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Thursday, 7 September, 2000, 00:41 GMT 01:41 UK
Is there a faster race?
Is there a faster race?
BBC Two's Black Britain Olympics Special 'The Faster Race', was screened on Thursday, and asked whether black athletes have a genetic advantage?


The sprint and middle distance events at Sydney later this month will once again be dominated by black athletes, but is there a specific reason for this?

Are black athletes born winners or is it simply how hard they work?

The reporter who worked on The Faster Race, Kurt Barling, answered some of your questions in a live forum on BBC Sport Online on Friday, but maybe you still want to have your say, or react to something new that Kurt said.

If you missed the programme and still wish to see it visit our Audio/Video section..


Matthew Gold from U.K asks:

Is it not more a case of aspiration? For example Kenyan children will aspire to their national heroes rather than the Andy Coles or Michael Jordans of this world, hence their aspirations are not to play football for Manchester United but to run like the great Kenyan runners.

Kurt Barling replies: Let's start with what this genetic structure means. What it actually means is what do we inherit? Now everyone knows when they have children, I have three, when you walk down the street with them, people say 'Goodness, so and so looks a bit like you.'

That's what we mean by genetic make-up. You have inherited something from your parents. Now, the argument here is that you inherit things across a whole group of people which are similar, therefore a certain group of runners in Kenya come from a certain population group, therefore they have inherited a certain set of genes which would help them to run.

That doesn't necessarily mean that we can't be looking at the sociological factors as well. What the argument tends to be, is about the balance between the two. There are those who say that genes and the inherent is much stonger, there are those who say that the environment is much stronger.

Quite clearly if you inherit genes which make you very fat you are going to make a lousy sprinter. On the other hand if you inherent genes which give you a lean body shape, then you will have a propensity to perform well at endurance running, won't necessarily make you a champion.

Joe Ennis from USA asks:

If the concept of a faster race is correct, then how does that explain the success of predominantly white Europeans in events such as the High jump and triple jump and also athletes like Andre Bucher who has dominated the 800 meters this year?

Kurt Barling replies: I think what scientists are very careful to say, and what the scientists were very careful to say in our programme, particularly the Danish scientists, were they are looking at a population group. They were looking at the Kalongen tribe, which is only one of the tribes associated with Kenya.

They were not saying that all black people anywhere on the face of the planet must have the same kind of capacity to be supreme athletes like the Kalongen tribe. Simply that the Kalongen themselves have a propensity to be natural runners.

That's not to say that they are natural runners, they have a natural body type, which leads them to become natural runners. They have to work at it as well. They are not born champions.

Bob Gardiner from U.K asks:

What about Seb Coe's 800 metre record? That lasted for almost 20 years before it was broken?

Kurt Barling replies: Indeed, in fact the British long jump record was set in something like 1968 or '69 and is still unbroken. It was set by a white jumper, there are plenty of black athletes now, you'd think if there was a natural propensity for black people to jump higher and to sprint faster, that would have been broken by one of those individuals.

I think what summed it up for me in the film that we made was Professor Harry Edwards from the University of Berkly, California, who used Michael Jordan as an example. He often gets asked why there are no white Michael Jordans.

He said 'You tell me why I can't find another Michael Jordan who is black, because if you can find that person for me I know a lot of people who would give me a lot of money for that information.' I think the point is that genes are down to the individual. Colin Jackson is a supreme hurdler because his parents had a gift for athletics.

For that matter, I was a very competent hurdler when I was a youngster. Most people at school perceived that to be because I was black, actually I'm of mixed origin. My mother is English and my father is African. My mother is actually the one who is a supreme hurdler.

Dwayne Stoddart from U.K asks:

Dwayne is a 19 year old black hurdler who is ranked no.3 in the UK in the under 23 category. He believes that part of his success is down to the fact that his mother was a hurdler. He goes on to say that this is also the case of the Under 23 number one, Stanlav Olijars...his mother too was a hurdler...but he is white...

Kurt Barling replies: I think that again reinforces the point we are making about Michael Jordan. The individual genetic inheritance, what they inherent from their parents is most important. And of course it doesn't matter if they are black or white, what matters is who their parents were.

Heather Lundie from U.K asks:

Is it not a socio-cultural concept that Black people have not excelled as well as they could academically because of our social structure and therefore there is an inherent belief that the only place they can really excel is on the sports field?

Kurt Barling replies: This comes down to the question of expectations. What do black youngsters expect or themselves? What do other people expect of black youngsters? There's a phrase, which I often use. Black people in Britain and America aren't born black, they learn to be black.

One of the things you learn is that there are expectations of you as a black person. One of those expectations is that you will be good on the athletics track. It was expected of most black youngsters when they went into schools in the United Kingdom.

If it is expected of you, you give a dog a bad name and it sticks. Basically you expect something of someone for long enough, people will gravitate towards that, it's kind of a push and pull.

Dr John Kinuthia from Kenya asks:

How come people with similar genetic structures, lifestyles and diets (such as the Massai people) do not excel at this level?

Kurt Barling replies: You have to take one step back here, do they aspire to excel at that level? If they aspire to excel at that level, then I'm surprised that they don't. But, I suspect that to be a champion runner isn't a question of what you're born with only, it's a question of how much you can develop that talent after birth. There is not point in having huge potential if you can't nurture it, and that is the key. Champions are made, they are not born.

Tony in the UK asks:

How come both the USA and Britain produce high-class 400m runners. But the main difference being that the Americans tend to produce predominantly black athletes in this class whereas there is a greater balance between black and white in Britain in this field. Does this again therefore point to the fact that the causes are more cultural?

Kurt Barling replies: Let's face it, when you look at the 400m run and the 400m event, it's not very sexy is it? I mean if you want a sexy event you go for the 100m and if you're not quite sharp enough on the 100 you go for the 200. That's the kind of macho event. That's the event where you run down the end of the road against your mates and you win. That's the 100m.

400m that's a slightly different ball game. I was a 400m hurdler that was a tough, tough event. You have to work very hard at that. And I suspect that there are cultural reasons why Britain in particular has excelled. You know, role models are very important in sport, you aspire to be like someone.

When David Hemery became one of the few British gold medal champions at 400m hurdles he set a precedent. He said to lots of other youngsters who were white, if you aspire to it, follow me. It just so happens that the Black people in Britain haven't been aspiring to that particular event.

Henry McDougal from U.K asks:

How come there are no dominant black swimmers?

Kurt Barling replies: In the film we didn't look at that, partly because the science hasn't looked at that. But, I have a simple reflection on that. When you go down the coast of Africa, which I often do, you look at the number of black fishermen that there are who swim out with their boats in the morning and swim back again in the evening.

I bet you they would make good swimmers, however, there aren't many swimming pools where they live so we aren't about to find out. The point is what is the sample that is being looked at. I suspect that there will be good swimmers around the world who are black.

Jason White from U.K:

He feels that the term "black" refers more to a social construct rather that a biological reality. That in fact that race is a way that society divides it people. Nonetheless there are genetic differences between humans, but these are equal amongst White people, Blacks and Asians.

Kurt Barling replies: I think he's got that spot on. The predominant wisdom now in mainstream science, endorsed by someone like Professor Steve Jones who was on the programme, has said there is no useful concept such as race in science. Race is a social concept. We are, in the Western Hemisphere, divided into black and white because of history, for no other reason.

Carl from New Zealand asks:

Is it the case that athletes excel at sports for which they have access to necessary facilities? Therefore athletes in Africa will not be as interested in cycling, rowing, etc?

Kurt Barling replies: That's probably true. What can also be said is that in societies where the opportunities are limited and there are areas where there are perceived to be an opportunity for success, people will gravitate towards that. That's irrespective of skin colour. It just so happens that black people, black youngsters, have seen success in sport, throughout the United States, throughout Britain, and therefore they aspire to it.

Claudio Zardon in U.K asks:

Do you think that as scientific research progresses the time will come when competitors will be assigned a performance handicap?

Kurt Barling replies: That is an interesting conundrum, isn't it? If you are born a certain way does that mean that you will decided not to be a long jumper or high jumper, even if you might enjoy long jumping or high jumping. I think in the end, what puts people on the winner podium, what makes gold medal potential is motivation, guts, and determination. Even if you're not born with a predisposition to be the greatest 400m runner in the world, if you've got enough guts and determination, you may still make it.

Owain Jenkins in UK says:

Black athletes do work hard, but are aided by a different physiology in muscular fibres.

However I believe that most world class athletes use performance enhancing drugs to achieve world class status.

Kurt Barling replies: The evidence on muscular fibres is by no means definitive. But differences in physiology clearly make a difference to the performance of individual athletes. The question is, is this consistent across population groups. There is no doubt that hard work without the right physiology cannot make a champion. But right physiology without hard work will be as much a hindrance.

Derek Eastwood in Brazil says;

Some may see this as a racist debate, but it is important to understand the physiological differences between racial groups. However, before we talk about "genetic advantages," I would ask how many world-class Kenyan sprinters are there, and similarly how many world-class West African long-distance runners are there? It is also interesting to note that the decade's best two DECATHLETES, often considered the most complete athletes, have been of mixed race.

Kurt Barling replies: I think part of the problem with this debate is the fact that the term race confuses us. Race is a confusing term politically and sociologically. It is also meaningless according to mainstream biology and genetics. If we were to use the term "population groups" which are much more narrowly defined we would find it easier to deal with human diversity. The key here is that West Africans and East Africans are very different, yet they are defined as belonging to the same race. Remove race from the question and it's a much easier conundrum to deal with.

S Donaldson of Scotland adds:

It seems apparent that black athletes do have a genetic advantage. That is not to say that all black men are faster than white men but that the average black man has more chance of being a top athlete than the average white man. This could come from having faster twitch muscles or a more responsive cardiovascular system.

Kurt Barling replies: Some black athletes clearly have a genetic advantage. But so do some white athletes. Linford Christie is a unique individual. There may be no white Linford Chrisities but there are no other black ones either.

Liz in the UK says:

Why must success in certain sports be defined in terms of race? What about javelin, hammer throwing, discus, swimming, gymnastics, etc. Are those also dominated by 'black' people? What about the 'non-black' athletes who have made their countries proud in track events eg Sally Gunnell, Roger Black, Ludmila Enquist, etc. Where would they be placed? Or would their success be classified as a mistake? Since they are not 'black', is there something wrong with them then?

I just think all this talk can achieve is give people interested in eugenics some basis to keep their work going.

Kurt Barling replies: I think the focus on race is a historical one. Born out of a divided history through colonial times. Just because the structures have been junked doesn't mean the way in which people see each other has. Clearly we live in a much more cosmopolitan world and people in the UK find it much easier to live alongside people from different parts of the world. However racism is still a feature of our society and therefore so is race. I think the revolution in genetics will eventually make it obvious that race is a useless category for classifying the human race. We may be many peoples in our differences but science is clear we are one human race. Eugenics has no future based on our current scientific knowledge.

Becky Holloway in England says:

Is there any concrete evidence to support the suggestion that Black athletes have more fast twitch muscles than white people? Is there a higher proportion of black people in athletics than in any other sport because of a lack of role models and success stories of black athletes in other sports?

Kurt Barling replies: Scientific evidence has been forward to support the hypothesis that black athletes have more fast twitch muscles. This science is testable and that is as far as anyone can go. Jon Entine's book "Taboo" has a very good stab at all the literature on this subject and the notes to each chapter list countless medical and scientific journals should you want to follow this up.

Mojalefa in South Africa adds:

Maybe, as colonialists involved in slave trade discovered all those centuries ago - that black athleticism was essential in ensuring bumper crop yields. But the colonialists knew that west Africa was their best bet; that's why blacks from southern Africa would be lucky to come back with a medal from Sydney. Also, Australia's blacks - the so-called Aborigines - are they also born to win? Apart from Cathy Freeman I'm not aware of any other Aboriginal sports star.

Kurt Barling replies: Certainly the social prejudices, which were given a scientific gloss by the early race scientists, had everything to do with the experiences of slavery and colonialism. During the apartheid years it was even codified by the white minority government in South Africa. Don't forget Africans were stolen from all along the Western coasts of Africa right down to Angola. So even the African genetic mix in the US and Caribbean is quite extraordinary, that's before you try and figure out all the mixing between European bloodlines and native american. In the UK and US you are not born black you learn to be black. It is the opposite of everything white. In Africa you are born African not black.

Fred Barker in London says:

Do we honestly believe that we are all the same? That all the peoples of the world are physiologically exactly the same, and that no differences whatsoever exist between the races of the world? Is this not a little na´ve? Of course we are different - aren't divergence and diversity central elements of evolution, and is it not this that makes us different? I would have thought the important issue here is to identify how we are different, as well as gaining an understanding of what it is that makes us different? It seems that this would be best investigated in a scientific manner, and until such time as we can satisfactorily identify how and why we are different, I don't see any real value in discussing this topic using emotional or even political arguments.

Kurt Barling replies: We are clearly not all the same. Celebrating difference is a very recent phenomenon and that's why this debate is surrounded by emotion. Defining people according to a false notion of race has led to racism and worse over the past few hundred years. In the realms of sporting achievement it is so obvious that certain body types make better athletes it's hardly worth debating. The crunch comes when people associate certain body types with skin colour. That is plain wrong. Certain population groups, narrowly defined, will share certain physical characteristics. The more narrowly you define that group the more likely they will share similarities. However, look at any family where there are more than two or three siblings and see the differences between them. Ultimately differences within so-called racial groups are going to be at least as great, if not greater, than those between so-called racial groups. That's why race is such a useless scientific category.

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06 Sep 00 |  Olympics2000
The Faster Race
05 Sep 00 |  Sports Talk
England - new beginning or false dawn?
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