Iain Hollingshead reviews the Channel 4 documentary, Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, which explored the legacy of slavery
By Iain Hollinshead – @IainHollo
Thursday 5th July 2012
At the 2008 Olympics, every man in the 100 m final was a descendant of the slave trade. In Channel 4’s fascinating Survival of the Fastest, Michael Johnson, who won gold at 200 m and 400 m in the 1996 Olympics, set out to discover whether the brutality of slavery determined the genetic make-up of elite black athletes. This being television, it also took him on a personal journey into his own past, unearthing the remarkable story of his great-great-great aunt, born into slavery in 1851.
Johnson, a charming and intelligent narrator, presented compelling evidence that only the strongest survived the horrors of the slave trade. During the Atlantic crossings, which had a mortality rate of between 50 and 96 per cent, those with higher testosterone, thicker skin and better muscles were more likely to endure six months of beatings, low oxygen levels and lying in bodily fluids.
Genetic changes could easily have taken place within a lifetime under such extreme conditions, pointed out one of the many scientists he interviewed. Only the toughest slaves made it as far across as Jamaica, the last stop on the route from Africa. The tiny country won five gold medals at sprint events in the 2008 Olympics, whereas people born today in West Africa rarely succeed as sprinters.
The degrading selection process did not, of course, stop once the slaves had reached the Americas. The tallest and the strongest fetched the highest prices at auction. The hardiest were most likely to survive gruelling marches and the back-breaking years in the cotton fields. And the owners would force their favourites to breed, like cattle, to produce a new generation of strong slaves.
In an excellent – and thoroughly shaming – documentary, Johnson maintained just the right neutral tone, even providing one moment of glorious light relief. “The speed gene isn’t working right now,” he quipped, as he struggled to open a pack of swabs to take a DNA sample from his cheek.