Usain Bolt and why Jamaican sprinters are so fast: A Rejoinder to FT

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Saturday, August20,  2016 01.36PM / Ahmed Sule, CFA

Mr. Murad Ahmed
Financial Times

One Southwark Bridge



Dear Murad,

Usain Bolt and why Jamaican sprinters are so fast: A Rejoinder

I have read with interest your article titled, "Usain Bolt and why Jamaican sprinters are so fast", which was published in the 15th of August 2016 edition of the Financial Times. However, rather than analyse the various factors contributing to Jamaica’s sporting success intellectually, the article rehashed the old white supremacist narrative about black excellence i.e. there has to be an alternative explanation besides hard work, determination and environmental factors to justify black success in any endeavour. You may say, "Why write a rejoinder to me after all, I am a writer of colour just like you? You might be a person of colour, but that’s not relevant; what needs to be examined is the ideology behind your write-up.

Since the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Jamaica has become the number one sprinting nation in the world. Prior to the 2008 Games, the Jamaica athletic team won a total of 7 gold medals, however from the Beijing Olympics to the present, the country has amassed 14 additional gold medals on the track.  Jamaica has also produced the 100m women and men champions in the last three Olympics. With a population of just 2.7 million people, Jamaica is punching above its weight athletically and this has attracted the attention of many in the West.

To support your argument you note, "Athletes of African descent are also known to have more “fast twitch” muscle fibres required for elite sprinting. The list of the ten fastest humans in history contains only black men from Jamaica, the US, Canada and Nigeria." By citing this claim, you join an illustrious list of Western commentators such as Jon Entine who in an article titled, The DNA Olympics -- Jamaicans Win Sprinting 'Genetic Lottery' -- and Why We Should All Care, wrote, “Bolt and his Jamaican teammates are members of a tiny slice of the world population—elite athletes who trace their ancestry to western and central Africa—whose body types and physiology have been uniquely shaped by thousands of years of evolution to run fast.”. While the focus has been on genetics, factors such as Jamaica’s well run inter collegiate programme, the prevalence of excellent coaches, the impact of Jamaica’s sprinters success on future generations of runners and the fact that sports is a level playing field that enables blacks and whites to compete without structural barriers are often dismissed.

The Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world, which currently features 11,000 athletes from 207 countries competing for 306 sets of medals in 28 different sports. Despite the variety of athletes from the four corners of the world competing at the games, commentators from the Western world have fixed their gaze on the few black athletes who excel in the sprints (a subset of one of the 28 sports featured in the Olympics).

To suggest that a so-called fast twitch contributes to black athletes running fast is simplistic at best and dangerous at worse. As Harry Edwards, the American sociologist eloquently put it, "The myth of the black male's racially determined, inherent physical and athletic superiority over the white male, rivals the myth of black sexual superiority in antiquity.” A look at the history books reveals that white supremacy has often used science to justify the inferiority of black people. Science was once used to approximate black people to monkeys and this theory is still engraved in the hearts of many people till this day. The “fast twitch” theory is a modern day extension of the black brute stereotype only this time around, black folks have been relegated to fast running animals.

While the focus has been on the genetic makeup of Jamaican athletes who only started dominating a minute aspect of the sporting universe from 2008, you have not applied such analysis to successful white athletes who have been dominating other sporting events ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896. Furthermore, you have ignored other smaller white nations that have punched above their weight athletically. examines Olympic glory in proportion to a country's population. Gold medal per capita is the total population of a country divided by the number of gold medals that a country has won at the Olympics. An analysis of the top twenty countries with the highest Gold medal per capita (since the inception of the Olympics) places the much scrutinised Jamaica 10th on the table with a total of 20 gold medals which translates to 135,291 Jamaican's per gold medal. In contrast, countries like Finland, Hungary, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand and Denmark rank 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th respectively. Despite the dominance of these white populated countries on the table, questions are never asked about the genetic makeup of athletes from these countries. Furthermore, Britain ranks 19th on the table with a Gold medal per capita of 244,164 Britons per gold medal compared to China (77th on the table) and India (101 on the table) which have a population/gold medal ratio of 1.3 billion/218 medals and 1.2 billion/9 gold medals respectively. Shouldn't the relevant question be: Why does Great Britain, an Island nation of just 65m produce Olympians that so easily trounce those from more populous countries like China and India?

You might argue that white people excel in sports that use props and technology such as fencing and cycling but not in sports like running where you have to “lace ‘em up”. The flaw in this reasoning is that it ignores runners such as Dafne Schippers and Sally Pearson who have dominated their black counterparts in the sprints. While your gaze has been fixed on Jamaican runners, you have turned a blind eye to white athletes who dominate more tasking running events like the Ironman Triathlon, an event which comprises of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run without a break. The most successful Ironman triathletes such as Craig Alexander, Mark Allen, Luc Van Lierde and Dave Scott are all Caucasians. Furthermore, white runners also dominate the ultramarathon, which is a long distance footrace that extends beyond 100 km. Eight out of the nine best performances in ultramarathons were posted by white runners (including someone who completed a 426 km race). The unnecessary focus on black runners competing in less tasking athletic events is one of the reasons why I believe that white supremacy extends to sports as well.

The scrutiny experienced by Jamaican athletes isn't new. It is part of a long-standing trend whereby a black athlete who reaches the summit of Mount Olympus comes under the intense scrutiny of white gaze. When Gabby Douglas won gold in the gymnastics, her patriotism was questioned because she didn't put her hands on her chest when the national anthem was played; when Serena Williams danced after she won gold at the 2012 Olympics she was criticised for her so-called crip walk; likewise, unlike the Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner who is celebrated in the West because of her sex change, Caster Semenya who is within touching distance of winning an Olympic medal has been ridiculed because some people think she is not a woman.

Rather than seek answers to Jamaica's sprinting dominance, perhaps you should seek answers to: Why no questions are raised when twenty-one white men compete in a 1,000m Kayak heat event, yet eyebrows are raised when eight black sprinters compete in an Olympic 100m event? Why studies are conducted to find out whether black athletes have a “fast twitch" that makes them run faster, yet no studies are carried out to   examine whether there is a form of "twitch" that makes white ultramarathoners run longer, faster and harder? Why is Britain's recent Olympic success attributed to visionary politicians, investment and excellent organisation while Jamaica's recent success in the sprints is attributed to genetics and drugs?


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