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Race and sports not a black-and-white issue

By Ross Atkin / June 15, 2000



TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It By Jon Entine Public Affairs 387 pp., $25

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Long before the starter's gun is raised for the men's 100-meter Olympic final in Sydney this September, one prediction about the runners seems safe: Most will share a similar African heritage.

This projection, Jon Entine would say, is not an embarrassingly racist forecast, but an acknowledgment of the evidence: All 32 finalists at the last four Olympics have been descendants of West Africans.

In "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It," Entine goes where few care to go by taking a serious look at the connections between race and athletic performance.

Entine, a journalist, once worked on a 1989 NBC documentary with Tom Brokaw, called, "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." A black friend of Brokaw's quietly withdrew his friendship for a while after the program aired, a sign of how charged the air is about this hush-hush subject.

The author says he's written this book because ignoring the issue only invites racial polarization and also because "science is catching up to curiosity, unlocking the mystery of the genes." "Taboo" in a sense is two books in one, a social history of the black athlete and an examination of biogenetic theories and research.

Are black athletes better than the rest? The author says there isn't a short and simple answer. This is clear in Entine's balanced, comprehensive presentation of a mountain of relevant data, even if such heavy-duty science risks losing a general audience.

While not accepting the politically correct notion that athletic performance differences are strictly cultural, he doesn't chalk up everything to biology, either. Sports success, he concludes, is a bio-social phenomenon.

Biology questions are so inflammatory because of their association with racism and the tendency to take relatively minor differences and draw sweeping, qualitative conclusions about whole groups of people.

Black sprinter Jesse Owens, of course, helped undermine Hitler's claims of Aryan supremacy during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But it was boxer Joe Louis who is often considered the more influential figure for his victory over Max Schmeling in 1938.

Entine says this triumph was considered the defining moment in the lives of many older American blacks, since Louis managed to deliver a knockout blow to "race science" by defeating the symbol of Hitler's racial beliefs.

Ironically, the victory also concerned the black middle class, which didn't want sports to replace churches and schools as the major focuses of the black community. To some degree, this is what has happened since Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947. Some of the numbers are striking. More than 40 percent of pro-baseball players are now black or Latino, a figure that has come to look low compared with the National Football League, which is 65 percent black, and the National Basketball Association, which is so overwhelmingly black (80 percent) that Jason Williams, a rare white star, is nicknamed "White Chocolate."

But sadly, black athletes have had to contend with the stereotypes that would limit their opportunities to fill on-field leadership slots - the so-called thinking positions - such as quarterback. As this changes, some of the focus is now shifting to greater acceptance of black head coaches.

The point Entine makes is that human potential is not a blank slate at birth, but we are "far from a fully written book." Also, that racial boundaries are blurry, fuzzy sets and that environment and culture "can enhance or diminish whatever tiny variations linked to evolution that may exist."

Consequently, when looking at the phenomenal success of distance runners from Kenya's Rift Valley, one shouldn't discount the warrior spirit of the Kalenjin people any more than the importance of southern California's aquatic culture in developing world-class, white swimmers.

American Frank Shorter, a former Olympic marathon champion, says that "the game is over" now that East African runners enjoy the same access to agents, and lucrative running careers that once gave others an advantage. It's gotten to the point, Entine says, that most non-Kenyans consider themselves out of the running before races even begin.

Could this sort of thing eventually shrink Olympic participation or lead to competitive divisions based on racial ancestry? These are gnawing questions that "Taboo" doesn't address, but leaves implicitly on the table.

*Ross Atkin is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society