Has slavery made sprinters?

2012-07-21 18:38

An American Olympic legend says the reason Jamaicans and African-Americans are such superb sprinters is simple: it’s because of their slave ancestry.

This year’s 100 metres for men – which is regarded as the Games’ blue-ribbon event – again has its quota of Jamaicans and Americans among the favourites: Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell, Michael Frater, Nesta Carter, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Marc Burns.

Michael Johnson, winner of four Olympic golds in athletics, believes the descendants of West African slaves shipped to America and the Caribbean islands have a genetic advantage in athletics.

He says this is because only the strongest slaves survived the horrific trip and conditions.

Johnson told the British press this week that research supports this contention.

Slaves from West Africa were subjected to strict “selection processes”, and then selective “propagation methods” were applied by the slave owners in America and on the Caribbean Islands, Johnson said.

But not all top athletes agree. Former Olympic champion Linford Christie says Jamaica performs so well because “athletics is a Jamaican way of life”. Christie represented Britain in 1992, but was brought up in Jamaica.

Dr Francois Cleophas, a lecturer in sport history at Stellenbosch University, told City Press he respected Johnson’s perspective, “but it is one of many. Of course, your sprinting performance depends on your DNA, but also on outside factors.

“It’s been said the Kenyans do so well in long distances because they live in the mountains, high above sea level. But then why don’t Tibetans do well in long distances? They live even higher. It’s because the Kenyans concentrate on long distances in their school sports,” Cleophas says.

Dr Ross Tucker, exercise physiology expert and joint author of The Runner’s Body, said the science of success was a matter of the combination of many key factors.

“There is a factor like genes or inherent ability. But exercise and genes work together – they don’t exclude one another.

“Studies comparing Jamaican sprinters and East African long-distance runners have not yet identified any specific gene that would make a difference. They show that genes do contribute to success, but only to a minimal extent at the highest, elite levels.”

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