He Got Game

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports andWhy We Are Afraid to Talk About It Jon Entine (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000)

It is indisputable that black athletes dominate sports worldwide, at all competitive levels. But most commentators avoid looking at the possible genetic factors at work here, lest they contribute to or be accused of racial stereotyping. But in Taboo, Jon Entine sets aside this fear to look at the genetic basis for black superiority in sports.

Entine begins with the Kalenjins, a remarkable East African tribe of three million whose members have in recent decades won three-quarters of the world's long distance running medals. He goes on to discuss their West African neighbors, who rule the sprint and high hurdles: Every finalist in the 100-meter dash of the last four Olympics, for instance, has been of West African descent. It is no surprise that most football back-fielders, major league outfielders and members of the National Basketball Association demonstrate comparably explosive speed, power and leaping ability. African women athletes display the same standard of excellence.

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After a meander through historical discrimination against black athletes in America, Entine boldly and brilliantly documents numerous physiological differences contributing to black athletic superiority. Compared to Europeans and Asians, East Africans are lighter and more slender, while West Africans typically have more efficient fast-twitch muscles, long limbs, shorter trunks, heavier skeletons and less body fat (but smaller lung capacity). At the same time, muscular exertion in West African blacks produces fewer lactate toxins than in other populations, and their skeletal muscles have more anaerobic enzymes, while the muscle fiber cells of East Africans are hardwired for getting and using oxygen. These metabolic differences mean that West African bodies function like rockets, excelling at the rapid use of fuel on hand, and that East African bodies resemble jets, supremely efficient consumers of air and stored fuel.

According to Entine, strict environmentalists deny that genes play any role in athletic prowess; they would insist, in this case, that African Americans have developed a tradition of physical competence because racist norms have left them little opportunity outside of sports to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Entine recognizes that environment plays a powerful role in molding a person, but, as he explains, so do genes, especially those that control sports-related physiology.

This point of view, put forth so lucidly by Entine and quietly accepted by sports science, will likely whip up a media tornado due to the volatility and ominous complexity of the issue. But Entine's work stands to open the conversation on racial differences to a broader range of topics--even intelligence-because success in sports is so unambiguous, and the scientific data so unarguable.

Adapted by Ph.D.

Michael Levin is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and author of Why Race Matters (Praeger, 1997).

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