Sport and genetics

Athletic Achievement Isn't in the Genes

By Alan Mozes

Citing personal experience and recent discoveries in the mapping of the human genome, a black Olympic medalist from Kenya and a white American science writer joined forces to strike a blow against so-called "scientific racism."


Speaking against the backdrop of a new survey that found almost 50% of Americans believe athletic ability is determined by one's genes, they stated flatly that hitting a winning home run or running the fastest mile is a question of developing skills and hard training--not race.

World-renowned science philosopher and Harvard University professor of geology Dr. Stephen Jay Gould spoke on the subject Saturday at a forum on race and sports at The New School University in New York. He was aided by Kipchoge Keino, the long-distance runner and two-time Olympic champion who serves as the president of Kenya's National Olympic Committee.

Gould and Keino took pains to debunk the notion that sports ability can be linked to the presence of any particular human gene, or that some races are, therefore, more athletically advantaged than others.

"There's incredibly little average difference among our so-called racial it is literally absurd to say that Africans, for example, are better than others in sports," said Gould. He emphasized that to understand an athlete's success in, for example, track events, it is much more revealing to look at a host of factors--social, environmental and biological--rather than to search in vain for a single "speed gene."

Gould specifically made note of the unexpectedly small number of genes--approximately 30,000--identified over the past year as forming the totality of the human genome. Such a relatively small pool means that human abilities and traits are the result of a complex combination of genes working together, he said.

"It's pretty clear that understanding human anatomy is not achieved in a reduction down to one gene," Gould said. "You have to understand organisms as organisms."

The race and sports discussion was sponsored by The Gene Media Forum, a nonprofit group that seeks to encourage debate on issues related to new developments in gene research. To further stimulate the discussion, the organizers released the findings of a national poll conducted by Zogby International in March.

In a survey of 1,200 Americans over the age of 18, the pollsters found that while 46% did not think sports ability is linked to genes, a substantial minority--43%--did think that some races have a natural athletic advantage over others. Among those aged 18 to 49, 59% believed that East Africans--many of whom have performed well in international track events over the past few decades--do indeed have a "speed gene."

Keino seconded Gould in disputing such notions. "We are all the same, but it depends on the training you do," he stressed. "We develop stamina and speed--physically and mentally...and any achievement of any sports is about hard work."

Keino added that such biologically insupportable views are both insulting and racist by implicitly dismissing the effort, focus and determination of some athletes as nothing more than window-dressing for success they were born to easily achieve.

Source: Originally appeared in Reuters Health on April 9, 2001.

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