Advances in genetics are finally allowing us to get to the bottom of long-held racial mythsby Tim Harris / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
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….