Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Race, Genes, and Sports Performance: What do We Know?

Deadspin recently posted an article on an unfortunate snafu by Darren Rovell. He essentially argued that Meb Keflezighi's NYC Marathon win was not truly "American", because Meb was born elsewhere. Meb moved here when he was 12, however, so Darren sounded as if he only accepted "certain" Americans as fully American. He apologized, as he should have.

However, in taking Darren to the woodshed, Deadspin itself seemed to tread on dangerous ground in trying to insist that race is just one of many factors in top distance runners. There is no question that the Kenyans and other East Africans focus a lot more on distance running than many other countries do; cultural elements (and geography) have a big impact. However, in the last paragraph especially, Tommy Craggs seemed to veer away from solid ground in claiming that "It's not a debate. It's science and common sense on one side and on the other a handful of grumpy people who've decided that the genetic advantages that may or may not sort themselves according to race somehow matter more than the countless other genetic advantages all world-class athletes necessarily possess."

This is an attempt to state that runners are a mix of culture, circumstance, and geological phenomena...while trying to poo-poo race and genes as not a dominant factor. The expert in the New York Times story states
"Scientists have looked for — but not found — genes specific to East Africans that could account for their distance ability, said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race and sports. But, he said, “there is a difference between saying we don’t have a scientifically respectable conclusion and the very broad and perhaps mistaken claim that there is no physiological phenomenon here whatsoever.”Regarding the question of whether East Africans have a genetic advantage, Hoberman said, “We don’t know.

Special cases and outliers are notoriously hard to measure. No, they haven't found that exact connection, but no, they aren't shutting the door to there being one either. So to argue that science and common sense is on any single side of measuring the impact of race on genes on sports performance is already debateable. I did some further research and found the BBC's article, written by a statistician. As Kenya was able to achieve the same level of training and coaching that the British runners had, thus leveling the playing field--suddenly, Kenyan runners were far superior. This seems to indicate that when other factors such as training are controlled, genetic (or geographic) differences are the difference between finishing first or fifth. Also, the BBC statistician says " Kenya's men are stronger in depth in the marathon than any other country in a single discipline in athletics." It's so marked a domination that 65 of the world's top 100 marathoners are Kenyan.

Look, race in sports is a very tricky issue. I cringe at blanket statements like "Whites are better in golf" or what have you. But East African runners may indeed be the only true example where one group has a provable genetic advantage over another that can't be explained by culture, nutrition, or, well, genetic bingo cards. Why is that such a scary thought for some to contemplate? I believe that some worry that pointing out racial differences lead to some nationalities being relegated to more menial tasks than others. However, open-minded people can still appreciate diversity even if it means that some of us may have pre-ordained genetic gifts, related to race, to be better than others in some limited, narrow areas. Unfortunately, in justifiably trying to point out what was wrong with Rovell, Deadspin seems to have fallen into its own trap. What do We Know about Race, Genes, and Sports Performance? Absolutely nothing, I fear--and I am sure I created my own mistake and fallacy in writing this blog. I don't think it should stop us from discussing these issues; but we should be well-aware that in correcting the mistakes of others, we tend to create our own.

1 comment:

  1. You make good points - but there are a lot of extra variables that may or may not come in to play in a situation like this. You mention the study where the Africans trained with Brits and then outperformed the Britons.

    Was their diet the same? The Terahumara in Mexico eat almost only beans, corn, tortillas and chia water. Moving beyond diet, what kind of shoes did they have? It's almost silly to do a direct comparison unless every single thinkable variable is maintained.

    That being said, there's very likely a societal difference in the way that running is approached in various cultures that can't be attributed into a genetic test. I think that there very likely are inherent characteristics to East African culture that provide better runners - but it's difficult to know whether they are in fact genetic or are more societal in nature.