Survival of the Fastest?

Did the descendants of slaves inherit athletic talent?

Posted Jul 11, 2012

Michael Johnson, the legendary athlete, recently made global headlines for suggesting that black American and Caribbean sprinters have a "superior athletic gene." He noted that all eight sprinters in the 2008 men's Olympic final were descended from slaves, and speculated that this could have contributed to their speed.

Inevitably, the media took his comments a stage further. For example, Fox Sports titled its report, with quotes in the original, although there is no evidence that Johnson exactly said this:

"Slave gene made me run fast"

Johnson still holds the 400m world record, set in 1999, and the third-fastest time ever over 200m (he held both records simultaneously for a decade). Since retiring in 2000, he has proved himself as an extremely articulate commentator on the sport, a "solid gold sports pundit," working mostly for the BBC.

The genetic speculation came in a TV documentary he made for Britain's Channel 4, Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, which included a DNA ancestry test (he's of West African descent, if the analysis is accurate). It was, according to the review in the London Independent, "a cautious film, properly concerned to acknowledge how important culture and personal qualities are in the development of athletic excellence." The Telegraph called it "an excellent — and thoroughly shaming — documentary." As well as genetic speculation, it included some significant introspection:

All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations.

As a media pro, Johnson should have known that nuance does not translate to tabloid journalism. Moreover, the appalling conditions the program described, for slaves in transit and after arrival in the U.S. and Caribbean, may have left psychological scars down the generations, not to mention the economic and political consequences — but that's not genetic.

If the program said, as reported, that the mortality rate on slave ships was "between 50 and 96 per cent," it was wrong. Some ships were disastrous, but overall the historical record suggests that mortality was about 13% — a number that bespeaks enormous suffering, but too little for a "bottleneck" genetic selection process. Moreover, the suggestion that the subsequent conditions of slavery had some kind of epigenetic effect that made people of West African descent faster is more than a little lacking in scientific evidence.

The intricate developmental relationships between genes and physical environment, not to mention social challenges and opportunities, make simplistic statements about genes not only untenable but worryingly counterproductive to broad-based social, physical and economic development. Johnson brands steroid users "cheats" and returned a relay gold medal when one of his teammates tested positive; he is a man of integrity. He should be proud of his own talent and hard work. He deserves that.