Track and Field

views updated May 29 2018

Track and Field






Track and field athletic events had their origins in the Olympic Games of ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago. Track and field consists of a variety of running, walking, jumping, hurdling, and throwing events that take place between competing individuals or teams. The running and hurdling events range in length from the 50-meter sprint to the marathon (26 miles, 385 yards long). These events require different combinations of strength, speed, stamina, and agility.

The idea that any particular group of people, a race or national group, should dominate track and field as a whole is absurd. However, at various times in the history of European society, this view has been propagated (e.g., the superiority of the Aryan athlete on the verge of the 1936 Olympic Games). Today’s theories of racial supremacy in track and field revolve around the claim that various races differ in specific athletic abilities, predisposing them for dominance in a particular series of events. These include claims that North American blacks are superior sprinters and jumpers, hybrid “races” such as North Africans are superior middle-distance runners, and East African blacks are superior long-distance runners. Northern Europeans are claimed to be superior in events related to upper-body strength.

Much of the modern racial theory of track and field has been summarized by popular journalist Jon Entine in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, first published in 2000. Entine claims that human races can be defined, if loosely, and that genetically determined features of these races can be used to predict individual predispositions for success in world-class athletics. He points to the dominance of western African (black) sprinters and jumpers, eastern African (black) long-distance runners, and northern Europeans in strength events. East Asians reputedly excel in flexibility and thus dominate such sports as gymnastics and diving. These claims are made by using patterns in male athletics. Entine recognizes that profound social forces (in particular the denial of athletic opportunities for female athletes) often skew the results of women’s track and field to favor European nations.

The core claims of racial superiority with regard to track and field performances are: (1) that biologically definable races differ in physiology relative to performance in various track and field events; (2) that these biological differences are causal factors producing the patterns of elite performance in track and field; and (3) that there is racial clustering in elite performance in track and field.


Proponents of the alleged West African black advantage in sprinting and jumping often point to muscle physiology, hormone levels, and skeletal advantages. The relationship between running and jumping ability and the genetic differences in muscle-fiber types between “blacks” and “whites” has been linked to supposed differences in sprinting and endurance. Proponents argue that fast-twitch (type IIa and IIx) fibers are good for power and speed, while slow-twitch (type I) fibers are best for endurance. Empirical studies suggest that the legs of a world-class sprinter would have about 80 percent fast-twitch fibers and 20 percent slow-twitch, while the average active person would be expected to have about 50 percent of each. As of 2007, there have been no systematic analyses of muscle-fiber-type distributions in untrained persons around the world.

However, much has been made of the few studies that have examined differences between “racial” groups. For example, a 1986 study examined fast- and slow-twitch muscle types between West African “blacks” and French Canadian “whites.” The authors found that the blacks were 67.5 percent fast muscle, but whites were only 59 percent. Using these averages, and applying a normal curve based on the variability in the data, the researchers concluded that the black curve would have a greater probability of producing fast-muscle percentages consistent with what would be expected in world-class sprinters (they estimated world-class sprinters should have more than 90 percent fast-twitch fibers). Because they believed that the differences in muscle-fiber proportion were genetically determined, and therefore immutable, they claimed blacks were naturally more likely to produce world-class sprinters rather than long-distance runners. However, without a worldwide large-scale sampling of untrained individuals, there is no real way to interpret any differences in muscle-fiber composition among athletes or to make any legitimate comparisons of genetic predispositions for long-distance running. The differences may be a matter of training rather than genetic inheritance.

Even factors as subtle as differences in diet or conditions faced during gestation could influence the expression of various genes, and hence produce a physical difference. Diet influences hormone levels, which can, in turn, influence the proportion of muscle-fiber types in animals. Testosterone level is responsible for the different muscle-fiber percentages between male and female mice (females have more type I fibers). Given that no large-scale studies of muscle-fiber percentage throughout the world have been conducted and that the few existing studies never controlled for dietary factors, claiming that the differences in muscle-fiber percentages result from differences in underlying genes is simply not credible (Graves 2005).

In addition, there are no systematic studies of candidate genes for any features associated with any sort of athletic performance. For example, two studies of American blacks and whites, which examined both inactive college-age men and college football players, show no significant differences in muscle-fiber proportions and muscle architecture (Abe, Brown, and Brechue 1999; Duey et al. 1997). These studies did show, however, that the black athletes had significantly greater quadriceps, hamstring, and bicep muscle thickness compared to the whites, though any number of social or environmental factors could explain these results (such as a longer history of strenuous exercise in the blacks examined).

Intrinsic racial difference in muscle-fiber percentages does not explain the differences currently observed between the number of world-class sprinters of African American and European American origins. The racial typologists claim that there is a greater percentage of blacks whose range of type II muscle fibers is suitable for producing world-class sprinters. Yet even if this greater percentage were ten times more likely to produce world-class sprinters, it would still not explain the observed differences in world-class sprinter distribution. The actual number of world-class sprinters originating from a racial group would depend on the size of the population in question. Using the total population size and the relative proportions of whites and blacks in the United States, one would expect to find 303,118 blacks and 206,672 whites with the genetic architecture required to be world-class sprinters. Proportionately, there should be only 1.46 times more blacks than whites with the proper genetics to be world-class sprinters (Graves 2005). Yet African Americans have dominated sprinting in America in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century in numbers greater than predicted by this theoretical distribution of genotypes. It must be remembered that this scenario assumes that blacks are ten times more likely than whites to have the proper muscle distributions, which data during this stretch of time show is highly unlikely. Therefore, other reasons must be found to explain why whites have not excelled in sprinting.

Genetic differences controlling muscle-fiber types between blacks and whites have been linked to supposed differences in endurance. Generally, long-distance runners are small, light-framed, and have high endurance, which may be linked to the percentage of endurance muscle-fiber types found in an individual. Empirical studies suggest that the legs of a world-class marathon runner have 80 percent slow-twitch and 20 percent fast-twitch muscles. It has been assumed that genetic factors fix the proportion of fiber types, so that training cannot drastically alter their ratio. However, research shows that endurance training can change type IIa fibers into type I fibers and that super-fast-twitch (type IIb) fibers can be changed into type IIa. Strength training, however, does not convert type I into type II fibers (Anderson, Scherling, and Saltin 2000).

Research on the heritability of muscle-fiber determination using monozygotic and dizygotic twins suggests that muscle-fiber distribution is about 45 percent genetic and 40 percent environmental, with about 15 percent of the variance in muscle type explained by sampling and technical error (Simoneau and Bouchard 1995). This means that if all technical error were removed, muscle-fiber distribution could be at most 60 percent genetic. This hardly provides strong support for the idea that running ability is genetically determined, which also means that a biologically racial theory of track and field performance cannot be tenable.

Furthermore, human groups that have been described as “races” are highly variable genetically. A study of Kenyan and Scandinavian long-distance runners showed no differences between their muscle-fiber proportions. In both groups studied, 60 to 70 percent of the muscle fibers were type I (Saltin 1995). A 2004 study that examined untrained individuals and national-class runners in Poland found 41.7 percent of the muscle fibers in the former were type I, while in the latter 64.3 percent were type I. However, without worldwide large-scale sampling of untrained individuals, it is difficult to interpret any differences in muscle-fiber composition among athletes or to make any legitimate comparisons of genetic predispositions for long-distance running.


Another consistent theme used to explain the superior performance of black male athletes is that of their supposedly greater hormone levels. Black males are said to have higher levels of circulating sex hormones called androgens than do whites and Asians. It is further argued that these differences make blacks more aggressive, violent, and lawless. In the early 1990s, a study of racial hormone levels examined males discharged from the U.S. Army between 1965 and 1971. The study examined more than 4,000 non-Hispanic whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans in their late thirties. It was found that the amount of testosterone in the blood was greatest in Asian and Pacific Islanders, followed by blacks, whites, Hispanics, and then Native Americans. After the samples were adjusted for both the age and the weight of the individuals in the groups, the order of the groups changed to blacks, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, whites, and then Hispanics. There were a number of problems with how these data were obtained, but even if one accepts these results, they do not match the predictions of those who claim that socially defined race determines athletic performance. For example, the study predicts that Asian and American Indian men should be more aggressive than white or Hispanic men. Yet American society sees Asian Americans as the model minority group and not as likely to be superstars in aggressive and violent sports such as football or boxing.

Finally, while it is widely known that testosterone levels influence sex drive and aggression in male primates, it is also known that learning strongly modifies the influence of sex hormones. When additional testosterone is given to males, it does not increase their sex drive above normal levels, and testosterone levels are strongly influenced by daily and seasonal rhythms. There is also an extensive literature that shows strong environmental influences on hormone levels. In addition, transient aggression influences testosterone levels in human males. Such factors as tennis matches, stress, collegiate exams, or army basic training can decrease testosterone levels. Studies that have used psychological rating scales to quantify levels of aggression and hostility in human males have found no relationship between aggression and androgen levels (Graves 2005).

Even more revealing is that studies of hormone levels have not found any difference between the testosterone levels of African-American and European-American men. One study found that male testosterone level was correlated with age, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference (Gapstur 2002). When black and white males were compared for testosterone level with only age and BMI being controlled for, black males had about a 3 percent higher testosterone level. However, once waist circumference was included in this analysis, there was no difference between the groups. (The 1992 study of men discharged from the army did not control for BMI or waist circumference.) Furthermore, research concerning the genetic controls of testosterone level show that it is a complex trait. A genome-wide linkage scan for genes controlling steroid hormones found that more than sixteen different genes were involved in the process. The loci were not the same in the black and white families examined in this study, providing strong evidence that many environmental influences alter sex hormone levels.

Once again, the same underlying problem exists in all the biological comparisons of socially constructed races: Unless all the subjects in these testosterone measurements experienced the same environments and the same social conditions, and displayed the same psychological responses to them, such studies are literally meaningless. American society certainly does not treat African American and European-American males equally, so measurements of hormone levels in these groups cannot be correlated to any supposed genetic differences between them, nor can it be posited that hormonal levels determine success in any specific sport.


Environmental and genetic explanations for racial domination in sports ability are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle. The first obstacle is that human genetic variation cannot be unambiguously partitioned into races (Graves 2005). The second problem is that environmental influences that might impact physiological performance are not consistently associated with any particular population (however defined). Finally, any investigation of athletic performance must take into account social, cultural, and economic factors that influence who is likely to have the opportunity to achieve in a given sport at the highest levels.

It is true that general physiological rules control the evolution of human body types—for example, Bergman’s rule, which relates body size to average environmental temperature. This principle states that within the same species, body sizes that evolve in cooler climates will be larger than those in warmer climates. This results because large bodies retain heat better in cooler climates because of smaller surface area to volume ratio. An extension of Bergman’s rule is Allen’s rule, which states that protruding body parts, such as arms and legs, are generally shorter in cooler climates. These rules could be used to explain the differences in body features between Eskimos and northeastern Africans. The former tend to be shorter, have thicker chests, and are short limbed, while the latter are taller, leaner, and long limbed.

Between these extremes, however, many body types exist in human populations. This is particularly true on continents that span great extremes of geography and of climate. China, for example, is nearly 2,200 miles long from north to south. It contains altitudes that include the Tibetan plateau (Mt. Everest, at 29,035 feet) all the way down to sea level. The body proportions exhibited by northern Chinese tend to be different from those found among southern Chinese. Just as well, one would expect different body traits in Tibetans as compared to Chinese from the region around Guangzhou. Yet anthropologists and geneticists almost never think of classifying these groups as different races. In theory, indigenous Tibetans should have some of the best high-altitude physiological adaptations in the world, but these cultures do not produce many world-class distance runners.

While the biomechanical features of individual athletes influence their potential for success in a specific sport, in most portions of the world there is great variation in body types. Africa, for example, exhibits populations as diverse as the Mbuti Pygmies of Central Africa and the Watusi of Kenya. As a group, the Pygmies are very short, while the Watusi are very tall. These groups differ in the frequency of genes that affect height, and most likely have lost sufficient amounts of genetic variation at these loci. However, in large populations, there is more genetic variation within groups than there is between them. This means that in populations of sufficient size, one should observe virtually all body types within any chosen group, even if the average of the body-type features between arbitrarily constructed groups were different. If one accepts the principle that world-class athletes should be rare, then one predicts that a nation’s population size should be an important factor in determining its production of athletes in any sport. What this means is that individuals with both the genetic predisposition for great performance and the environmental circumstances that allow the expression of these genes will be rare, without regard to the racial composition of the country.


If race as a biological grouping is a legitimate factor in determining an individual’s ability to perform at the highest levels in track and field, there should be evidence for it. Much is made of African domination in sprinting events. As of 2006, persons of African descent hold the male and female world records in the 100-meter sprint (Assafa Powell, Jamaica, 9.77 seconds, and Florence Griffith Joyner, United States, 10.49 seconds), and the 200-meter sprint (Michael Johnson, 19.32 seconds, and Florence Griffith Joyner, 21.34 seconds, both from the United States). However, in the 400 meters, a West German woman, Marita Koch, holds the world record at 47.60 seconds; the male record holder is Michael Johnson of the United States, at 43.18 seconds. The world record in the high jump is held by Javier Soto-mayor, a Cuban of some African ancestry, while the woman’s record is held by Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria. The long-jump records are held by Mike Powell, an African American, and Galina Chistyakova of the Soviet

Table 1.
Men’s Top Times in the Mile, as of September 2005
NationNumber of Top TimesNumber of Runners ResponsibleIndividual With Best Time
Note: The number of top 100 performances posted by a nation are given in column two; column three lists the number of individuals from that nation who are responsible for the top performances; column four names the individual from that nation with the top performance and lists his time.
SOURCE: Adapted from the Track and Field All-Time Performances Homepage , (Accessed April 24, 2007).
Morroco162El Guerrouj, 3:43.13*
Kenya2012Ngeny, 3:43.40
Algeria122Morceli, 3:44.39
Great Britain185Cram, 3:46.32
United States145Scott, 3:47.69
Spain55Gonzalez, 3:47.79
Burundi31Niyangabo, 3:46.70
Qatar11Bashir, 3:47.97
Australia11Moltram, 3:48.98
New Zealand51Walker, 3:48.08
Germany11Herold, 3:49.22
Somalia11Bile, 3:49.40
Ireland11Flynn, 3:49.77
Portugal11Silva, 3:49.50
*World Record Holder

Union. The triple-jump world records belong to Jonathon Edwards of the United Kingdom, who does not appear to be of African ancestry, and Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine. The 110-meter-hurdle record for men is shared by Xiang Liu of China and Colin Jackson of the United Kingdom (and of African descent). The women’s record holder in the 100-meter hurdles is Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria. Thus, an examination of the world record holders in various events shows that African Americans are well represented but that Europeans and East Asians are also present. This is a weak case for supporting the idea that blacks are inherently faster sprinters and better jumpers than members of other races.

The claim that “hybrid” races dominate middle-distances is weakly supported by the superiority of male Kenyan and Moroccan runners in the 800 meters, 1,500 meters, and mile events during the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries (see Tables 1 and 2). These runners include Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan who set the world record in the 800 meters in 1997 while running for Denmark, in a time of 1:41.11; and Hicham El

Table 2.
Men’s Top Times in the 1500 Meters (Metric Mile) as of September 2005
NationNumber of Top TimesNumber of Runners ResponsibleIndividual With Best Time
Note: The number of top 100 performances posted by a nation are given in column two; column three lists the number of individuals from that nation who are responsible for the top performances; column four names the individual from that nation with the top performance and lists his time.
SOURCE: Adapted from the Track and Field All-Time Performances Homepage, (Accessed April 24, 2007).
Morroco402El Guerrouj, 3:26.00*
Kenya2010Lagat, 3:26.34
Algeria102Morceli, 3:27.37
Great Britain32Cram, 3:29.67 United
States11Maree, 3:29.77
Spain11Cacho, 3:28.95
Burundi31Niyangabo, 3:29.18
France11Baala, 3:28.98
Bahrain11Ramzi, 3:30.00
Ukraine11Hesko, 3:30.33
Portugal11Silva, 3:30.07
*World Record Holder

Guerrouj of Morocco, the world record holder in the 1,500 meters (3:26.00, set in 1998) and in the mile (3:43.13, set in 1999). However, viewing the entire top 100 times posted in these events, by both men and women, vitiates any racial view of success in middle-distance running. For example, while Moroccan and Algerian males have posted 28 of the top 100 performances in the mile (as of 2005), these times were run by only four individuals. Similarly, twelve Kenyan males have posted 20 of the top 100 times.

Other countries of note on this list are Great Britain and the United States, which have cultural ties to the mile race (English measurement). Thirty-two of the top 100, times in the mile were posted by ten runners (not of West or North African descent) from these two nations.

The fallacy of a genetic explanation for racial prominence is further illustrated when the distribution of the top 100 times in the mile by female runners is examined

Table 3.
Women’s Top Times in the Mile, as of September 2005
NationNumber of Top TimesNumber of Runners ResponsibleIndividual With Best Time
Note: The number of top 100 performances posted by a nation are given in column two; column three lists the number of individuals from that nation who are responsible for the top performances; column four names the individual from that nation with the top performance and lists her time.
SOURCE: Adapted from the Track and Field All-Time Performances Homepage, (Accessed April 24, 2007).
Kenya11Marenga, 4:24
Algeria21Boulmerka, 4:20.79
Great Britain84Pieterse, 4:17.57
United States205Slaney, 4:16.71
New Zealand00 
Germany22Bruns, 4:21.59
Russia1912Masterkova, 4:12.56*
Romania258Ivan, 4:15.61
Ireland51O’sullivan, 4:17.25
Bulgaria22Yatzinska, 4:21.52
Uzbekistan21Zaytseva, 4:22.50
Portugal31Sacramento, 4:23.41
Switzerland11Weyermann, 4:23.92
Poland11Brzezinska, 4:22.96
*World Record Holder

(see Table 3). In 2005, the three nations that dominate male long-distance running (Kenya, Morocco, and Algeria) produced only two women who accounted for three of the top 100 times. Thus, Morocco, which had two males with times in the top 100, produced no women runners who posted times in the top 100. The vast majority of top-100 times have now been run by women from Russia and eastern Europe (these countries have no male runners in the top 100). Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Poland account for 49 of the top 100. Svetlana Masterkova of Russia set the world record of 4:12.56 in 1996. The fastest time by a North African woman is 4:20.79, run by Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria in 1991.

The contribution of cultural factors that contribute to success in middle-distance running is further illustrated by an examination of performances in the 1,500 meters. As with the mile, North African and Kenyan male runners have come to dominate at this distance. In 2005, El Guerrouj held the world record and 16 of the top 100 times at this distance, though only one other

Table 4.
Women’s Top Times in the 1500 Meters (Metric Mile) as of September 2005
NationNumber of Top TimesNumber of Runners ResponsibleIndividual With Best Time
Note: The number of top 100 performances posted by a nation are given in column two; column three lists the number of individuals from that nation who are responsible for the top performances; column four names the individual from that nation with the top performance and lists her time.
SOURCE: Adapted from the Track and Field All-Time Performances Homepage, (Accessed April 24, 2007).
Kenya22Marenga, 3:57.41
Algeria11Boulmerka, 3:55.30
Great Britain21Holmes, 3:57.90
United States22Slaney, 3:57.24
Ukraine64Pozdnyakova, 3:56.50
Germany22Wartenburg, 3:57.71
Russia2312Kazankina, 3:52.47
Romania148Ivan, 3:53.96
China2312Qu, 3:50.46*
Turkey22Ayhan-Top, 3:55.33
Bulgaria11Petrova, 3:57.40
Uzbekistan11Zaytseva, 3:56.14
Portugal11Sacramento, 3:57.71
Switzerland11Weyermann, 3:58.20
Ethiopia11Dulecha, 3:58.38
*World Record Holder

Moroccan runner was in the top 100. Bernard Lagat was the fastest Kenyan at this distance in 2005, holding 20 of the top 100 times (ten other Kenyan athletes were in the top 100). However, runners from Great Britain and the United States, which are based largely on the English rather than the metric system (though Great Britain is scheduled to fully convert to the metric system by 2009), posted only four top-100 times (by three athletes) in the 1,500 meters as of 2005. As previously mentioned, runners from these two nations have fared much better in the mile, which is equivalent to 1,607 meters and is thus a slightly longer race than the 1,500 meters. The 107-meter difference does seem to have an impact on how an athlete trains for the event or for strategies employed in running it. Thus, one cannot infer that an excellent miler will necessarily be an excellent 1,500-meter performer, and vice versa.

The previous point is also supported by the pattern shown in women’s 1,500-meter times (see Table 4). Here

Table 5.
Leading Nations for Track and Field Medals 2004 Summer Olympics
SOURCE: Adapted from the International Olympic Committee website. Olympic Results: Medals by Country. (accessed April 24, 2007).

is seen the emergence of Chinese women as the top performers in the world, a result not predicted by any of the racial typology theories of track and field. The world’s top time at this distance was turned in by Qu Yunxia of China, who posted a time of 3:50.46 in 1993. China accounts for 23 of the top 100 at this distance, with twelve athletes on the list. Russia, meanwhile, also accounts for 23 of the top 100 (with twelve athletes), and Romania has 14 of the top 100 (with eight athletes). Again, the United States and Britain have had much less success in recent years, with only four top-100 times, posted by three athletes. Kenya and Algeria are also similarly reduced with three top-100 times, turned in by the same two athletes as in the mile event.

If the racial characteristics of nations do not predict their success in world track and field, what does? The evidence suggests that since world-class performance is rare and that it requires significant cultural and economic inputs to maintain, then population size and financial means should explain an individual’s chance of becoming a world-class track and field athlete. For example, Table 5 supports this notion. The nations that won the most track and field medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics were nations that had both large populations and high gross domestic products. To test this idea for track and field in the aggregate, a multivariate analysis of variance was performed on the total track and field medal count from the 2004 Summer Olympics (see Table 6). Analysis of variance is a statistical technique that looks at the variance between groups and compares it to the variance within groups. If the variation within groups is greater than the variance between groups, then one concludes that the groups being compared are not statistically different from each other. If the opposite is true, then one concludes that the groups are statistically different from each other. The variables examined were gross domestic product (GDP), population size, and ethnicity/race. Countries were divided into eight categories by gross domestic product (GDP), eight categories by population size, and six categories by race/ethnicity. Five of the race/ethnicity categories were derived from nineteenth-century classification and geographical location: Negroid (sub-Saharan Africa), Caucasoid (northern/western European), Mongoloid (East Asian), Amerindian (Latin American nations), Australoid/Micronesians (nations with indigenous populations that were Australoid), and multiracial nations (nations such as the United States and the Republic of South Africa). The use of the GDP variable was to test the idea that the production of world-class track and field athletes is not influenced by the wealth of the nation.

As seen in Table 6, the results of the analysis support this last notion; GDP was not a statistically significant factor in medals awarded in track and field at the 2004 Olympic Games. Neither was the race/ethnicity of the nation statistically significant. The only statistically significant variable in this analysis was population size. However, the entire model, using GDP, population size, and race/ethnicity together, was significant. This results from the overwhelming impact of population size in determining the nation’s ability to produce track and field medal winners at the 2004 Olympic Games. GDP and race/ethnicity alone were not significant; neither was their interaction significant in this model. These results support the hypothesis that the most reliable indicator of a nation’s ability to produce world-class athletes is not its race/ethnicity but its population size.

An analysis of swimming medals awarded at the 2004 Olympic Games showed that GDP, population size, and race/ethnicity were all significant variables. Of the ninety-two medals in swimming at the 2004 games, only eleven were awarded to individuals not of European ancestry (Japan 8, China 2, and Trinidad Tobago 1). The three medals awarded to the Republic of South Africa went to swimmers of European descent. These results do not support the notion that only northern Europeans can swim; rather, it suggests that world-class swimming competition is still dominated by large, wealthy nations whose participant populations are mainly of European origin (United States, Australia, Germany, and Russia).

Those who wish to champion racial determination of track and field ability might raise the criticism that the racial identification of the nations in the analysis was not correct. The assignment of nations and their athletes followed the standard racial conventions used by the racialists. This argument, however, only strengthens the criticism of biological race as an ambiguous category, thus vitiating their objection. They might point to the fact that this analysis is general and therefore ignores the accomplishments of purported races in

Table 6.
Analysis of Variance: Track and Field Medal Count 2004
Tests of Between-Subjects Effects
Dependent Variable: Track
SourceType III Sum of SquaresdfMean SquareFSig.
SOURCE: Table by Dr. Joseph L. Graves
Corrected Model1067.0013a5718.7207.825.000
RankGDP * RankPop12.57426.2872.628.101
RankGDP * Ethnic5.28641.322.552.700
RankGDP * Ethnic5.40741.352.565.691
RankGDP * RankPop     
Corrected Total1107.68074   
aR Squared = .963 (Adjusted R Squared = .840)

specific events. However, the analysis of specific events in this article undermine this claim. The burden of proof is with the racialists. They must demonstrate a pattern of racial achievement in track and field, which does not exist. Or they must propose a credible mechanism to explain the genetic basis of the racial differences. Scientifically valid evidence for these mechanisms at present does not exist. Thus, the racial explanation of track and field performance fails under the light of even elementary scrutiny of its core claims: Races exist, races differ in genes associated with athletic ability, and racially differentiated genes contribute to world-class track and field excellence.

SEE ALSO Genetic Variation Among Populations; Genetics and Athletic Performance; Olympic Games of 1904; Olympic Games of 1936.


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Joseph L. Graves Jr.

Track and Field

views updated May 29 2018


TRACK AND FIELD athletics in the United States had multiple origins in the early-to mid-nineteenth century. British models were most influential. Scottish immigrants formed Caledonian Clubs in many American cities, and through these the tradition of Highland Games (also called Caledonian Games) brought track and field competition to the East Coast through the mid-1870s. Boston, for example, held its first Highland Games in 1842. In 1849 English long-distance runners demonstrated their sport to large American crowds.

Another important thread, older and harder to trace, is the Native American running and games traditions. One of the first American runners to compel English athletes' notice was Louis "Deerfoot" Bennett, a Seneca Indian who ran in England in 1862, dressed for effect in wolfskin and a feathered headband.

Yet another venue for organized competition was county and state fairs.

As in England, social class distinguished the structures that contained and sponsored track and running events. Caledonian Club events tended to invite all comers, no matter what race or ethnicity. Other British imports, such as the races called "pedestrians," were often largely working-class events. One of the first American pedestrians was held in 1835 at the Union racetrack in New York. Runners competed to cover ten miles in less than an hour. (One out of nine entrants achieved this goal.) Another type of pedestrian was the "six day go as you please" staged in several cities in the mid-nineteenth century. These were endurance events characterized by betting and by the rough informality of that era's urban spectacles. One race in Boston in the mid-1880s was run indoors by contestants from a wide variety of social backgrounds who had coaches and stood to win some money. A final category was the women's walking contest, quite popular in the 1870s. Often lucrative for the winners, these marathon contests, involving thousands of quartermile track circuits per meet, disappeared in the 1880s and are barely remembered today. By the late-nineteenth century the other pedestrians had also shriveled because of widespread corruption and the increasing attraction of more elitist and "legitimate" competitions.

Collegiate and club track and running competitions eventually overwhelmed more populist events. For these athletes, amateur status was a badge of honor. In the 1880s and 1890s, the athletic club model caught on among American elites. These clubs varied from social clubs with fine athletic facilities to clubs primarily for amateur athletes, but in America's gilded age, most clubs developed membership policies defined by income and social prestige. The New York Athletic Club (NYAC) was founded in 1868, and the Boston Athletic Association in 1887. By the late nineteenth century, most American cities had amateur athletic clubs, and the international aspirations of the American clubs were captured in the first American-British meet held at Travers Island, New York, in June 1895, in which the NYAC hosted its London counterpart.

On the collegiate scene, perhaps due to their relative age and their links to elite preparatory schools with track programs and to the city athletic clubs, northeastern universities nurtured many outstanding amateur track and field athletes at the turn of the century. The growth of organized collegiate sports partly reflected middle-class concerns about the fate of rugged manliness in an urban, electrified world. The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletics was founded in 1876. By the 1880s, track and field events encompassed the 100-and 220-yard sprints, the quarter-, half-, and mile runs, hurdles, the broad jump, long jump, pole vault, shot put, 56-pound throw, and hammer throw, and sometimes the half-mile walk. (The marathon would be an Olympic addition.)

In 1896 a fourteen-man team sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association traveled to Athens for the first modern Olympic Games. The young Americans won nine of the twelve track and field events. By the 1912 games, United States track athletes had put the Olympics on their calendars and continued their impressive record of victories. The remarkable Carlisle Indian School graduate, Jim Thorpe, won both the pentathlon and decathlon.

The 1912 team also included several African American members, as had the 1908 team. The development of American track and field has reflected the evolution of various groups' access to social competition in general. Into the early twentieth century, American white men dominated the track and field events sponsored and fostered by the white athletic clubs and the white-dominated colleges. Yet African Americans competed in track and field from its American beginnings, largely through venues that paralleled those of white male athletes. Most black track athletes, as in baseball and other sports, functioned in segregated settings. The "colored" YMCAs nurtured athletic skills and organizational knowledge. American blacks also founded urban athletic clubs to foster recreation and competition; in fact, like whites of various ethnic and class groupings, African Americans fully participated in the club movement of the late nineteenth century. Limited community resources hampered these clubs, and members usually had to use public facilities for their activities. Black colleges, founded after the Civil War, offered a crucial staging ground for black athletes. After initial hesitation to commit their scarce resources to athletics, by the 1890s college administrators were backing a varsity movement. More public resources might have come their way through the Second Morrill Act of 1890, except that southern white state legislators diverted funds intended for black land-grant colleges to white uses.

Even in those years, the outstanding competitive skills of individual black men occasionally emerged. A few black athletes were able to participate in white-controlled events like the Highland Games. A few black students attended white colleges and universities, sometimes only after being required to graduate from a black college. These included outstanding athletes like Amherst's W. T. S. Jackson, the University of Pennsylvania's J. B. Taylor, Howard Smith, and Dewey Rogers, and Harvard's N. B. Marshall and Ted Cable (a graduate of Andover Academy). Other venues for blacks to compete against whites included the military, where black units could field competitors against white units' teams. American meets and teams contained increasing numbers of black American world-class athletes, including of course Jesse Owens, whose winning performance offered an ironic commentary on the Third Reich's racial philosophy in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

In the mid-1890s college women began testing their skill in track and field events. Vassar College held the first of forty-two consecutive women's field days in 1895. For thirty years, women track athletes strove against the physical educators' received wisdom, which echoed cultural repression of women's physical exertion on the grounds that women were incapable of extended exercise. In the early 1920s, track and field boomed as a sport for college women, then fell victim by the 1930s to social fears of the "mannish" and unnatural (read: "lesbian") female types who might thrive in sports so dependent on "masculine" strength and speed (rather than the grace and agility one could read into gymnastics, skating, and even tennis and golf, which had their own social cachet).

Colleges were not the only breeding ground for women (or men) track athletes. Though access to good tracks, coaches, and practice time made a difference in results, one could compete for relatively little money in events sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union and thus qualify for distinction. While the blight on female track athletics hit colleges first, non-collegiate athletes continued to compete and draw audiences into the 1930s. There was room in public regard for Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, who gained celebrity in the 1931 nationals by breaking the world's record for the 80-meter hurdles and achieved Olympic distinction in 1932. (In the longer run, her blunt speech and avoidance of dresses seemed to confirm stereotypes of women athletes.) Didrikson and many other non-collegiate women athletes were sponsored by industrial

leagues, part of the "welfare capitalism" movement of the 1920s.

As female participation in track and field became culturally complicated, black women emerged as the individuals able to withstand the stigma of speed, endurance, and strength to compete in national and international meets. Alice Coachman was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the high jump, in London in 1948. Wilma Rudolph won Americans' hearts with her Olympic performance in 1960, when she won three gold medals; and she was only one member of an Olympic women's squad dominated by black collegiate athletes. (The entire relay team was from Tennessee State University.) Since the 1960s a host of black American women athletes have starred on the world stage of Olympic competition, including Evelyn Ashford, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Gail Devers, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie JoynerKersee, Marion Jones, and Wyomia Tyus.

Black men have matched black women's track and field brilliance in the last fifty years. Again, a partial list includes Bob Beamon, Leroy Burrell, Milt Campbell, Lee Evans, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Edwin Moses, and Mike Powell. The bitter side of African American success is the continuing social and "scientific" conversation about whether there are physiological causes of black athletic domination. Besides linking to a long Euro-American history of slandering black Africans and their descendants as more animalistic and primitive than whites, this debate implies that blacks may have to work less hard and thus deserve less credit for their athletic achievements.

As with other sports, track and field's twentieth century has been characterized by both technical and technological developments contributing to progressively faster, longer, higher results. Technological improvements encompass the materials used in equipment, including shoes and clothing, as well as timing, starting, and measurement methods. There have also been illegitimate technological developments, notably the use of drugs, particularly anabolic steroids, to enhance physical development and performance.

Technical improvements include training regimes, nutritional knowledge, and research toward systematizing and enhancing the psychosocial aspects of training and competition.

The final major development has been the erosion of distinctions between amateur and professional athletic status. Endorsements and sponsorships from corporations and other organizations allow outstanding track athletes to enhance and extend their careers. Many other professional athletes may earn far more, but professionalization has contributed to the visibility and democratization of track and field.


Ashe, Arthur R., Jr. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete 1619–1918. Volume I. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Cahn, Susan K. Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Chalk, Ocania. Black College Sport. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976.

Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

McNab, Tom. The Complete Book of Trackand Field. New York: Exeter Books, 1980.

Rader, Benjamin G. American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Riess, Steven A. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Tricard, Louise Mead. American Women's Trackand Field: A History, 1895 through 1980. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996.


See alsoOlympic Games, American Participation in ; Sports .

Track and Field

views updated May 18 2018

Track and Field

The various disciplines that come under the umbrella of the sport of track and field are among the oldest of the world's athletic contests. Track and field is a North American term; these sports are better known in most of the world as athletics; the original athletes were those who competed in the events governed by the motto of the ancient Olympics, "higher, faster, stronger." The events staged in the venues of the equally historic Scottish Highland Games were conducted with the same simple goals and passions.

The Olympics Games have retained the most prominent connection with track and field competition of any sports event. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) revived the modern Olympic Games in 1896, the track and field events were the most prominent of the competitions. To be crowned an Olympic champion in any athletics discipline remains the most prestigious prize that a track and field athlete can capture. The gold medalist in the 100-m sprint or the decathlon at the Olympics is inevitably dubbed the World's Fastest Human, or the World's Greatest Athlete, respectively, each with considerable justification.

Track and field also enjoys international prominence by virtue of the biennial World Track and Field championships, as governed by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF). The IAAF also sponsor an annual world championship that is based on the participation of athletes in a Grand Prix competition circuit, with event venues primarily centered in Europe, where track and field competitions enjoy a considerably greater public following than is the norm in North America. Track and field on an international level has two seasons, the outdoor summer season where competition takes place in large outdoor stadiums, and the winter season, where the events are modified to accommodate the smaller confines of the indoor arenas.

National track and field championships are held in virtually every country of the world on an annual basis. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body for most college and university sports in the United States, sanctions an extensive series of yearly competitions, in both indoor and outdoor formats. With necessary modifications given the nature of athletes who compete in spite of physical or mental disabilities, track and field forms a very important part of both the Summer Paralympic Games, as well as the quadrennial Special Olympics competitions.

Track and field includes all of the events that are designed to take place either on the standard 400-m outdoor track, or on the track infield. The distances that define the Olympic and international track and field events have been calculated exclusively in metric measure since 1976, with the exception of the one-mile race. The disciplines that comprise track and field may be broadly grouped into the running, throwing, and jumping events.

The running events span a significant range of distances, ideal body types, and requisite training approaches. The sprints include the 100 m, 200 m, and 400 m races, as well as 110 m, 200 m, and 400 m hurdles. The sprint relays include the 4 × 100 m, and the 4 × 400 m races, where each runner of the team passes a baton to the next runner within a prescribed passing area on the track. Sprint racing is a combination of tremendous power, an ability to accelerate explosively, coupled with a smooth and efficient stride.

The middle distance events in track and field span the 800 m, the 1,500 m (often referred to as the metric mile), and the 5,000 m events. In these races, speed, especially as it is generated by the runner to deliver a closing "kick" over the final 200 m to 300 m of these races, is of significance. However, pure running speed is one of a combination of talents required of the middle distance runner. The nature of the distances to be run requires that the successful runner combine muscular strength and optimal weight, a proposition known as the strength to weight ratio. For this reason, middle distance runners are generally lighter with a more slender build than that of the powerful sprinters.

The only track and field race that is categorized as a long distance event is the 10,000 m competition. Marathon running is sometimes classed as a track event, as the marathon competition usually begins and ends at the 400-m track in an Olympic competition, with the balance of the race contested over the roads of the host city. The event that is a running event and yet an exception to the other track disciplines is the steeplechase, a 3,000-m race where the athletes are required to negotiate both hurdles and a water jump over the 7.5 lap course.

The various running disciplines of track and field are the subject of continuous changes in the training techniques used by the athletes. The constant refinements in technique lead to incremental improvements in performance. Some of the most notable scientific advances in sport have arisen in the context of track and field competition. As an example, in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, electronic timing was first used in track racing at the finish line, replacing the less reliable hand-held stop watch.

The most profound technical developments in track and field centered on the nature of the running surface of the track itself. Until the 1960s, most running surfaces used in track and field were composed of cinder, a coal residue, or clay materials. In wet weather, these surfaces were very difficult to maintain. Plastic and rubberized surfaces began to be developed in the 1960s, and the modern tracks used for most national and international competitions are built from a combination of plastic rubber, principally styrene and polyurethane. These composite tracks are resistant to ultraviolet light radiation damage and maintain both their qualities of traction and compression in poor weather. Most importantly to the runner, the plastic composite surface provides a much better return of the runner's energy that is delivered with each stride into the track surface. This rebound effect tends to produce greater running efficiency and faster times.

The throwing competitions in track and field share a number of similarities in both training approaches and the physical type in their respective successful athletes. The discus, the javelin, the shotput, and the hammer throw each place a significant premium on muscular strength and power. Each sport has relatively simple mechanics within which to deliver the requisite object; it is the honing of those mechanical features that ultimately determines competitive success in each of these sports. In simple terms, many athletes can become incredibly strong through weight training, but success in the throwing events comes with a combination of strength and a mastery of the footwork, weight shifts, and release points unique to each discipline.

The jumping events in track and field competition, the high jump, the long jump, the triple jump, and the pole vault, are the most dissimilar among the track and field groupings. While each of the sports requires jumping ability, the body types best suited to each sport and the training required to achieve success in each sport are quite distinct. The high jump, a test of vertical leaping ability and technique, and the long jump, a measure of the furthest horizontal leap, are as simple to perform as any sports that have ever existed. The triple jump, while similar to the long jump in its execution, requires greater attention to the mechanics of the "hop, skip, and jump" routine that is at the heart of a successful jump. The pole vault is the only track and field event where the athletes use an object to assist themselves in self-propulsion.

The pole manufactured for use in the pole vault is another example of sports science development. The first poles used in the Olympics by vaulters were made from bamboo or steel. The modern pole, manufactured from fiberglass and other composite plastics, permits the vaulter to transfer the energy in the speed of the run-up into the lift toward the bar when the pole is planted.

There are two track and field events that encompass the entire range of running, jumping, and throwing. The men's decathlon is a two-day, 10-event competition, including the 100 m, 400 m, 110-m hurdles, and the 1,500 m as its running events. The high jump, long jump, and the pole vault are the jumping events. The shotput, the javelin, and the discus are the decathlon field events. The seven-event women's heptathlon is also contested over two days, with the 100-m hurdles, the high jump, the shotput, and the 200-m race the events of day one; the long jump, the javelin, and the 80-m race are contested on the second day. Each of these competitions demands all-round athletic technical brilliance with strength, speed, and endurance.

Track and field at the highest level is the pursuit of excellence, usually measured by razor-thin margins of distance or time. It was the pursuit of those tiny advantages that led to the widespread use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by a wide range of track and field athletes. The publicity that surrounded the positive steroid test of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics served to make the steroid issue a far more important matter to both government and national sports governing bodies than had previously been the case. A large measure of the efforts of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its national representative agencies continues to be directed to track and field athletes.

see also Decathlon; High jump; Pole vaulting; Shotput.

track and field

views updated Jun 11 2018

track and field • n. athletic events that take place on a running track and a nearby field; track events and field events.