Race and racing: An English icon wades into the ‘slave genes’ controversy

Sir Roger Bannister raises a controversial thesis at the London Olympic Games


Deep in Saturday’s Times of London is a riveting interview with Sir Roger Bannister, who comes out in support of a controversial thesis that has surfaced once again at the London Olympic Games: that black West African runners have a genetic “inbuilt advantage.”

Bannister, of course, was the first athlete to break the four-minute mile in 1954, a feat he repeated a month later in the so-called Miracle Mile race with John Landy in Vancouver, B.C.

Bannister, now 83, went on to a distinguished career as a neurologist and researcher, and a champion of drug testing in sport. He’s also a man to speak his mind.

“I love watching people like Usain Bolt,” he told Times writer Alice Thomson. “The West Africans, of course, have an inbuilt advantage. Having been transported [as slaves] to the West Indies, only the toughest endured. They have astonishing muscle composition with those fast fibres and superior genes.”

East Africans, he adds, “spent thousands of years working in the fields at high altitude, still run to school and have the best slow-twitch fibres, which are very efficient at contracting and make them great distance runners.”

At this writing, Bannister’s comments have raised little notice or controversy. That’s in contrast to similar remarks by Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, an African American who predicted in June that Caribbean track athletes will storm the podium at the 2012 London Summer Games. Descendants of slaves possess a “superior athletic gene,” he says. The slaves that survived the brutal conditions of transport and the abuse at the hands of slave masters in Jamaica and elsewhere were the strongest of the strong, he told London’s Daily Mail in June.

Johnson, also a BBC commentator, conceded the issue is controversial. “It’s a fact that hasn’t been discussed openly before. It’s a taboo subject in the States, but it is what it is.”

Actually, it’s a subject that is as old as the hills and remains highly charged. Johnson’s comments have indeed enraged many. Historian Amy Bass argues in Salon that “ ‘Slave genes’ is a myth that must die.” It plays too easily into the stereotypes that “feed into the racist structures upon which the United States was built,” she writes.

Whether Bannister, who is venerated here, draws similar heat remains to be seen.
He adds, in the wide-ranging interview, that running is one of the most democratic sports in the Olympics, “which means that an obscure country, which may face mass starvation or civil war can still produce great runners at little cost.”


Race and racing: An English icon wades into the ‘slave genes’ controversy

  1. It’s a theory that keeps surfacing, but is there any scientific evidence? There is plenty of scientific evidence that different genetic pools have dispositions toward things like certain diseases and no one questions that. But it seems the moment anyone proposes studying intellectual or athletic differences between groups, the politically correct crowd do everything possible to prevent or suppress such studies, usually calling such studies – and those who conduct them – racist.

    Personally, as long as we aren’t using such information to repress others, I have no problem with pursuing such scientific research. Knowledge is knowledge – and better to know than to have people bickering over myths and stereotypes endlessly.

    • I am not sure if you recall the controversy over the medical myth about hypertension in African-Americans set off when Oprah and Dr. Oz stated that it was related to the fact that the slaves that survived on slave ships coming from Africa tended to be the ones who could hold on to salt in their bodies. This “myth” about why African-Americans tend to have hypertension was eschewed by the medical community at large as it is based on absolutely zero research. Oprah and Dr. Oz were skewered by the medical community when they “blithly” announced with certainty that this explained everything about the epidemic of hypertension among African-Americans in the US on her show in 2007. The problem is precisely what you are warning against, Keith. When so-called experts express with certainty the explanation for an outcome with no research to back up their claims and no suggestion that any is required, too many people accept their word that it is an accepted and logical conclusion.

  2. I’m no evolutionary scientist but I’d be surprised to learn that the biggest factors in a safe journey as a slave from Africa to America were the exact same factors that assist Olympic track events, and that a hundred or so years later the results would be noticeable.

    • That’s not the entire theory. It’s not just the journey, it was the selection of those to be taken on that journey.

      • The “theory” fails to take into account the factors of disease, hunger/thirst and also the habit of slavers to dump entire loads at sea when the ship was being challenged by an outside factor. The only thing disease selects for is immunity to the disease and as the flu of 1918 taught us the young and the healthy were more a risk there. Lacking food and water claims the healthy as well as the weak. Dumping an entire load of live humans overboard selects for nothing. I would also say that the number of generations involved in the selection process are no where near enough for such advantages to have become obvious or widespread.
        The only real evolutionary argument that could be made would be for populations who have lived at high levels for many, many generations. But even here it’s probably not enough.
        We are not fruit flies, our generations last decades not weeks.

        • Actually, disease does select based on general levels of fitness as well. If you catch the disease but you’re generally healthy otherwise, you might survive it, where as someone else who is weaker might not.

          That said, I tend to agree otherwise. The slave trade was simply not big enough in its scope to be considered something that could swing change on an evolutionary scale.

          • I agree with the generality that you highlight, but the Flu of 1918 seemed to deal with the young and healthy because of their active response system and flus were and are still a major killer of people in the world so I thought it would be an appropriate observation. A flu onboard a ship with poor diet and little acre would be an annihilating force.
            But I do accept I’m being picky here.

    • Find a pure black cat, one with no other color on it at all, then we can talk about how the passage of time makes genetic heritage based on selective survival less noticeable, because I’m sure there’s been far more generations of cats since the inquisition than there have been generations of people since the slave trade.

  3. Sad, very sad.

    • Nobody finds senility sad? That’s sad in itself.

      • Yes, you are a very sad person.

        • You are all so keen for this nonsense to be true, you can’t spare 5 seconds thought on it. It’s apparently enough to denounce anyone who says it’s rubbish…..oh, and call people names.

  4. It’s funny how liberals try to denigrate those who don’t believe in evolution (for the record, I’m not one of those people who don’t believe in evolution), yet liberals will also declare they simply don’t believe in some of the obvious consequences and corollaries of evolution, even the details.

    Not only do they declare they believe in the theory evolution but not the details of the theory of evolution, but they also declare any further study of such details entirely off-limits and racist. Not only that, they actively try to suppress any study of such details.

    It’s quite obvious that any group of individuals vary in athletic ability, and that some of this difference is simply genetic. Some people are born uncoordinated, while others are born with athletic talents. Some are born with the ability to become the next Wayne Gretzky, while others are born with limited ability to shoot, pass and score with any effectiveness whatsoever. Heck, it’s obvious that even the most gifted athlete otherwise will likely never play in the NBA if his genetics ensures he will be just 5 feet tall.

    It also seems quite obvious to me that the same principle applies to groups of people born with similar genetic backgrounds, that some groups who share similar DNA will have differing athletic abilities than other groups. Certainly there are some obvious characteristics like hair colour, eye colour, height, and lots of other things that are shared amongst groups with similar DNA.

    And it also seems obvious to me that the same principle applies to things other than athletics and appearance.

    Of course, at this point any self-respecting liberal would brand me a racist.

    • You seem to rely heavily on things being obvious to you, as a means of verfication. Is that genetic?

    • I wouldn’t call you a racist, you might be but I don’t have enough evidence to make that claim. I would however suggest you go back and look at what evolution consists of and how it occurs.
      As for Gretzky if his environment didn’t involve a protective goon to ensure no one touched him, do you think he would have been as successful? There is a difference between change to an individual and population change; so don’t go conflating the two.

  5. Well he is saying that a certain life factors over time make one genetically superior in running ability right? Perhaps. Our knowledge of human genetics is quite new and we still have much to learn about how the body functions. For example, medical science is just recognizing that gender is an important factor in diagnosis-symptoms of heart attack, stress, migraine, etc present differently in women than in men. Race, gender, family history, socioeconomic status all factor into who we are as human beings.

  6. Ugh, the worst is that he thinks this is totally okay. You know what he’s really saying? That Black athletes succeed because of inherent, genetic qualities – which erases all the hard work, dedication, supportive families, rigorous traini…ng, and careful strategizing they do. It demeans the success of Black athletes and further, needlessly raises the status of white athletes who don’t, by implication, have the “inbuilt advantage” of “superior genes.” No one says anything about the inherent qualities of Michael Phelps’ body, or if they do, that doesn’t get reflected on his entire race. When it comes down to elite athletes, their bodies (whatever their racial/ethnic heritage) are extraordinary, and to single out men of African descent is to play into a very old racist trope. TL;DR: TOTAL RACIST.

    • Actually, you’re the only one who says it erases all those things, because so far as I know, there’s more than one black competitor in most events.

      And it doesn’t “raise the status” of whites anymore than saying “skinny people have less muscle” raises the status of skinny boxers.

      I mean, unless you’re willing to argue that separating men from women in most of the events is wrong, you acknowledge that there’s differences in people’s physiology based on specific criteria.

      And as for Phelps, the reason it isn’t talked about much is because most people don’t know about Innsmouth.

    • I am surprised that you would say “no one says anything about the inherent qualities of Michael Phelps’ body…” I have read entire articles devoted to his feet, hands and the length of his limbs. There have been lenghtly explanations on how his odd physical proportions and ability to contort his body have allowed him to excell to a level of brillance in the sport of swimming. It is fascinating however, that even he has shown that without tremendous preparation, focus and with an aging body, he is vulnerable. He is certainly not assured a win. I think in all this talk of genetic advantage, people disregard the importance of people’s current living situations. How motivated are you to work to get what you want. If you are living in poverty and athletics gets you out of poverty, you have a pretty good reason to work hard and succeed.

  7. So it could be argued with equal plausibility that the “superior” West African genes reside today among the descendants of those who were fast and cunning enough to avoid the slavers…literally outran them…while the “weaker” members with less guile and speed were captured.

    The whole debate is fatuous.

  8. Every few years, someone posits this theory, because it has some anecdotal merit. Then scientists and geneticists test it and find it wanting. Culture, not genetics, appears to be the driving force when it comes to excellence in athletic events. For example, the Dutch, who are the tallest people, excel at cycling, speed skating and soccer — not basketball.

  9. Nice, Sir Roger. Or should I say, John Derbyshire? Or should I say, Taki Theodoracopulos? At the time you were running sub-four-minute mile I bet the science proved that Europeans were superior (Hitler thought so before he saw Owens). The science will show whatever you want it to show. According to the science, there should be no Dr. Ben Carson or Chevalier de Saint-George, or George Washington Carver–unless you believe these are statistical anomalies–there should only be Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis and Mike Tyson. This is not a compliment in the least. The obverse of this belief is that people of Africa descent can’t be Higgs or Einstein.