Race and sports

Issues related to race and sports have been examined by scholars for a long time.[1] Among these issues are racial discrimination in sports as well as the observation that there are overrepresentations and underrepresentations of different races in different sports.

Participation and performance disparities


Namibian (formerly South-West Africa) Frankie Fredericks became the first sub-10-second runner of non-West African heritage in 1991 and in 2003 Australia's Patrick Johnson (who has Irish and Indigenous Australian heritage) became the first without an African background to achieve the feat.[2][3][4][5]

In 2010, Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre became the first white European under ten seconds (although Poland's Marian Woronin had unofficially surpassed the barrier with a time of 9.992 seconds in 1984).[6] In 2011, Zimbabwean Ngonidzashe Makusha became the 76th man to break the barrier, yet only the fourth man not of West African descent.[7] No sprinter from South Asia, East Africa or North Africa has officially achieved this feat.[8][9] In 2015 Su Bingtian of China became the first ethnic East Asian athlete to officially break the 10 second barrier and British athlete Adam Gemili – who is of mixed Iranian and Moroccan descent – became the first athlete with either North African or Middle Eastern heritage to break the ten second barrier.[10][failed verification] Before the 2004 Athens Games, 494 of the top 500 times for the 100m were held by sprinters who were of West African descent.[11]

Some studies have claimed that biological factors may be largely responsible for the disproportionate success in sprinting events enjoyed by athletes of West African descent. Chief among these is a preponderance of natural fast twitch muscle fibers, which aid in quicker reaction times. Scientists have concluded that elite-level sprinting is virtually impossible in the absence of the ACTN3 protein, a "speed gene" most common among persons of West African descent that renders fast twitch muscle fibers fast.[12] Top sprinters of differing ancestry, such as Christophe Lemaitre, are believed to be exceptions in that they too likely have the genes favourable for sprinting.[12]

Endurance running

Many Nilotic groups also excel in long and middle distance running. Jon Entine has argued that this sporting prowess stems from their exceptional running economy.[13] This in turn is a function of slim body morphology and slender legs,[14] a preponderance of slow twitch muscle fibers, a low heart rate gained from living at high-altitude,[15] as well as a culture of running to school from a young age. A study by Pitsiladis et al. (2006) questioning 404 elite distance runners from Kenya found that 76% of the international-class respondents hailed from the Kalenjin ethnic group and that 79% spoke a Nilotic language.[16]

Joseph L. Graves argues that Kenyan athletes from the African Great Lakes region who have done well in long distance running all have come from high-altitude areas, whereas those from low-altitude areas do not perform particularly well. He also argues that Koreans and Ecuadorians from high-altitude areas compete well with Kenyans in long-distance races. This suggests that it is the fact of having trained in a high altitude, combined with possible local level physiological adaptations to high-altitude environments that is behind the success in long distance running, not race. Since Graves wrote it, the Nilotic runners established 7 world records in marathon and took 77 Olympic medals in running (25 gold, 26 silver and 27 bronze), while their Korean and Ecuadorian high-altitude counterparts failed to win a single Olympic medal in running.

Graves also argues that while it is superficially true that most of the world recordholders in the 100-metre dash are of West African heritage, they also all have partial genetic heritage from Europe and Native America, they have also all trained outside of West Africa, and West African nations have not trained any top-level runners. Graves says these factors make it impossible to say to which degree the success is best attributed to genetic or to environmental factors.[17]

Views in the United States

Various individuals, including scholars and sportswriters, have commented on the apparent overrepresentations and underrepresentations of different races in different sports. African Americans accounted for 75% of players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) near the end of 2008.[18] According to the latest National Consortium for Academics and Sports equality report card, 65% of National Football League players were African Americans. However, in 2008, about 8.5% of Major League Baseball players were African American (who make up about 13% of the US population, 6.5% male, no women play in MLB), and 29.1% were Hispanics of any race (compared with about 16% of the US population).[18] In 2015, only about 5% of the National Hockey League (NHL) players are black or of mixed black heritage.[19]

NCAA sports have mirrored the trends present in American professional sports. During the 2005–2006 season, black males comprised 46.9 percent of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and 58.9 percent of NCAA Division I basketball.[20] The NCAA statistics show a strong correlation between percentage of black athletes within a sport and the revenue generated by that sport. For example, University of North Carolina's 2007–2008 men's basketball team (the team was 59% black relative to the 3.7% black population of the institution as a whole) generated $17,215,199 in revenue, which comprised 30 percent of the school's athletic revenue for the year.[21] Given NCAA rules prohibiting the payment of players, some have come to see the structure of NCAA athletics as exploitative of college athletes. Some believe that since black athletes comprise a high percentage of athletes in high revenue college sports (FBS football and Division I Men's basketball), they are therefore the biggest losers in this arrangement. Billy Hawkins argues that "the control over the Black male's body and profiting off its physical expenditure is in the hands of White males."[22] His position refers to a very high percentage of Division I universities controlled by white administrations that prosper greatly from the free labor produced by the revenue sports that are heavily populated by black athletes. This claim is substantiated by statistics, such as the 2005–2006 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament in which games started, and minutes played for black athletes were over double that of their white counterparts, with 68.7 percent of scoring in the tournament coming from black players.[23]

"Black athletic superiority"

"Black athletic superiority" is the theory that black people possess certain traits that are acquired through genetic and/or environmental factors that allow them to excel over other races in athletic competition. Whites are more likely to hold these views; however, some blacks and other racial affiliations do as well.[24][25][26] A 1991 poll in the United States indicated that half of the respondents agreed with the belief that "blacks have more natural physical ability".[27]

Various theories regarding racial differences of black and white people and their possible effect on sports performance have been put forth since the later part of the nineteenth century by professionals in many different fields.[28] In the United States, attention to the subject faded over the first two decades of the twentieth century as black athletes were eliminated from white organized sport and segregated to compete among themselves on their own amateur and professional teams.[29] Interest in the subject was renewed after the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and Jesse Owens's record-breaking performances at the 1935 Big Ten Track Championships.[29] Regarding Jesse Owen's impressive four-gold medal performance in the following 1936 Olympics, the then U.S head coach remarked that “The Negro excels. It was not long ago that his ability to sprint and jump was a life-and-death matter to him in the jungle. His muscles are pliable, and his easy going disposition is a valuable aid to the mental and physical relaxation that a runner and jumper must have.”[30]

In 1971, African-American sociologist Harry Edwards wrote: "The myth of the black male's racially determined, inherent physical and athletic superiority over the white male, rivals the myth of black sexual superiority in antiquity."[31] Later in 2003, in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the JBHE Foundation published an article where they pushed back against this idea of a “black gene” leading to black superiority in athletics, a concept referred to here as “Racist Theory”. The JBHE contended that “If there is a “black gene” that leads to athletic prowess, why then do African Americans, 90 percent of whom have at least one white ancestor, outperform blacks from African nations in every sport except long distance running?”  [30]

John Milton Hoberman, a historian and Germanic studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has acknowledged that disparities in certain athletic performances exist. He has asserted that there is no evidence to confirm the existence of "black athletic superiority".[32]

"East Asian athletic views"

In the United States, East Asians are stereotyped as being physically and athletically inferior to other races.[33][34] This has led to much discrimination in the recruitment process of professional American sports, which contributes to Asian American athletes being highly underrepresented in the majority of professional sports teams (a fact that has been noted by many sources).[35][36][37][38][39] Professional basketball player Jeremy Lin believed that one of the reasons why he wasn't drafted by a NBA team was his race.[40] This belief has been reiterated by sports writer Sean Gregory of Time magazine and NBA commissioner David Stern.[41] In 2012, despite making up 6% of nation's population Asian American athletes only represented 2% of the NFL, 1.9% of the MLB and less than 1% of the NBA and NHL. Brandon Yip was the only player of Chinese descent playing professional hockey in the NHL in 2011.[34][42] Basketball should be a sport that is noted for the fact that it has one of the lowest numbers of Asian athletes being represented despite the fact that the sport's color barrier was broken by an Asian American athlete back in 1947 named Wataru Misaka who was the first American racial minority to play in the NBA.[43]

In American sports, there has been a higher representation of Asian American athletes who are of mixed racial heritage in comparison to those of full racial heritage such as the case with former football player Roman Gabriel who was the first Asian-American to start as an NFL quarterback. Another fact to note is that majority of Asian American athletes who are currently drafted/recruited to compete professionally tend to be in sports that require little to no contact.[34]

Chinese views

The idea among Chinese people that "genetic differences" cause "Asian athletes" to be "slower at sprinting" than "their American, African or European rivals" is "widely accepted". The People's Daily, a Chinese newspaper, wrote that Chinese are "suited" to sports that draw upon "agility and technique", such as table tennis, badminton and gymnastics. The newspaper said that Chinese people have "congenital shortcomings" and "genetic differences" that meant that they are disadvantaged at "purely athletic events" when competing against "black and white athletes". The success of hurdler Liu Xiang was explained by the hurdles event requiring technique which fit with the stereotype that Chinese are disciplined and intelligent.[44]

Li Aidong, a researcher with the China Institute of Sports Science, said that sports coaches believed that Chinese athletes could have success in long jumping, high jumping and race walking. However, Li doubted that Chinese could compete in "pure sprinting", although there did not exist any "credible scientific studies" which supported the idea that "Asians" were disadvantaged in "sprinting".[44] Professional sprinters Su Bingtian of China and Yoshihide Kiryū of Japan have contradicted this view of East Asians struggling to achieve quick footspeed, as both have broken the 10-second barrier in the 100 m and Su has ranked in the top five all-time fastest runners over 60 metres.[45][46]