

Merlene Ottey
, "the Bronze Queen", epitomizes
the regional tradition: she garnered eight Olympic
medals, none of them gold.

The

Jamaicans argue
that the new American drug testing
and sanction system has finally leveled the playing
field. Americans counter by asserting that now the
Jamaicans are more doped than the Americans.

Nobody knows for
sure.

For example, the
American sprinter most unlikely to be on steroids, the
gazelle-like

Allyson Felix
, finished second in the 200 meters to
a Jamaican lady with

arms
twice the diameter of hers.

On the other hand,

Usain Bolt
, while certainly muscular, doesn`t appear
to be more massively over-developed in his upper body
than his rivals, the way

Ben Johnson
suddenly became in the mid-1980s. For
contrast,

here`s a picture from 2004
of the American 200m gold
medalist

Shawn Crawford.

Considering how
awesome Bolt was last week, it seems plausible to assume
that if all performance enhancing drugs vanished
tomorrow, Bolt would still be the fastest man on Earth.

Ironically, doping
among sprinters appears to be an arms race (or a biceps
race) that only marginally changes who wins, at least
among men.

Thus, the old
East German Communist
chemical-industrial complex
churned out female record setters by the dozens but
couldn`t manufacture a world class male sprinter. The
benefits of a given amount of steroids are

much greater for women than men
because men average
vastly higher levels of natural testosterone. Thus, male
runners need suspiciously large, Ben Johnson-sized doses
to make huge improvements, while women can bulk-up
significantly on smaller, less-easily detected amounts.

So, in men`s running,
doping doesn`t much change the big picture.

Let`s return to the
fundamental question: why Jamaica produces such fast
sprinters.

An article in
Science
by Constance Holden,

Peering Under the Hood of Africa`s Runners
,

reviewed the state of the art in scientific research on
racial differences in running as of 2004.

In 2006, however, Dr.
William Aiken, president of the Jamaica Urological
Society, offered in the

Jamaica Gleaner
a reductionist theory that has
the potential to explain many racial differences beyond
sprinting:


"I wish to propose a
hypothesis that addresses not only the aspect of
Jamaica`s raw athletic talent, but also encompasses an
explanation of seemingly diverse phenomena as our high
incidence of prostate cancer (one study found it to be
by far the highest in the world at 304 / 100,000 men /
year), our
high crime rate
(murder capital of the world status
earlier this year), our high road traffic accident and
fatality rate, and our alleged high levels of
promiscuity.


"What do these seemingly
disparate phenomena, characteristic of Jamaican life,
have in common? On close examination these phenomena are
manifestations of high levels of aggressiveness and
drive, high libidos, highly efficient muscles from
persons of lean body mass and black ethnicity.


"On closer scrutiny all
of these phenomena are either related to high
circulating levels of testosterone or alternatively to
high levels of responsiveness of testosterone receptors
to circulating testosterone. It has already been shown
that the

testosterone receptors of blacks
are different
genetically to those of whites and this difference
confers increased responsiveness to testosterone."
[The
athletic prowess of Jamaicans
,
November 22, 2006]