Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

African dominance in sprinting? Some interesting stats...

Here at The Science of Sport, we don't shy away from controversial topics (within reason!) and are always on the lookout for interesting, substantiated, and discussion-provoking articles, provided there's basis for them. In the past, we featured a post on African running, but only scratched the surface behind why the East Africans dominate middle and long distance running.

With the recent IAAF World Champs now over, it was again an opportunity to witness this dominance - in the men's and women's 5000m and 10000m events, 11 OUT OF THE 12 medals on offer were won by an athlete who was born in East Africa! The only exception was Kara Goucher, of the USA, who took bronze in the women's 10000m. The other possible "exceptions" would be Bernard Lagat and Elvan Abeylegesse, who now represent different countries, but were born in Kenya and Ethiopia, respectively. Similarly, if you look at the world's best times, you see a similar pattern. In the men's 5000m event, for example, the last time an athlete from anywhere but East Africa held the world record was 1994. And the list is endless - there are a dozen different ways one could show that East Africans are dominant. So that is not in dispute.

What is often disputed is the reason for this success. Possibilities here are again endless, ranging from diet, to genes, to training, to mental attitude, desire for money and so on. In fact, there is now even a Centre for East African Running studies to get to the bottom of this one! Each of these possibilities has been studied in turn, but none has ever been conclusively shown to be the magic ingredient, so the debate rages on...

But while we often become preoccupied with the reasons for East African dominance in LONG distance, we do tend to neglect the sprint, where a very interesting similar phenomenon seems to be occurring. One person who didn't miss this is Jimson Lee, who runs the Speedendurance.com blog. This blog is devoted to track and field, health, fitness and athletic training. Often, it features really great historical videos of athletic performances. You'll also find a lot of advice and technical information on track and field. And recently, Speedendurance.com featured an interesting article titled
White Men Can't Sprint? Better in Black?

It's immediately obvious that this one will be controversial, but it features some really fascinating stats and numbers and I've pasted this article (with Jimson's permission) below, with links back to his site. His article is highlighted in blue, and some comments from me follow on at the end. Enjoy!

From Speedendurance.com, by Jimson Lee - check it out!

For the record, I don't care what color athletes are. They can be black, white, yellow, blue, or green; it really doesn't matter to me. The first person to cross the line is the winner. I care more about the performance.

When the term "black" or "African American" is used, we often refer to it as countries of African heritage, including the West Indies, Caribbean, and of course, Africa. The term "white" refers to Caucasian.

Luckily, we have Jeremy Wariner dominating the Men's 400m to show everyone you don't have to be "black" to be a world class sprinter. Passion, dedication, a bit of luck, a lot of genetics, decent funding, and good coaching are key elements to success.

The 100m is a different story.

The topic of "white vs. black" has been argued at nausea but let us look at history.

Ever since Eddie Tolan won the 100m in the 1932 Olympics, the "black vs white" supremacy or dominance has been the controversy if discussion until 1980's. The last "white" sprinters to appear in Olympic finals was back in 1976 (Valeri Borzov) and 1980 (Allan Wells, despite the boycott). Since then, no "white" athlete has made the 100m Olympic finals.

A landmark article was published by Sports Illustrated in 1971 "An Assessment of 'Black is Best' " by Martin Kane that primarily focused in the physical and physiological differences of "black vs. white".

The basic findings of that research showed 6 major physical differences: less body fat, short torsos, thinner hips, longer legs, thick thigh muscles, thinner calf muscles. The main physiological difference is a higher percentage of fast twitch fibers.

The other argument is the socio-economic or "country club" factors stereotypes: the opportunity of an individual to pursue sports to due to their economic climate. One can argue the previous success in running, football, basketball. Now, we are seeing the success in tennis, golf, and hockey. Swimming is the last frontier where they have yet to make their dominance.

If I ask you who the fastest "white" man to run a 100 meters, you'd probably think Matthew Shirvington or more recently Nicolas Macrozonaris in the race where he beat Tim Montgomery in Mexico City in 2003.

Here are the top 3:

10.00 (+2.0) Marian Woronin (POL) 09.06.1984
10.03A (0.0) Nicolas Macrozonaris (CAN) 03.05.2003
10.03 (-0.1) Matthew Shirvington (AUS) 17.09.1998

At the time of this writing, both Macro and Shirvo are still active athletes, with Shirvo named to the 2007 Osaka squad but Marco not going to Osaka despite winning the Canadian Nationals.

You may think no "white" man has broken 10 seconds. Actually, Woronin ran 9.991 seconds in that race but was rounded up to the nearest hundredths of a second to 10.00 FAT. Remember Justin Gatlin's 9.766 in Doha, Qatar? It was mistakenly rounded down rounded up to 9.76, before it was corrected and rounded up to a EWR (equal world record). And we won't talk about a disputed wind gauge at that meet!

If the list is expanded to "non-black" athletes to include First Nation, Aboriginal and Asian athletes, here is the top 7 list from the top 1200 performances in history. You can even argue two of them were set in altitude (A).

9.93 (+1.8) Patrick Johnson (AUS) 05.05.2003
10.00 (+2.0) Marian Woronin (POL) 09.06.1984
10.00 (+1.9) Koji Ito (JPN) 13.12.1998
10.03A (0.0) Nicolas Macrozonaris (CAN) 03.05.2003
10.03 (-0.1) Matthew Shirvington (AUS) 17.09.1998
10.03 (+1.8) Shingo Suetsugu (JPN) 05.05.2003
10.06A (+2.0) Johan Rossouw (RSA) 23.04.1988

Yes, Johan made the top 1200 list!

The facts speak for themselves.

Some additional comments from me

Well, very interesting indeed, as I'm sure you'll agree. One reason it is particularly interesting is because when we debate the EAST African dominance, one of the reasons put forward, as mentioned, is their work ethic and lifestyle, which often sees children running 10km or more to school every day. The combination of these factors is said to explain their success.

Well, in sprinting, that would seem to be less significant - it's not as though the West African children sprint more than their 'white' counterparts, is it? And even if they did, sprinting as a child would not be expected to make the same difference in the long term as running 10km daily would for a distance runner. It's often said that one is born fast, but you can train to become an endurance athlete. I suspect that is a little oversimplified, but the fact that a certain population group makes better sprinters (based on time) is a stronger argument for GENETIC differences that the distance runner observation.

As Jimson points out, there are physiological differences, most notably the muscle fiber composition. Again, however, I feel this is a slight oversimplification, not on Jimson's part, but because I don't believe the science has really uncovered the secret of speed yet. But we're trying!

One last thing is that the controversy in this issue, and something Jimson was obviously well aware of in the article is the classification of the groups. To try to classify people as white, or of African descent, or even Caucasian, is a notoriously dodgy affair, which always gets the anthropologists in a knot. I know one who even argues the term Caucasian, because apparently, a Caucasian is someone who comes from the Caucasas mountain region in Europe, whereas we use it to refer to anyone from the Caucasas race. He says we should in fact refer to Caucasoid, and technically, he's probably correct (I'm no anthropologist!). I have no doubt that there are hundreds of arguments against not only this term, but all others that are commonly used!

This controversy is the reason why "black" and "white" are in inverted commas! It's obviously very difficult and each case would have to be handled on an individual basis in order to fully get to the ethnic origins of the athlete in question. However, for this article, I'm happy that it proves a very interesting point, and could start a very interesting discussion. For the sake of continuing that discussion, the theory that has been put forward is that it was the slave trades that moved all the West Africans across to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the USA, which is where most of today's top sprinters call home. The theory then is that all these top sprinters have common ancestry. I would love to hear the views of an anthropologist on this one - any takers?

But an interesting article, one I hope stimulates some thought and discussion. So thanks to Speedendurance.com, and visit again soon!



peter said...

The tricky thing is the enormous genetic diversity within within Africa. While Frankie Fredericks, for example, is nominally 'black', he probably shares very little genetic heritage with Tyson Gay or any other sprinter with Caribbean heritage. This still doesn't explain the dominance of Caribbean-descended sprinters, but it would probably open things up a little bit if you were to consider the heritage of black runners more closely.