I get goose bumps when I see these stories because someone's career is about to take a turn, one both unexpected and unintended, for the worst:
This disparity in athletic achievement, obvious to Olympic viewers, throws up so many sensitive questions of race and human difference that it is rarely discussed in public. But now two US academics have risked controversy by publishing a theory that attempts to explain the contrasting performance of black and white athletes using the laws of locomotion.
They argue that black sprinters have a 0.15 second advantage over their white rivals because they tend to have a higher centre of gravity, meaning they can fall to the ground more quickly between each stride. Conversely, having a lower then average centre of gravity helps white swimmers because their speed is determined by the height they can get above water.
More of their upper bodies are above the waterline, so they can generate and ride larger waves.
Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in North Carolina, and Dr Edward Jones of Howard University in Washington, used existing data on the body dimensions of soldiers of various nationalities to determine that black people – or more precisely those of West African origin – have a centre of gravity three per cent higher than white people.
Prof Bejan said the theory “completely accounts” for the increasing racial segregation of Olympic podiums.
As a society, we have struggled long and hard to disabuse the masses of any notion that race is a biological construct. Nevertheless, we often confront the Occam's razor test for what constitutes knowledge on these matters: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be a duck. So then, when one group seemingly dominates a sport for example, some then make a leap of faith regarding all other members of said "racial" group. In short, biology mates with performance to become destiny.
We have to be careful here because the relationship between race and science is so ugly, perilous, and barbaric. However, we must also ask ourselves should these questions about biology and race be pursued precisely because we are afraid of them? And what to do with knowledge (however socially inconvenient) that in other contexts may yield some social good--here for example, research on diseases that are almost exclusive to certain "racial" groups?
We know that race is a true lie (there is only one race, the human race). But there is something oddly compelling about the study of inter-group difference and assumed phenotypical differences.
Ultimately, I would suggest that these stories about race and athletic prowess tell us more about culture, values, and relative returns on investment than anything about biology. Black folk are not naturally good jumpers and runners, thus their predominance in the NBA. No, there is a self-fulfilling narrative that some black folk who grow up in ghetto communities gravitate to a game that is cheap to play, assigns local prestige, and which seems to offer the illusion of escape from the 'hood. In the early 20th century it was Jews who dominated basketball in the U.S. for many of the same reasons:
Could it be that West Africans, and in particular folks from the African ethnic groups studied have a cultural and financial incentive to invest in running? Or more generally, that whites dominate swimming because of the many cultural, geographic, and financial incentives for them to learn and excel at that particular sport?
The problem with the argument that West African blacks and white swimmers are somehow designed differently (and thus these divergent outcomes) is one of incompleteness: The math and physics may be right, but the conclusion is methodologically insufficient because the model excludes the variables of culture and history.
The full story follows here.