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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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The black Africans on the east coast—the Ethiopians, Kenyans and others—have a genetic mix. Keino is a man with black skin and many white features. So is Bikila. It is a cliché in American track to say that black runners are good only in the sprints and the shorter runs, which is where they have distinguished themselves. This is not true of blacks from East Africa—but the American black's ancestors came mostly from the west coast, where there was little genetic contact from outside. This area of Africa is pretty much isolated by ocean and desert. The American black athlete's breeding is different from that of the East Africans, who often excel at distance running.

John Velzian, the British coach of the Kenya track team a few years ago when Keino was just coming into prominence, has noted (SI, Dec. 19, 1966) that there are not only physical but environmental differences among the tribes of Kenya, and these differences greatly affect an athlete's ability to perform. But one thing they all have in common is severe living conditions.

The same is true of the bulk of American black athletes and their ancestors, both in this country and in Africa. Calvin Hill, black Yale graduate and Dallas Cowboys running back, puts it this way:

"I have a theory about why so many pro stars are black. I think it all boils down to the survival of the fittest. Think of what the African slaves were forced to endure in this country merely to survive. Well, black athletes are their descendants. They are the offspring of those who are physically and mentally tough enough to survive."

Lee Evans, Olympic and world 400-meter record holder, agrees. Asked why black Americans have produced so extraordinarily disproportionate a number of the highest-class athletes in the world, he replies:

"We were bred for it. Certainly the black people who survived in the slave ships must have contained a high proportion of the strongest. Then, on the plantations, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. We were simply bred for physical qualities."

It might be that even without special breeding the African has a superior physique. A British medical journal, The. Lancet, published an article by a World Health Organization team reporting that healthy Uganda infants had muscular development patterns "equal to that of European children twice or three times their age." Out of 107 black babies, averaging three days in age, 90 were able to prevent their heads from falling back when they were drawn up to a sitting position. European infants could do this only when they reached the age of eight to 12 weeks.

Other tests also have shown that the black newborn is more advanced than the white. For example, Dr. Richard A. Berger, member of the department of health, physical education and recreation of Temple University, and Major Robert L. Paradis, who teaches in the ROTC program at Texas Tech University, collaborated on a study of 30 white and 30 black students matched in age and socioeconomic level. Their findings, published in The Research Quarterly of the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, were that the average performances of black students indicated a higher fitness level than those of the white students "on all test items and on the composite fitness score."

"However," they added, "the only means [averages] which were significantly different were shuttle run, 50-yard dash, 600-yard run and composite fitness score in favor of the black students."

D. G. Barker and N. A. Ponthieux of Texas A & M University, testing grade-school youngsters, found that "Negro boys' fitness scores remained significantly higher with respect to pull-ups, standing broad jump, 50-yard dash, softball throw and 600-yard run-walk." Negro schoolgirls surpassed white girls to a significant extent on five of the seven fitness tests.

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