Genetics and Athletic Performance
Genetics and Athletic Performance
The correlation between genetics and athletic performance has long been a general topic of discussion among scientists, athletes, coaches, sports fans, and the general public, particularly in light of the success of African and African-American athletes in certain sports. The notion of racial differences in athletic performance has been connected by some scientists to the amount of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles possessed by different “racial” groups. This raises the question of whether a specific racial group might be inherently better at certain athletic events. To answer this question in the affirmative would mean that the members of a racial group share some genetically transmitted traits.
Many experts have come to view “race” as a socially constructed phenomenon, with racial categories often based on physical attributes, skin color, and other identifiable physical characteristics, not on genetic differences. This system of categorizing groups is not recognized by social scientists as a valid method of defining humans. Indeed, modern genetic science has found little genetic variation between the so-called races. In addition, in attempting to distinguish groups by race, many tend to ignore important socioeconomic variables, including economic, political, cultural, and social factors.
The analysis of race as a factor in athletic performance has launched a spate of social and biomedical studies, and several factors have been examined to see if they contribute to the making of an elite athlete. This question takes on a particular fascination when certain ethnic groups show signs of dominating in certain sports. In particular, the success of African Americans in basketball, of East Africans in middle- and long-distance running, and of individuals of West African descent in sprinting have fueled speculation about racial and genetic differences. However, some genetic research scholars have utilized genotype as a founding principle towards the inherited fundamental metabolic racial differences theory.
On one side of the debate is the author Jon Entine. In his book Taboo (2000), Entine states that the scientific evidence for black athletic superiority is overwhelming. His theoretical framework is based on the belief that racial populations have evolved functional biomechanical and physiological differences that can and do determine the outcome of elite athletic competition Likewise, John Hoberman, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin, contends it is possible that there is a population of West African origin that is endowed with an unusual proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers. He also states that it is “likely that there are East Africans whose resistance to fatigue, for both genetic and cultural reasons, exceeds that of other racial groups” (1997) Attempting to understand the biological and sociological implications associated with these notions could have a major impact on the multiple discourses concerning genetics and athletic performance.
On the other side of the debate is the sociologist Harry Edwards. According to Edwards, “The argument that blacks are physically superior to whites is merely a racist ideology camouflaged to appeal to the ignorant, the unthinking and the unaware” (Burfoot 1992). Dr. Edwards challenged the notion of racial categories by questioning what portion or percentage of being black constitutes or supports the physical superiority debate. The ideology of biological determinism contends that genetic differences can be used to explain complex linked genetic traits associated with athletic success. The publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1996) signaled an important debate regarding race and IQ and further fueled the discussion regarding race, sport and genetics. Hoberman, Burfoot, and Entine infer that research suggests that different phenotypes are encoded in the genes, conferring genotypic differences that may result in an advantage in certain sports.
In the 1990s, Bengt Saltin, the head of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre in Denmark, conducted research on the physiology of Kenyan and Swedish distance runners. His findings indicate there are differences in the cross-sectional area of the muscle of the two groups, but no significant differences in the muscle fibers or in physiological variables related to fatigue (Hoberman 1997).
In the years since the Saltin study, other scientists have ruled out most explanations for Kenyans’ dominance in long-distance running. Many had speculated that Kenya’s altitude was a factor, but no difference has been found between Kenyans and Scandinavians in their capacity to consume oxygen. The speculation that Kenyans have larger lung capacities has also been examined. The fact that many of these runners were training at higher altitude levels may have contributed to the capacity to expend as well as process oxygen. Researchers observed greater percentages of combined effects skeletal muscle oxidative
capacity and the percentage of type 1 fibers accounts for 72 percent of the variance in the body oxygen consumption. The final determination was that a range of factors contribute to the dominance of East African runners to include environmental, social, psychological, and physiological variables. One significant finding is that Kenyans can resist fatigue longer than athletes from other nations. Specifically, the lactate generated by tired, oxygen-deprived muscles accumulates more slowly in their blood. Comparisons of lactate levels have suggested that Kenyan runners squeeze about 10 percent more oxygen from the same intake as Europeans. J. E. Lindsay Carter, a professor emeritus in the Department of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, has conducted several studies of Olympic athletes, and he has observed that the biomechanical demands of a particular sport limit the range of physiques that can satisfy these demands. Optimal performance in certain activities involving endurance activities are partially dependent on skeletal muscle characteristics. This would include activities such as swimming, long distance running, and long distance cycling. A larger amount of type 1 fibers in the primary muscles of the lower limbs is directly associated with increased performance outcomes in association with aerobic energy. Thus body type and skeletal make up factors into athletic performance and type of activity.
Claude Bouchard, the director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, is considered one of the world’s most renowned researchers and sport geneticists. His research on human obesity shows that the degree of fat deposition in humans is largely determined by heredity. From these findings he has determined the hereditability of some human traits, including some that have a direct relationship to athletic performance. For example, his findings indicate that anaerobic power is from 44 percent to 92 percent inherited. That a trait is inherited does not mean that it is inherent to a “race.”
Bouchard has also examined physiological differences between white French Canadians and black West Africans, particularly comparing muscle-fiber percentages. He found that the West Africans had significantly more fast-twitch fibers and anaerobic enzymes than the whites. Many sport physiologists believe that fast-twitch muscle fibers create explosiveness, which can be channeled into distinct advantages during competition, specifically in sprinting and other short-duration events.
Briefly, skeletal muscles are divided into two groups based on their contractile speed: type I, or slow-twitch muscles, and type II, or fast-twitch muscles. Endurance runners, in general, have more type I fibers, which tend to have denser capillary networks and are packed with more mitochondria. Sprinters, on the other end of the spectrum, have more type II fibers, which tend to hold more significant amounts of sugar and certain enzymes that can burn fuel in lieu of oxygen. It has been suggested that there is a difference in the types of muscle fibers that predominate in certain racial groups. Bouchard’s findings seem to support this view. Bouchard took biopsies from the thigh muscles of white Canadians and West African students. He concluded that Africans averaged significantly more fast twitch muscle fibers (67.5) than the Canadians (59). The study suggests that in West Africa there may be a larger pool of people with elevated levels of oxygen uptake. The challenge to this research comes in the form of many sociologists that contend the basic hypothesis of superior athleticism associated with race is fundamentally meaningless. It is the actual social values associated with the discussion of speed, strength and endurance in relationship to race that should be of concern. St. Louis (2003) argues that the appropriation of scientific method constructs racial athleticism through a naïve inductive approach. Davis (1992) contends that white male athletes that compete at elite levels in certain sports are taken as the norm and their performance is not seen as requiring an explanation as to their dominance. However, while some point to the dominance of Kenyan runners, they also question the lack of Africans in other endurance sports, such as cycling. There are certainly multiple sporting events that require very high levels of endurance, yet only within certain sports do certain individual ethnic groups tend to dominate. If a specific group possesses exemplary fast-twitch muscles, why does that group only dominate in certain sports? The only answer seems to be that other factors play an equally important role.
Several debates have stemmed from research on race and athletic performance. The collision of scientific and cultural frameworks is sharply divided. Considering genetic linearity as an absolutism counters the notion of socialized phenotypes, characteristics, and cultures. Many scientists now isolate groups based on genotype patterns, rather than identifying races by facial characteristics or geography (Brownlee 2005).
Georgia Dunston, the founding director of Howard University’s National Human Genome Center in Washington, D.C., studies how the human immune system distinguishes between a person’s tissues and foreign material, such as a bacterium or transplanted organ. According to Dunston, “We have this thinking in America that there are some deep differences in biology between whites and blacks, that tissue in whites is more similar to tissues in whites than tissue in blacks, but when we look at the genetics, because of the tremendous variations in all groups, and especially in the group called black, it is not uncommon at all to find two blacks who could be very different from each other” (Brownlee 2005). Another perspective is based on research conducted by Rushton (2000). His findings were that genes play a part in IQ, personality, attitudes and other behaviors. Trans-racial adoption studies are where infants of one race are adopted and reared by parents of a different race. Regression analysis contends that genes cause races to differ in personality and that only cultural theory can not fully explain his results.
The dominance of black athletes in certain sports has also been attributed to factors such as social Darwinism. In this view, black dominance is associated with slavery, genetic selection, and psychological and physiological adaptations to a person’s physical and social environment. The theory of stereotype threat is based on the idea that individuals believe what is postulated about their racial and genetic makeup, and that these beliefs are more important than their actual ability. Jeff Stone, a professor of social psychology at the University of Arizona, gave black and white students a laboratory golf task intended to measure natural athletic ability, sport intelligence or sport psychology, depending on which test was given. According to Stone, nothing changed in the test itself, just the perception of what the test measured. Black and white students scored equally well on the controlled psychology test. However, blacks outperformed whites when the test was framed as a measure of natural ability, while the whites outperformed blacks when the test was framed as a measure of sport intelligence. The concept of stereotype threat may provide additional frameworks with which to examine genetic or racial factors in relation to athletic performance as well as performance in other areas. The research suggests that beliefs about one’s self-efficacy and ability can have a large impact on both individual and group performances.
Similar research has been conducted in the area of standardized testing. Minorities typically score lower on such tests than non-Hispanic whites. The social psychologist Claude Steele has examined the effect of stereotype threat on standardized intelligence scores. He found that black students scored as well as white students on standardized intelligence tests when the tests were framed as diagnostic tests that did not measure intellectual capacities. His findings concluded that psychological factors may perpetuate perceptions that impact one’s self efficacy to accomplish and complete tasks. The test itself was not the variable, but the variables surrounding the test. This included resources available to students, quality of delivered learning objectives, positive reinforcement, and diagnostic tools. If one is consistently reinforced that they are capable of mastering certain skill sets, their psychological approach to the task will impact the results. This finding suggests that situational variables, including cultural, social, and environmental factors, play a role in the lower scores of some groups.
Thus, while some research indicates there are distinct differences in the biological make-up of certain ethnic groups, other research indicates that physical superiority is not contingent on physical phenomena, but on demographic and socioeconomic variables. However, theories of racial factors determining athletic superiority have been challenged by the emergence of international athletes competing in events that have traditionally been dominated by African Americans or other groups. For example, athletes from a number of nations have begun to emerge and excel in professional basketball, a sport dominated in recent decades by African Americans. This suggests that environmental factors play a significant role in achieving success in this sport. Likewise, in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, Jeremy Wariner, a white American from Texas, won the gold medal in the 400-meter sprint, an event previously dominated by individuals of African ancestry.
Persons of color have also begun to make inroads in sports usually dominated by whites. In tennis, a sport in which wealth and class certainly convey a great advantage,
Venus and Serena Williams have made it to the top of the professional ranks, while James Blake and others have had success in men’s tennis. The performance of Tiger Woods in golf, which has also been long dominated by whites, may lead to more in-depth analysis of biological versus sociocultural impacts on athletic performances.
Tiger Woods and James Blake are also of interest here because they are both of mixed descent and ethnicity. They both compete at the elite level among their peers, but both are difficult to label or categorize in terms of racial identification. Indeed, due to the extensive interactions of various cultures, it is becoming more and more difficult to clearly define a person’s true ethnicity. Thus, the notion of “race” has taken on multiple dimensions. It is, in fact, difficult to get most scientists to say the word “race” when referring to people. In traditional scientific language, races are synonymous with subspecies, or organisms within the same species that can be interbred but are nevertheless genetically distinctive.
Races are not clearly defined biological categories. Attempts to create racial categorizations tend to intersect ethnically and culturally. Human racial categorization attempts to construct and determine defined structures of racial formations. Many times individuals may be a blend of several ethnicities as well as cultures. This creates challenges to the traditional mode of categorization of race and human subjects.
There have been multiple studies conducted relating to the social, economic, and cultural factors that influence athletic performance. But regardless of the possible existence of physiological findings, or the indications that sociological factors contribute significantly to the performance of athletes, it is likely that there will always be multiple discourses at play when discussing these issues. Research will continue to explore the subject of racial difference in athletic performance, and physiologists, sociologists, and scientists will continue to expand, investigate, and postulate theories concerning this topic.
Baker, J., and S. Horton. 2003. “East African Running Dominance Revisited: A Role for Stereotype Threat?” British Journal of Sports Medicine 37 (6): 553–555.
Brownlee, Christen. 2005. “Code of Many Colors: Can Researchers See Race in the Genome?” Science News 167 (15): 232–234.
Burfoot, Ambrose. 1992. “White Men Can’t Run.” Runners World 27 (8): 89–95.
Eitzen, D. Stanley, and Maxine Baca Zinn. 2006. Social Problems, 10th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
Entine, Jon. 2000. Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. New York: Public Affairs.
Hoberman, John M. 1997. Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Steele, Claude M., and Joshua Aronson 1995. “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811.
Stone, Jeff, Christian I. Lynch, Mike Sjomeling, and John M. Darley. 1999. “Stereotype Threat Effects on Black and White Athletic Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1213–1227.
Fritz G. Polite
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