In the run up to the men’s 200 meter final during the London 2012 Olympics, the BBC aired a short documentary on eugenics, which advanced the theory that sprint races are dominated by black athletes due to natural selection and the legacy of slavery. Narrated by veteran broadcaster John Inverdale, the segment was immediately followed by a panel discussion featuring three Olympic sprinters, Colin Jackson, Michael Johnson and Denise Lewis.
All three were black.
“The fact is that not a single white athlete has contested the men’s 100 meter final in the Olympics for 32 years,” Inverdale says, opening the piece, “Eight-two people have broken ten seconds for 100 meters and 81 of them have been black.”
He goes on to add that Christophe Lemaître, a Frenchman, is the only white sprinter who has broken ten seconds, and that only four whites have run the 200 meter under 20 seconds, setting up the argument that “the whole issue of nature or nurture” has been brought into sharp focus.
Over the backdrop of sprinters running in slow motion, gene research and footage of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) doing synchronized routines, Inverdale discusses Charles Darwin’s 1859 work, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, made immediately recognizable by the phrase Darwin would add in a later edition, “survival of the fittest.”
Inverdale relates how Hitler’s scientists sought to accelerate the evolutionary process, which Darwin’s theory proposed, through the use of eugenics—the controversial science of improving the genetic composition of a population.
“There was a negative side,” he comments, “the elimination of defectives that corrupted the gene pool. The most distorted manifestation of this science was Nazi Germany.”
“Through eugenics, those deemed undesirable by the Nazis—the Roma, the promiscuous, Communists, homosexuals, the entire Jewish race—could be exterminated. Genetic cleansing became genocide.”
But Hitler’s notion of the superiority of the “Aryan race” was challenged by the achievements of Jessie Owens—“this destroyer of the Aryan myth.” And ever since Eddie Tolan won the 100 meter final at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Olympic sprint events have been dominated by black athletes.
Inverdale goes on to contend that “black power” has led to this almost single domination of the sport, domination due largely to the fact that each of the sprinters can trace their ancestry back to West Africa and to slaves.
“Who was it,” Inverdale intones, his voice rising above the documentary’s soaring music, “that survived being put in shackles, packed into slave ships and taken across the ocean?” “Who was it,” he continues, “that survived the life of forced labour on the cotton and sugar plantations? The fittest; only the fittest could survive.”
Inverdale then offers seemingly incontrovertible scientific evidence for the success of black athletes. “The latest suggestion in the science of sprinting is that you need the non-muted version of the alpha-actinin skeletal muscle isoform 3 gene,” he says, quickly adding, “Who could argue with that?”
Likely known to but a few British viewers—the segment was not broadcast in the U.S.—similar “incontrovertible scientific evidence” was offered as proof of the validity of phrenology, the pseudoscience developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall and made popular in the 19th century.
Used as a justification for European superiority over “lesser races,” phrenology suggested that “mental abilities” could be determined by means of measurements of the human skulls. Accordingly, blacks were deemed incapable of intellectual thought and best suited for physical labor—or by extension, activity—albeit supervised by Whites.
The supposition that nature trumps nurture—particularly in its application to black achievements as a direct result of biology and “natural” physical abilities (while those of Whites are perceived to be due to character and intellect)—has been a long standing notion, even though it has largely been dismissed by the scientific community.
Following Owens success at the 1936 Olympics, Hitler argued that blacks “were essentially animals, physically stronger than the ‘civilised whites’ and that they needed to be banned from future competitions.”
But even some within Owens’ own delegation offered little in the way of support for the athlete. Dean Cromwell, then assistant head coach of the 1936 U.S. track team said of Owens and other blacks representing the United States:
“The negro excels in the events he does because he is closer to the primitive than the white man. It was not long ago that his ability to sprint and jump was a life-and-death matter to him in the jungle.”
And some fifty years later, in a comment that all but portends the premise of the BBC documentary, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder shared many of these sentiments. In a 1988 interview with a local, Washington, D.C. reporter, which was later re-broadcast on national television, Snyder said:
“The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because—this goes all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade’n—the […] slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he would have a big black kid.”
Pernicious and somewhat pervasive, the nature over nurture argument—notably the belief that the prowess of black athletes is largely the result of the natural selection process borne out of slavery—has become widespread, even among those who should question its validity most. During the week prior to the broadcast of the BBC segment, American sprinter Michael Johnson narrated a program, Survival of the Fastest, for the UK’s Channel 4, in which he argued that blacks, with a higher testosterone level, had a “superior athletic gene.”
Johnson appears to understand the implications of linking slavery and “natural selection” to black athletic ability. “I’m lifting the lid on a heartbreaking story with inhumanity at its core,” he says. “It’s a controversial connection that could be exploited by racists.”
But blacks’ higher testosterone level, Johnson ultimately concludes, and the transatlantic voyage, as difficult as it was and as tragic as it was for so many Africans, “has actually benefited some of the world’s great athletes.”
Notwithstanding the fact that it would fail to apply to Britain’s Jessica Ennis, Russia’s Mariya Savinova or, conversely, to any of the Jamaican women athletes who failed to medal, perhaps we are left to extend Johnson’s theory to American sprinter Lolo Jones, who came in fourth in the women’s 100 meter hurdles event.
Because Jones’ mother couldn’t pass on the “superior” gene apparently shared by American sprinters Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter, Francena McCorory, Sanya Richards-Ross or Dee Dee Trotter.
Lori Jones is White.