Survival Of The Fastest: A Rejoinder
by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA firstname.lastname@example.org http://about.me/ahmedsule
Dear Brother Michael Johnson, You may not know me, but I am what you will call an athletics enthusiast. Though I would not call myself a fan of yours, I am an admirer of what you have accomplished on the athletics field. There is no doubt that you are one of the greatest athletes that ever walked the surface of this earth. Afterall, to hold the world and Olympics 200m and 400m at the same time (a record which you held for over a decade) in addition to competing in both events at the Olympics and World Athletics Championship is the stuff of legends. When I heard about your documentary titled “Survival of the Fastest”, which was shown on Channel Four on the 5th of July 2012, I eagerly looked forward to watching the documentary. In your documentary, you explored whether slavery was a contributory factor to the success of Blacks in athletics. While you acknowledged that this is a sensitive topic, you attempted to open up a conversation on the continued success of Blacks in athletics. You argue that although hardwork and determination plays a role in an athletes performance, however there has to be more than hard work to explain for the success of Black athletes by saying: “All my life, I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations. Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me – I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.” After watching the hour long documentary, the viewer gets a detailed understanding of your thesis which suggests that: during the time of slavery, the slave traders/owners carried out a rigorous selection process, in which the fittest slaves were captured for onward shipment to the Americas and the Caribbean. Due to the harsh conditions that the slaves where subjected to while on the ship from Africa to the Americas, many slaves died during the journey. Consequently, only the strongest and fittest slaves survived the terrible conditions on the ship, while the weak slaves died. The slaves that survived possessed a superior form of gene, which enabled them to survive. Their descendants who populate the Black communities in the Caribbean’s and the USA inherited this superior gene. This gene accounts for the successes of Blacks in athletics. Brother Johnson, I guess you must really be proud with yourself that you have produced a documentary, which has been widely watched, discussed and reviewed. You must also feel that you have been able to intellectually, scientifically and logically explain the reason for the success of Blacks in athletics. However, upon further examination is this really the case? Viewers of your documentary could make the mistake of accepting your thesis without subjecting it to rigorous analysis because they could be relying on your profile. In short there is a risk that there could be a fallacious appeal to your authority as a sports celebrity and as one of the fastest men on earth.
They could commit this fallacy by saying: 1. Michael Johnson advocates that slaves who survived the ordeal from Africa to the USA had superior genes, which was inherited by their descendants. 2. Michael Johnson is a descendant of a slave who was captured from Africa and taken to the USA. 3. Michael Johnson is Black. 4. Michael Johnson is one of the greatest athletes that ever lived. 5. Therefore Black descendants of slaves have superior athletic genes. Furthermore, your thesis on the prevalence of a superior athletic gene among Black athletes is flawed for a number of reasons. In building up your thesis, you interview Dr. Herb Elliot, the Jamaican team doctor who advocates that during the slave trade, the most aggressive and troublesome slaves were taken to Jamaica and this aggressiveness was inherited by future generations, which explains why Jamaicans excel in the sprints. You both argue that unlike long distance athletics, sprint requires a higher level of aggressiveness, hence the success of Jamaicans in the sprints. If we assume that sprinting is an aggressive sport relative to long distance athletics, then it suggests that there should be a high correlation between aggressiveness and success in other forms of aggressive sports. While I do not believe that Jamaicans are aggressive (because aggressiveness cuts across people of all nations and races), if we are to accept Dr. Elliot’s theory that Jamaicans are aggressive, then Jamaicans would be expected to excel in more aggressive sports such as boxing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo. However, this is not the case. On that basis Dr. Elliot’s thesis does not hold. If Blacks have a superior athletic gene, then one would expect athletes from Africa (where most Blacks in America and the Caribbean’s originate) to excel in the sprints just like their American and Caribbean counterparts, however, this is not the case. In addition, if there is truly a superior athletic gene among slave descendants, one will expect Americans and Caribbean’s to dominate the whole athletic spectrum from the sprints up to the marathon (including the middle distance races), however their dominance stops at the 400m races. Moreover, if you have inherited this so-called superior athletic gene, one would expect some of your siblings who were featured in your documentary to also exhibit these traits. From my little understanding, although I am only aware of your exploits in athletics, I have never heard or read about of any of your siblings having similar successes in the athletics field. In addition, while you acknowledge successes of Black Americans and Jamaican’s in various athletic events, you fail to state that the success of the Caribbean athletes has been a recent phenomenon. Since the commencement of the modern Olympics in 1896, Jamaica has won thirteen Olympic gold medals in athletics out of which, six was won in the 2008 Olympic games in China. If as you say that the superior athletic gene
accounts for Jamaica’s success in athletics, then one would expect Jamaica to have achieved a higher level of Olympic athletics gold medals over a longer timeframe. Also, if these superior athletic genes actually exist, one would expect Black Brazilians who are also descendants from African slaves to also excel in athletics. Afterall, their ancestors endured the harsh journey from Africa and survived. However, the performance of Black Brazilian athletes is not outstanding. How would you explain this anomaly? Towards the end of the documentary, you explain that the superior performance of Blacks in athletics could be due to the fact that the slaves who were taken to the shores of America comprised of a diverse pool from Africa and therefore the intermarriages among them could have accounted for the superior athletic gene. Also in your interview of Professor Bill Amos, he suggests that the slaves that survived the slave ordeal were genetically cleaner and that this could account for the success of Blacks in athletics. Once again, this argument is flawed because, if slave descendants have genetically superior genes and superior physical attributes to enable them compete in athletics, these same attributes should enable Blacks to dominate other sports such as boxing, swimming, Judo, discus, football, weightlifting, cycling and rowing. However, this is not the case. In the final analysis, the success of Blacks in athletics is more likely to be as a result of hardwork, determination, and environmental factors in addition to a level playing field rather than the existence of a superior gene. Besides analyzing your documentary intellectually or logically, it also falls short morally. By using the term ‘superior athletic gene’ and referring to slaves who survived as having a ‘genetically cleaner gene’, your documentary suggests a hierarchy of races and people. Martin Luther King once said: “We must never substitute a doctrine of Black supremacy for White supremacy. For the doctrine of Black supremacy is as dangerous as White supremacy.” Your suggestion that your inheritance as a slave descendant gives you a superior gene is unfortunate. Just because a group of people dominate a particular aspect of a sport does not and should note denote the superiority of one race over the other. We all know that Blacks dominate the sprints, Asians dominate cricket and White people dominate swimming, golf and tennis, however, this should not suggest that one race possesses a superior sporting gene. Afterall, how do you explain the success of Tiger Woods in golf, Serena and Venus Williams in Tennis, Marita Koch, Jarmila Kratochvílová, Sebastian Cole and Christophe Lemaitre in athletics, and the West Indies in cricket if it is not due to hardwork, determination, and environmental factors? Advocating that a particular race has a superior gene is no different from what Hitler did in the 1936 Olympics when he suggested that the Aryan Race possessed superior genes, which he thought, would translate to excellence at the Olympic Games.
Brother Johnson, you must realize that superior genes and inferior genes are antithetical concepts. So when you advocate that one race has superior genes, you are at the same time suggesting that another race has inferior genes. Likewise, referring to a group of people having genetically clean genes also implies that another group of people have genetically unclean genes. Since you are a sportsman, I do not need to remind you that there was once a time when we were told that Blacks could not excel in golf because they did not have the genes to excel in golf - Tiger Woods proved them wrong or that Blacks could not excel in tennis because they did not have the genes to excel in tennis- Serena and Althea Gibson, proved them wrong. If a non-Black person had done a documentary similar to yours suggesting the supremacy of a White gene relative to non-White genes, we all know what would have happened. All hell would have let loose. I can imagine, the presenter of the documentary banished from presenting any programme on TV. There would be an outrage, infact, I would not be surprised if the Prime Minister would have condemned the documentary in the House of Parliament. So if it is not acceptable for a White man or woman to suggest the supremacy of White genes over non-White genes, it should also not be acceptable for a Black man or woman to suggest the supremacy of Black genes over non-Black genes. In addition, the history pages are littered with the tragic consequences of the promotion of the supremacy of a particular racial gene over the other. From history, we learn how Sir William Petty’s suggestion that there was a hierarchy of races in which the Black race were savages and beastlike and were intellectually inferior to the Europeans, fueled the Trans Atlantic slave trade. From history, we learn how Eugen Fischer’s experiment on mixed raced Namibians and children from French African soldiers eventually resulted in the sterilization of thousands of people. From history, we also learn how Eugene Fischer’s racial theories along with those of other eugenists such as Harry Laughlin and Madison Grant encouraged the Nazi policies, which resulted in the extermination of around 15 million Jews throughout Europe. From history, we learn how the justification for Apartheid and Jim Crow Segregation Laws was rooted in a number of scientific studies, which suggested the inferiority of the Black race. While you may think that you are helping the Black race by promoting the notion that Blacks have a superior athletic gene relative to other races, on the contrary, your documentary is actually harmful to the Black race. As a Black man, I have often observed that when a Black person excels in a particular area of endeavour, it is rarely accepted at face value. People always try to find an explanation for this success besides hardwork, determination and perseverance. Very often these successes are attributed to genetics, poverty or raw talent or power. For instance, Serena and Venus Williams, one of the greatest tennis players in a generation are one of the least respected, least appreciated and least regarded multiple grand slam champions. Inspite of their hardwork, tenacity and intellect, most people attribute their successes to their power. While failing to acknowledge their all round play, analysts focus mainly on their serves. In attributing success of the Kenyan runners in the middle to long distance races, many people say that
athletics offers Kenyans a way out of poverty. This same excuse is also used where say an African or Asian leaves her country, comes over the West, excels in school and in her career. With the success of Black athletics in the athletics, many people refuse to accept that this success could be due to hardwork, environmental factors or determination; hence the quest by scientist to come up with a scientific explanation for the success. On the contrary, the success of White people in sports like swimming, cycling, discus, shot put and tennis is hardly subject to such rigorous scientific examination. Your theory on Blacks possession of a superior athletic gene downplays the hardwork carried out by other Black athletes and other Black sportsmen and women. In addition, it also provides ammunition to bigots and racists to propagate their racist theories that Black people excel in sports because they are closer to animals in terms of their genetic and physical anatomy. Furthermore, by suggesting that the slaves who survived the ordeal were fitter and genetically cleaner than those who died on the way, you have indirectly postulated that there is a hierarchy among the Black race, in which Americans and Caribbean slave descendants have superior genes relative to Africans. So when next a non-Black person comes up with a controversial theory regarding the inferiority of Black genes, in the event of an outcry, a ready defence will likely be along the lines of: “Why are you all complaining, afterall Michael Johnson, a premier Black athlete postulated the superiority of Black athletic genes?” In case you do not know, I will like to bring to your attention a number of responses made in respect of your theory, which are detailed below: • “O.k. so this guy can say that African American and Caribbean sprinters have a superior athletic gene, but if a White European said something about Europeans having superior intellect, morality and facility for self-discipline they would be demonized and labeled a Racist” “If Michael Johnson is trying to confirm racial differences in athletics and intelligence he sure is doing a fine job.”
Finally, throughout time, sportsmen and women have come and retired, however a select few seem to leave their footprint on the sands of time. I will like to draw your attention to two great sportsmen that have stood the test of time. These two sportsmen like you are Americans and they are Black. Tommie Smith like you is a former 200m athlete who represented the USA at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. After winning the 200m event, Tommie Smith used the award ceremony as a platform to protest against the injustice melted upon African Americans, by wearing a Black glove and raising his fist while on the podium. The second sports personality is Muhammad Ali, the three-time former heavyweight champion. Ali was an outspoken critic of the injustice melted on Black Americans. He refused to go to Vietnam to fight against the Vietnamese people even though it cost him his title, sponsorship and he faced the risk of imprisonment. After almost fifty years since these two sportsmen made a stand against injustice for their people, their names have been etched
on the mental sheets of millions of people around the world, including people who did not know them at their prime. Brother Johnson, I hope you will consider what legacy you would like to leave fifty years from now. Do you want to be regarded as one of the world’s finest athletes who used his platform to lift his brothers and sisters from the shackles of injustice or would you want to be regarded as one of the world’s finest athletes who used his platform to reinforce negative stereotypes that inflicted his brothers and sisters. History is watching. Selah. Your brother Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA email@example.com July 2012