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Why Do Black People Seem Better At Sports?

by Clayton Pedden

Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali. You may or may not be familiar with these stories of black athletes breaking into their respective sports and dominating. It was not long ago when a black athlete in sports was controversial, subject to much scrutiny to those teams that allowed it and bigotry to those players who simply wanted to play the game they love. Now in 2011, sports are one of the most open industries in the world and even though there are still instances of bigotry it is mostly the cause of individuals and not of the larger sports society. Why is this you ask? SHEER BLACK DOMINANCE!

As a pale male of average athletic ability I applaud the athletes that train so hard to compete at a high level. As I look at my various sporting cards I notice many of the faces on them are much darker than mine. Is the black athlete better? Simply, YES! Many sports have black athletes at the top, so I did some research to learn whether it was because they work harder and want it more, or maybe there is something genetic at work. Turns out it’s both. I will focus on the genetic part here because it makes me feel better to know that the reason I never became the world’s best basketball player is because of my faulty genes. To qualify I would like to say that black athletes are not better at sports in general just at some aspects of sports, namely sprinting, jumping and distance running.

Sprinting and jumping

The facts are that of the 200 fastest 100-meter times, not one has been run by a white athlete. Also in addition to that, no white sprinter has ever officially run the distance in under 10 seconds. Considering that sprinting is a sport measured in hundredths of seconds and the world record currently stands at 9.58 seconds, we can see why black athletes are seen as superior. Of further note is that not only are the athletes who excel at sprinting of African descent, they can all trace their lineage to West African countries. West African Athletes (or athletes of West African decent) are considered the most anaerobically efficient athletes. Anaerobic activities are things like sprinting, jumping, and lifting. Anaerobic activities break down carbs and fats for short bursts of activity, for about 400 meters of running or 100 meters of swimming at full speed. After that, lactic acid begins to build up and the body begins to burn energy quickly. It is partly due to this anaerobic efficiency that gives the black athlete a slight edge. The West African athlete also has a higher concentration of fast twitch muscles (the muscles that generate power movements). Studies show that the capacity of these muscles at top-end athletics give a fully trained athlete an advantage. The same studies indicate that these muscles are genetically influenced.

Distance running

When looking at distance running it is the East Africans who are king. Specifically the Kenyans. One third of all the top times recorded at middle to long distance races are held by Kenyans. When you include the rest of the East African nations, that number is just over 50%. Why is this? Well, endurance is an aerobic activity and is also improved by having a high concentration of slow twitch muscles. Our East African friends have a genetic gift in this area. Studies conducted indicate that East African marathon runners have better oxygen capacity (an amazing 10% higher than their white counterparts) and less lactic acid build up. This oxygen capacity is a result of having more capillaries and mitochondria in their muscle fibers. Training in endurance running plays a significant role and is much more important than genetic difference but it plays a big factor at the elite level.

There are a few theories that are common when discussing this topic. Though they’ve yet to be verified, they are interesting and noteworthy and have had impacts in modern society.

The first is that of American slavery breeding bigger stronger athletes. Jimmy the Greek, a famous sports personality, was fired over his comments on this theory. The theory is that when African slaves were brought over to America, the people who survived the long dangerous voyage were those slaves who were genetically stronger, and more physically fit. Combined with the fact that these slaves were then forced to conceive with whomever the slave owner chose, it resulted in the strongest and most fit slaves being bred with each other. The hopes were that their children would be even stronger and more physically fit. Over many generations this could have provided the black athlete with superior athletic ability (on average).

A second theory looks at the migration of the peoples of Africa into Asia and Europe. This, according to all recent evidence, happened between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. When looking at the hunting needs and living requirements of the three separate continents, natural selection may have favoured different traits in those regions. For instance, natural selection would favour the fast when hunting the speedy animals of Africa, where as the cold climate of Europe would favour those people who had better insulation on their bodies. The big and strong would have also had an advantage in this cold climate. In Africa, body types are leaner and fit, as they have no need for extra insulation in the warm climate. Simple evolution may explain the slight differences between African athletes and European athletes.

So it seems as if sports may have gone black and they're not going back. Thanks, science, for showing that the reason I will never be a world champion sprinter is simply because I am white.


Study used was from geneticist and exercise physiologist Claude Bouchard at Laval University in Quebec City. Read it.

Clayton Pedden

Clayton Pedden

The smartest man in the room, Clayton is a sponge for knowledge. Curiosity is his driving force to understand everything around him. The universe is this young mans playground. If by chance this jack of all trades is unfamiliar with a subject, the next time you speak with him, he will be a bonafide expert.