- Controversial Channel 4 documentary by former athlete Michael Johnson links slavery to athletic gene
- How the Guardian reported the gradual domination of track sports by black athletes
Jason Rodrigues – @RodriguesJasonL
Thursday 5th July 2012
When the sprinters in this year’s 100 metres final take their marks the entire field is likely to be made up of black athletes. In fact, the last white competitor to win Olympic gold in the men’s 100 metres was Britain’s Allan Wells, more than 30 years ago.
The black domination of track sports is a thorny subject, with much written about a hypothetical genetic predisposition of black competitors to outperform their white peers. Tonight’s screening of Survival of the Fastest, a Channel 4 documentary fronted by African American 400 metres legend Michael Johnson, tries to demystify the issue.
Johnson, who retired from competition in 2001 having amassed a total of thirteen Olympic and World Championship gold medals, talks about his slave ancestry and wonders whether his African forefathers coped with such harsh conditions because their bodies adapted through breeding. More contentiously, he suggests that the genes handed down to him could have given him an edge over his white competitors.
Measuring the performance of black athletes against their white competitors is not entirely new. Prior to the 1948 London Games, such was the fascination with the breakthrough of non-white participants, especially those representing the United States, the Guardian thought it helpful to publish a story, complete with table, on how the performance times of Negro athletes stacked up against whites
The paper’s conclusion was that white runners had nothing to fear, and, in fact, earlier records set by black competitors had since been equalled and even bettered by whites.
Whilst black US athletes were starting to make an impact on the world stage, reports that athletes from African nations could perform strongly at future championships began to surface in the 1950s. However, the Guardian somewhat unkindly noted that the sporting ability found in places such as West Coast of Africa was wasted because of little technique.
Nonetheless, the power balance had begun to shift and by the 1960s the paper reported on the continuing achievements of black athletes, notably in the 400 meters discipline, an event that decades later Michael Johnson would go on to dominate.