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The current time in Athens is 19:59 on September 23, 2023

28th Olympic Games - JO

Athens, Greece, August 14-28, 2004

Features for Friday, August 6, 2004

Genetics hold key to many Olympic medals

It may not be the most politically correct view of athletic pursuit, but according to American genetic researcher Jon Entine, the medals handed out in Athens this month will largely be pre-determined by genes.

"While individual success in international athletics is determined by hard work and luck, the possibility of success is almost totally determined by genetic make-up - and those attributes vary dramatically, depending on genetic ancestry," Entine says, a scholar in residence at Miami University (Ohio) and author of the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It? (2000).

He points out that while there are almost no elite distance runners from West African ancestry, 494 of the top 500 times for the 100m are held by sprinters whose origins trace back to that part of the world.

The reason lies in their body type, which amounts to "an exceptional biomechanical packaging for sprinting".

"As dozens of studies have shown, they have (on average) smaller and more efficient lungs, higher oxidative capacity (the ability to distribute oxygen), more fast-twitch muscle fibres (which contribute to explosive speed), and a muscled but lean body type."

By contrast, people of East and North African descent have slim bodies with large capacity lungs and an abundance of slow-twitch muscle fibres - "an ideal profile for endurance sports".

When Aboriginal sprinter Patrick Johnson ran a wind-assisted 9.93 seconds for the 100m in Japan last year, he became the first person not of West African ancestry to break the 10-second barrier. "His time, which otherwise would have been relegated to the inside of many sports pages, became world news precisely because it was such an aberration," Entine wrote.

Entine says genetic body make-up also helps explain why the Chinese are good at gymnastics, Eurasians excel at weightlifting and wrestling, and so on. He acknowledges that making such distinctions between genetic types is treading on dangerous ground, and leaves him open to accusations of racism.

"Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to acquire sickle cell anaemia... Asians who are genetically more reactive to alcohol and whites with a vulnerability for cystic fibrosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that the body type and physiology of champion runners, lifters and sprinters are shaped, in large part, by genetics?"