Black men CAN swim

Prospect Magazine

Black men CAN swim


Advances in genetics are finally allowing us to get to the bottom of long-held racial myths

In the swim: African-American world and Olympic champion Cullen Jones has confounded racial stereotyping in sport

In the ten years since its sequencing was (prematurely) announced, the human genome may not have delivered the hoped-for quick fixes for disease. But in sport, it is helping to disentangle the vexed issues of genetics, race and talent.

In July, the Science Museum hosted an event called “Black Men Can’t Swim?”—a question that was answered by Cullen Jones, the African-American world and Olympic champion and 100m freestyle record-holder. The debate arises partly from the low participation rates among African-Americans; as few as 30 per cent of black children have learned to swim well, according to the governing body USA Swimming. As well as its reputation as a whites-only, “country club” sport, swimming has a long history of segregation and exclusion in the US, dating from the days when west African slaves—who were usually good swimmers—were banned from teaching their children, for fear of them escaping. Ignoring this history, past academic studies made great play of the lower buoyancy of black Americans. While some black populations do have a higher average bone density and mass than whites—about 300gm—buoyancy varies for every swimmer, and differences within races are far greater than those between them. As Matt Bridge, senior lecturer in coaching and sports science at Birmingham University, points out: “Thousands of black Americans have taken the US Marines’ compulsory swimming test and none have failed.”

Before the sequencing of the genome, debates like the Science Museum’s might not have been held publicly. Any suggestion of a racial or genetic component in sporting success was seen as demeaning to the athletes, and either avoided by newspapers and scientific journals or self-censored by sports presenters. But now new genetic evidence is decoupling race and genetics and reframing the debate.

Since 2004, Cambridge University epidemiologist Robert Scott has studied the DNA of Kenyan distance runners, who dominate events like the 3,000m steeplechase and have recorded 22 of the 25 best times. Scott has focused on highland provinces such as Nandi, which has supplied all but one of Kenya’s national record holders. Clearly, there are environmental factors at work: the physiological effects of high altitude, a local enthusiasm for running, coaches who scour the region for talent, and the economic factors that keep highland Kenyans driving cattle while highland Swiss drive Mercedes. That aside, there are inherited advantages too. Long legs and a short torso can certainly help with distance running—though Scott cautions against ignoring other successful body shapes. (The women’s marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, rarely mistaken for a highland Kenyan, has run the distance three minutes faster than Catherine N’dereba, the only east African in the top ten.)

More tellingly, Scott’s latest studies reveal huge genetic variations within a small sample of east African runners—far greater than in the white European population, whose remote ancestors left the Rift Valley 150,000 years ago. From this perspective, the racial “black vs white” division makes less sense than the genetic “set vs subset.” If, as Bridge argues, favourable genes can “raise the ceiling” that individual athletes reach through hard work, then a population with a greater genetic variety will tend to over-perform—even if the average measurable differences between overall black and white populations are very small. The result? Track athletes with African genes hold every men’s world record from the 100m to the marathon.

Scott is at pains to stress the complexity of the genome and how far we are from predicting sporting success. A good example is height—obviously a key determinant in sports like basketball—where “all the genes known to be associated explain just 5 per cent of the observed variation.” This leaves 95 per cent down to environment, unrecognised genes or heredity—the interaction between the two.

A simple “on” or “off” gene for athleticism has so far proved elusive. One 2003 study of Australian sprinters identified the gene ACTN3, which promotes fast-twitch muscle, but Scott found it was absent in two Jamaica track stars. Among distance runners, maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA has been linked to aerobic efficiency, but he could find no significant genetic difference between Ethiopian track champions and layabout Ethiopian students.

Though disappointing for those hoping to identify talent cheaply, this inability to predict success genetically may be a good thing for sport, which has long had an unhealthy obsession with “voodoo genetics.” In horseracing, for instance, families of trainers have bred families of horses for families of aristocrats for over 300 years—and conspicuously failed to predict success. Sport is still shaped by the belief that innate talent must be identified very young, drilled for years and then spat out. Matt Bridge quotes a “failure” rate of 99.4 per cent for British football academies, currently under fire for producing “two-touch” footballers, incapable of beating individual opponents or retaining possession—a problem underscored by England’s lacklustre 2010 World Cup campaign.

Conversely, history shows us that the greatest champions can succeed without years of specialised graft. Before 1976, 20-year-old engineering student Ed Moses had run just one 400m hurdles, yet that summer he won an Olympic gold medal, part of his record of 122 races unbeaten.

What the “can’t swim” debate shows is how easily athletic talent can be lost into sporting silos. Well-muscled and heavily boned sportspeople of any colour, used to excelling in power and speed events, are easily lost to a sport like swimming which—at first—rewards technique over strength. (In Cullen Jones’s case, a near-fatal waterslide accident led to him being signed up for swimming lessons, switching him from the more welcoming basketball court to the occasionally racist pool.) Now Australia, the first country to search for “magic genes” like ACTN3, has set up talent assessment centres to comb the country for potential stars, encouraging them to try new sports or switch to events in which they might perform better.

Identifying new genetic factors will become easier as increased processing power and gene-amplifying techniques shrink the time needed to locate individual genes. Already it takes just days, rather than years, to locate genes with specific functions. But even with costs and timings tumbling, it seems impossible that we can ever hope to identify every gene that might help exceptional performances.

This July marks the centenary of the fight that made Texan Jack Johnson the first undisputed black heavyweight world champion. An extraordinarily evasive fighter, Johnson must have had fast-twitch muscles coming out of his ears, but what really broke boxing’s “colour bar” was his refusal to be cowed by the violent racism of his time. Musician, entrepreneur, inventor, fantasist and fashion-plate, Jack was, as he put it, “a deep and colourful personality.” No geneticist could hope to identify such a personality from DNA alone. When we look at champion athletes—of any race—we will always be arguing from exceptions.

  1. July 22, 2010


    This is an interesting piece . I would contest the notion that horse trainers conspicuously fail to predict success
    (in public, perhaps?); also, the quip about Highland Swiss favouring Benz (ski legs are not without muscle , plus which, Porche – Carrera & Cayenne – & Range Rover Sport tend to be the automotive choice across
    the Bernese Oberland ) tho’ sunhats off
    to the brave Bushmen of the Kalahari..

    Here in England, I suspect there would be more mermaids of all colours were there more decent pools available to school children, with less half-witted, screechy
    ‘bootcamp’ staff bullying them into avoiding the activity as soon as they
    can run away fast enough

    Prof. Andre Bejan’s handy guide to athletic prowess might raise a few summer T shirts :

  2. July 24, 2010


    Is horse breeding really a good metaphor for human racial differences? The “race” of thoroughbred horses is outstandingly faster than all other breeds. Your claim is like arguing that the inability to predict which Great Dane will be biggest means that there are no interesting predictions about size based purely on breed between Great Danes and Chihuahuas.

  3. July 27, 2010

    tempo dulu

    Yes and it must only be a matter of time before govts around the world “encourage” (bribe/force) parents to have genetically superior offspring which will have a distinct advantage in sports. Given the high stakes (govts like successful sports people/teams as they generate nationalistic pride), this will happen, surely?

  4. August 5, 2012

    Steve Sailer

    There’s a major public safety issue that this article glosses over in its desire to stay politically correct. Young African-American males tend to be in greater danger of drowning, all else being equal, than females or nonblacks because they tend to have low body fat percentages, and thus are less buoyant. This means that society should repeatedly emphasize that African-Americans should make sure sure that their children get sufficient swimming lessons.

    • August 6, 2012

      Jim Gregory

      Thank you, Steve

      We see so much PC comment re “Black Men Can’t Swim/ White Men Can’t Jump”. I don’t recall white outrage and cries of racism over the basketball movie so why all the nonsense? Of course black men/ women CAN swim but the point being made is they seem to be less able than whites. Nothing racist, just an observation- how many black swimmers at the Olympics- ever? There’s no objection raised when admitting the superiority of black athletes in many sports, its just an accepted fact so why can’t we all accept the evidence and keep racism out of it?

  5. August 5, 2012

    Steve Sailer

    From Reuters in 2006:

    Drowning risk highest for black males

    Swimming-pool drowning cases involve a disproportionate number of black boys and young adults, and public pools appear to be the primary danger zone, U.S. government researchers have found.

    In one of the most extensive studies to look at the issue, investigators found that nearly half of the swimming-pool drownings they tracked occurred among African Americans – with males being at particular risk.

    The findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, not only confirm past research showing that a large number of young drowning victims are African American, but also identify where these deaths are happening.

    Nationally, between 1995 and 1998, 51 percent of drownings among blacks ages 5 to 24 happened in a public pool. Most often, it was a hotel or motel pool. That stands in contrast to white children and young adults, 55 percent of whom drowned in a residential pool.

    It’s not clear why young African Americans, males in particular, are more likely than other racial groups to drown. But the new findings point to the places where prevention efforts are most needed, according to the investigators, led by Dr. Gitanjali Saluja of the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

    Hotel and motel pools, they point out, often lack lifeguards. So it’s vital for children to always have an adult with them.

    The study findings are based on federal data for 678 swimming-pool drownings among 5- to 24-year-olds between 1995 and 1998.

    Overall, three-quarters of the victims were male, and black males were at greatest risk. Their rate of drowning was anywhere from 5 to 12 times higher than that of white males, depending on the age group. Hispanic males were also at greater risk than whites, but the difference was much smaller.

    Among females, African Americans had a higher drowning rate through the teen years. White and Hispanic females had similar rates at all ages.

    Researchers have speculated that the higher drowning risk among African Americans has to do with income; lower-income families are less likely to be able to afford swimming lessons. However, Saluja’s team found that the racial discrepancy persisted even when they factored in income. More research, they say, is needed to understand the underlying reasons.

    The researchers lacked information on whether drowning victims had ever had swimming lessons, but they point out that pediatric experts recommend that all children age 6 and older learn to swim.

  6. November 17, 2012

    David Samuel

    Black men can swim. Black men don’t swim. The reasons are many but none are insurmountable. It’s a matter of opportunity and priority. Dogpaddling isn’t swimming and olympic racing isn’t either. Swimming is easy and a pleasure. If you know how. Whites have more opportunity to learn so the need to proritize is less than for others with less opportunity. So blacks need more opportunity or need to prioritize learning to swim more or both. Opportunity is expensive priority is a burden. The politics of race makes it a hot question of who should pay the expense or take the burden.

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Tim Harris

Tim Harris is the author of “Sport: Almost Everything You Ever Wanted to Know” (Yellow Jersey) 

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