Olympics 2008: Biological Questions And Answers
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
In contrast, more
fundamental questions about matters that don`t change
rapidly—e.g., Why have people related to Usain Bolt
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.
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
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
New York, which pay winners in money rather than in
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,
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
This very lack of
running less than fascinating as a spectator sport—except
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
soccer, was traditionally almost bereft of
Here in the U.S.,
though, baseball absorbs more of the attention of the
numbers-obsessed fraction of the public.
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
Chariots of Fire-style English schoolboys and
their American cousins. Then emerged Finnish
"scientific runners" such as
Paavo Nurmi, followed by long-legged
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
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
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.
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.)
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
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.
black-skinned Kenyan and brown-skinned Ethiopian runners
come overwhelmingly from highland portions of their
countries, where evolving an efficient use of the
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.
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."
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
one of the top 200 times at 200 meters.
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.
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.
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.
Distance running is
much harder, of course, but it`s not at all clear that
white people suddenly got lazy when the East Africans
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:
- East African 9%
- Spanish Surname
- Black American
- American Indian
- 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
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.)
commenter on my blog explained:
"Distance running is
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.
is in decline as a spectator sport in the U.S. outside
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
here`s a picture from 2004 of the American 200m gold
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.
among sprinters appears to be an arms race (or a biceps
race) that only marginally changes who wins, at least
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
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
"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 /
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
"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
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]