In the Olympics or any other competition involving different countries, ethnic groups often get compared to one another–how Soviet athletes were best at weightlifting or how Kenyans and other athletes of East African origin always seemed to finish first in races. Commentators would mention it’s because of genetics.
Is this ethnic explanation factual? Does race play a role in dictating how well you do in sports? Does the ethnicity you identify with make you naturally stronger? Let’s take a closer look at what’s been discussed about this topic thus far.
When it comes to strength, people often turn to weightlifting to gauge one’s prowess. And when it comes to weightlifting, Slavic athletes seem to gain the upper hand. Jon Entine, who wrote a book entitled “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It,” attributed the victories achieved by Slavic weightlifters to their stocky physique–muscular yet short limbs.
However, competitors from other countries also had a similar height and general physique, so this couldn’t be the reason. Even when you apply this explanation to other sports such as boxing, it doesn’t hold much water because most events are organized so that athletes compete in their own weight divisions. For instance, there isn’t much information about the participation of black people in weightlifting simply because there have been too few of them in the sport to make any conclusions.
Physique and physical skill
There is however, some truth in the proposition that race makes one fit for a particular activity or skill. Take a look at the following examples:
- Athletes of West-African origin have a lower body fat, giving them advantage in sports such as sprinting, basketball and American football.
- Athletes of East-African descent have elongated limbs and bodies that dissipate heat easily and lack a fully developed lower calf muscle, making them more physically fit to take on long distance running.
- Blacks have denser skeletons than Caucasians, making them less buoyant in water. This means they will have to work twice as hard in swimming competitions, which is why you rarely see them winning in sports that involve swimming.
- Athletes of Asian descent generally have a smaller body size than those of African origin, but they excel in sports that require agility, coordination and quick movements.
A biocultural explanation
What seems to be a more plausible explanation to physical prowess and race involves not only genetic factors, but the environment and culture as well. Your race may give you the physique, but without proper training and support, genetics will be meaningless in any competitive sport. Entine’s biocultural explanation states that small but significant variations in physical performance related to race can be amplified or diminished by cultural conditions.
For instance, one may have the physique that can be considered a good basis for weightlifting, but if that person doesn’t have the proper sporting opportunities such as lack of access to facilities, or even the recognition of his potential, the race he belongs to fails to become a factor.
On the other hand, someone who may not have been born with the “right genes” for a particular sport may end up achieving victory because of government support, access to training facilities, proper nutrition, application of sports science and having the best coaches around. Therefore, strength isn’t just about what runs in your blood–athletic performance requires so much more than that.