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AN ASSESSMENT OF 'BLACK IS BEST'
Martin Kane
January 18, 1971
Is the black athlete a long stride better than his white counterpart? And if not, what accounts for the immense success of the black in American sport during the past two decades? Scientists are searching for the answers to such questions and, as they probe for true racial distinctions, fascinating theories have evolved, many of them controversial
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January 18, 1971

An Assessment Of 'black Is Best'

Is the black athlete a long stride better than his white counterpart? And if not, what accounts for the immense success of the black in American sport during the past two decades? Scientists are searching for the answers to such questions and, as they probe for true racial distinctions, fascinating theories have evolved, many of them controversial

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Winter makes the quite obvious point that black athletes differ from each other physically quite as much as whites do, regardless of the averages, which are what scientific studies are concerned with. He notes that Ray Norton, a sprinter, was tall and skinny with scarcely discernible hips, that Bobby Poynter, also a sprinter, was squat and dumpy with a swayback and a big butt, that Dennis Johnson was short and wiry, that Tommie Smith was tall and wiry, and so on. What they had in common, in Winter's experience, was "that looseness and limberness."

"I don't mean agility here," he explains. "I mean the quality of remaining limber, as you can note in the way they dance. A limber athlete has body control, and body control is part of athletic skill. It is obvious that many black people have some sort of head-start motor in them, but for now I can only theorize that their great advantage is relaxation under stress. As a class the black athletes that have trained with me are far ahead of the whites in that one factor—relaxation under pressure. It is their secret."

A similar concept is held by Coach Stan Dowell of Silver Creek High School in San Jose, Calif., a man who has worked with Lee Evans, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Clifton McNeil, among others.

"The black athletes," he says, "have an ability to let their bodies go—you know, they hang everything loose. They walk loose, they dance loose, they are loose. You see it easily in their dancing. Their knees aren't stiff.

"I've discussed this with Lee, Carlos and Smith—about letting their bodies go. I think it is linked with the suppressed life of the black man in America. Their emotions come out in their bodies, and we notice this kind of expression develops body muscle control. Have you noticed how, when they're dancing or playing games, their heads seem to flop around? It's magnificent.

"White kids haven't had to live under an oppressive burden, but white kids are so much more aware of conventional things, of Emily Post and timetables and being right, or of being checked on by parents or teachers about doing right."

In short, many authorities say that there are marked physical differences among athletes in the various sports and that blacks differ significantly from whites in some aspects—including the motivational and cultural—which permit them to exceed whites athletically in certain events.

Some extensive work in this area has been done by Dr. Robert M. Malina, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas. On the point of physical proportions Dr. Malina cites well-known findings which suggest that animals living in hot climates tend to have longer extremities and a lesser body mass in order to dissipate heat. With their long legs and arms, blacks have a greater surface area from which to dissipate heat through the skin.

(A striking example is to be found in the ear size of various types of foxes living in different climates. The Arctic fox has tiny ears, the common fox of the temperate zones slightly larger ones and the desert fox has very big ears, permitting him to radiate heat faster.)

Dr. Malina makes the point, too, that the American black is a member of a relatively recent taxonomic group that came into existence some 300 to 350 years ago. In speaking of differences between peoples, many anthropologists do not refer to races. They talk of populations. The so-called Negro race, a term now out of fashion, actually consists of many different kinds of peoples, ranging from the Watusi to the pygmy. Some break down the African populations into three groups: north of the Sahara, the 1,500-mile-wide arc south of the Sahara (black Africa) and the southern tip of the continent.

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