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The causes of sporting success are multi-factorial, with no cause being more important than the other since the whole system needs to work in concert to produce the athletic phenotype–call this “causal parity” of athletic success determinants. For a refresher, take what Shenk (2010: 107):
As the search for athletic genes continues, therefore, the overwhelming evidence suggests that researchers will instead locate genes prone to certain types of interactions: gene variant A in combination with gene variant B, provoked into expression by X amount of training + Y altitude + Z will to win + a hundred other life variables (coaching, injuries, etc.), will produce some specific result R. What this means, of course, What this means, of course, is that we need to dispense rhetorically with thick firewall between biology (nature) and training (nurture). The reality of GxE assures that each person’s genes interacts with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, customs and spirituality—everything—to produce unique lifestyle trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint. A seven- or fourteen- or twenty-eight-year-old is not that way merely because of genetic instruction. (Shenk, 2010: 107) [Also read my article Explaining African Running Success Through a Systems View.]
This is how athletic success needs to be looked at; not reducing it to genes or a group of genes that ’cause’ athletic success. Since to be successful in the sport of the athlete’s choice takes more than being born with “the right” genes.
Recently, a Kenyan woman—Joyciline Jepkosgei—won the NYC marathon in here debut (November 3rd, 2019), while Eliud Kipchoge—another Kenyan—became the first human ever to complete a marathon (26.2 miles) in under 2 hours. I recall in the spring reading that he said he would break the 2-hour mark in October. He also attempted to break it in 2017 in Italy but, of course, he failed. His official time in Italy was 2:00:25! While he set the world record in Berlin at 2:01:39. Kipchoge’s official time was 1:59:40—twenty seconds shy of 2 hours—that means his average mile pace was about 4 minutes and 34 seconds. That is insane. (But the IAAF does not accept the time as a new world record since it was not in an open competition—Kipchoge had a slew of Olympic pacesetters following him; an electric car drove just ahead of him and pointed lasers at the ground showing him where to run; so he shaved 2 minutes off his time—2 crucial minutes—according to sport scientist Ross Tucker; and . So he did not set a world record. His feat, though, is still impressive.)
Now, Kipchoge is Kenyan—but what’s his ethnicity? Surprise surprise! He is of the Nandi tribe, more specifically, of the Talai subgroup, born in Kapsisiywa in the Nandi county. Jepkosgei, too, is Nandi, from Cheptil in Nandi county. (Jepkosgei also set the record for the half marathon in 2017. Also, see her regular training regimen and what she does throughout the day. This, of course, is how she is able to be so elite—without hard training, even without “the right genetic makeup”, one will not become an elite athlete.) What a strange coincidence that these two individuals who won recent marathons—and one who set the best time ever in the 26.2 mile race—are both Kenyan, specifically Nandi?
Both of these runners are from the same county in Kenya. Nandi county is elevated about 6,716 ft above sea level. Being born and living at a high elevation means that they have different kinds of physiological adaptations due to being born at such a higher elevation. Living and training at such high elevations means that they have greater lung capacities since they are breathing in thinner air. Those born in highlands like Kipchoge and Jepkosgei have larger lungs and thorax volumes, while oxygen intake is enhanced by increases in lung compliance, pulmonary diffusion, and ventilation (Meer, Heymans, and Zijlstra, 1995).
Those exposed to such elevation develop what is known as “high-altitude hypoxia.” Humans born at high altitudes are able to cope with such a lack of oxygen, since our physiological systems are dynamic—not static—and can respond to environmental changes within seconds of them occurring. Babes born at higher elevations have increased ventilation, and a rise in the alveolar and the pressure of arterial oxygen (Meer, Heymans, and Zjilstra, 1995).
Kenyans have 5 percent longer legs and 12 percent lighter muscles than Scandinavians (Suchy and Waic, 2017). Mooses et al (2014) notes that “upper leg length, total leg length and total leg length to body height ratio were correlated with running performance.” Kong and de Heer (2008) note that:
The slim limbs of Kenyan distance runners may positively contribute to performance by having a low moment of inertia and thus requiring less muscular effort in leg swing. The short ground contact time observed may be related to good running economy since there is less time for the braking force to decelerate forward motion of the body.
An abundance of type I muscle fibers is conducive to success in distance running (Zierath and Hawley, 2004), though Kenyans and Caucasians have no difference in type I muscle fibers (Saltin et al, 1995; Larsen and Sheel, 2015). That, then, throws a wrench in the claim that a whole slew of anatomic and physiologic variables conducive to running success is the cause for Kenyan running success—specifically the type I fibers—right? Wrong. Recall that the appearance of the athletic phenotype is due to nature and nurture—genes and environment—working together in concert. Kenyans are more likely to have slim, long limbs with lower body fat while they lived and trained over 6000 ft high. Their will to win to better themselves and their families’ socioeconomic status, too, plays a part. As I have argued in-depth for years—we cannot understand athletic success and elite athleticism without understanding individual histories, how they grew up, and what they did as a child.
For example, Wilbur and Pitsiladis (2012) espouse a systems view of Kenyan marathon success, writing:
In general, it appears that Kenyan and Ethiopian distance-running success is not based on a unique genetic or physiological characteristic. Rather, it appears to be the result of favorable somatotypical characteristics lending to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency; chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high-intensity training (live high + train high), and a strong psychological motivation to succeed athletically for the purpose of economic and social advancement.
Becoming a successful runner in Kenya can lead to economic opportunities not afforded to those who do not do well in running. This, too, is a factor in Kenyan running success. So, for the ignorant people who would—pushing a false dichotomy of genes and environment—state that Kenyan running success is due to “socioeconomic status”—they are right, to a point (even if they are mocking it and making their genetic determinism seem more palatable). See figure 6 for their hypothetical model:
This is one of the best models I have come across explaining the success of these people. One can see that it is not reductonist; note that there is no appeal to genes (just variables that genes are implicated IN! Which is not the same as reductionism). It’s not as if one can have an endomorphic somatotype with Kenyan training and their psychological reasons for becoming runners. The ecto-dominant somatotype is a necessary factor for success; but all four of these—biomechanical & physiological, training, and psychological—factors explain the success of the running Kenyans and, in turn, the success of Kipchoge and Jepkosgei. African dominance in distance running is, also, dominated by the Nandi subtribe (Tucker, Onywera, and Santos-Concejero, 2015). Knechtle et al (2016) also note that male and female Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are the youngest and fast at the half and full marathons.
The actual environment—climate—on the day of the race, too plays a factor. El Helou et al (2012) note that “Air temperature is the most important factor influencing marathon running performance for runners of all levels.” Nikolaidis et al (2019) note that “race times in the Boston Marathon are influenced by temperature, pressure, precipitations, WBGT, wind coming from the West and wind speed.”
The success of Kenyans—and other groups—shows how the dictum “Athleticism is irreducible to biology” (St. Louis, 2004) is true. How does it make any sense to attempt to reduce athletic success down to one variable and say that that explains the overrepresentation of, say, Kenyans in distance running? A whole slew of factors needs to occur to an individual, along with actually wanting to do something, in order for them to succeed at distance running.
So, what makes Kenyans like Kipchoge and Jepkosgei so good at distance running? It’s due to an interaction with genes and environment, since we take a systems and not a reductionist view of sport success. Even though Kipchoge’s time does not count as an official world record, what he did was still impressive (though not as impressive if he would have done so without all of the help he had). Looking at the system, and not trying to reduce the system to its parts, is how we will explain why some groups are better than others. Genes, of course, play a role in the ontogeny of the athletic phenotype, but they are not the be-all-end-all that genetic reductionists seem to make it out to be. The systems view for Kenyan running success shown here is how and why Kenyans—Kipchoge and Jepkosgei—dominate distance running.
In the past, I have written on the subject of HBD and sports (it is a main subject of this blog). I have covered baseball, football, running, bodybuilding, and strength over many articles. Though, I have not covered basketball yet. Black Americans comprised 74.4 percent of the NBA, compared to 19.1 percent of whites (TIDES, 2017). Why do blacks dominate the racial composition of baskeball? Height is strongly related to success in basketball, though whites and blacks are around the same height, with blacks being slightly shorter (blacks being 69.4 inches compared to whites who were 69.8 inches; CDC, 2012). So, why do blacks dominate basketball?
Basketball success isn’t predicated so much on height, rather, limb length plays more of a factor in basketball success. Blacks have longer limbs than whites (Wagner and Heyward, 2000; Bejan, Jones, and Charles, 2010). The average adult man has an arm span about 2.1 inches greater than his height (Nwosu and Lee, 2008), while Monson, Brasil, and Hlusko (2018) state that taller basketball players had a greater height-to-wingspan ratio and they were, therefore, more successful. The Bleacher Report reports that:
The average NBA Player’s wingspan differential came out at 4.3 percent, so anything above that is going to be reasonably advantageous.
So, more successful basketball players have a longer arm span compared to their height, which makes them more successful in the sport. Blacks have longer limbs than whites, even though they are on average the same height. Thus, one reason why blacks are more successful than whites at basketball is due to their somatotype—their long limbs, specifically,
David Epstein (2014: 129) writes in The Sports Gene:
Based on data from the NBA and NBA predraft combines (using only true, shoes-off measurements of players), the Census Bureaum abd the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, there is such a premium on extra height for NBA that the probability of an American man between the ages of twenty and forty being a current NBA player rises nearly a full order of magnitude with every two-inch increase in height starting at six feet. For a man between six feet and 6’2”, the chance of his currently being in the NBA is five in a million. At 6’2” to 6’4”, that increases to twenty in a million. For a man between 6’10” and seven feet tall, it rises to thirty-two thousand in a million, or 3.2 percent. An American man who is seven feet tall is such a rarity that the CDC does not even list a height percentile at that stature. But the NBA measurements combined with the curve formed by the CDC’s data suggest that of American men ages twenty to forty who stand seven feet tall, a startling 17 percent of them are in the NBA right now.* Find six honest seven-footers, and one will be in the NBA.
* Many of the men who NBA rosters claim are seven feet tall prove to be an inch or even two inches shorter when measured at the combine with their shows off. Shaquille O’Neal, however, is a true 7’1” with his shoes off.
And on page 132 he writes:
The average arm-span-to-height ratio of an NBA player is 1.063. (For medical context, a ratio greater than 1.05 is one of the traditonal diagnostic criteria for Marfan syndrome, the disorder of the body’s connective tissues that results in elongated limbs.) An average-height NBA player, one who is about 6’7”, has a wingspan of seven feet.
So we can clearly see that NBA players, on average, are freaks of nature when it comes to limb length, having freakish arm length proportions which is conducive to success in basketball.
Why are long limbs so conducive to basketball success? I can think of a few reasons.
(1) The taller one is and the longer one’s limbs are the less likely they are to have a blocked shot.
(2) The taller one is and the longer one’s limbs are is advantageous when performing a lay-up.
(3) The taller one is and the longer one’s limbs are means they can battle for rebounds at better than a shorter man with shorter limbs.
Epstein (2014: 136) also states that the predraft data shows that the average white NBA player is 6’7.5” with a wingspan of 6’10” while the average black NBA player is 6’5.5” with an average wingspan of 6’11”—meaning that blacks were shorter but “longer.” What this means is that blacks don’t play at “their height”—they play as if they were taller due to their wingspan.
Such limb length differences are a function of climate. Shorter, stockier bodies (i.e., an endomorphic somatotype) is conducive to life in colder climes, whereas longer, more narrowbodies (ecto-meso) are conducive to life in the tropics. Endomorphic somas are conducive to life in colder climes because there is less surface area to keep warm—and this is seen by looking at those whose ancestors evolved in cold climes (Asians, Inuits)—shorter, more compact bodies retain more heat. Conversely, ecto-meso somas are conducive to life in hotter, more tropical climes since this type of body dissipates heat more efficiently than endo somas (Lieberman, 2015). So, blacks are more likely to have the soma conducive to basketball success due to where their ancestors evolved.
So, now we have discussed the facts that height and limb length are conducive to success in basketball. Although blacks and whites in America are the same height, they have vastly different average limb lengths, as numerous studies attest to. These average differences in limb length are how and why blacks succeed far better than whites in the NBA.
Athleticism is irreducible to biology (Lewis, 2004), as has been argued in the past. However, that does not mean that there are NOT traits that are conducive to success in basketball and other sports. Both height and limb length are related: more than likely, the taller one is, the longer their limbs are relative to their height. This is what we see in elite NBA players. Height, will, altitude, and myriad other factors combine to create the elite NBA phenotype; height seems to be a necessary—not sufficient—condition for basketball success (since one can be successful at basketball without the freakish heights of the average player). Though, as Epstein wrote in his book, both height and limb length are conducive to success in basketball, and it just so happens that blacks have longer limbs than whites which of course translates over to their domination in basketball.
Contrary to popular belief, though, players coming from broken homes and an impoverished life are not the norm. As Dubrow and Adams (2010) write:
We find that, after accounting for methodological problems common in newspaper data, most NBA players come from relatively advantaged social origins and African Americans from disadvantaged social origins have lower odds of being in the NBA than African American and white players from relatively advantaged origins.
Sports writer Peter Keating writes that:
[Dubrow and Adams] found that among African-Americans, a child from a low-income family has 37 percent lower odds of making the NBA than a child from a middle- or upper-income family. Poor white athletes are 75 percent less likely to become NBA players than middle-class or well-off whites. Further, a black athlete from a family without two parents is 18 percent less likely to play in the NBA than a black athlete raised by two parents, while a white athlete from a non-two-parent family has 33 percent lower odds of making the pros. As Dubrow and Adams put it, “The intersection of race, class and family structure background presents unequal pathways into the league.”
(McSweeney, 2008 also has a nice review of the matter.)
Turner et al (2015) state that black males were more likely to play basketball than whites males. Higher-income boys were more likely to play baseball, whereas lower-income boys were more likely to play basketball. Though, it seems that when it comes to elite basketball success, players seem to come from higher-income homes.
Therefore, to succeed in basketball, one needs height and long limbs to succeed in basketball. Contrary to popular belief, it is less likely for an NBA player to come from a low-income family—they come from middle-class families the most. Indeed, those who come from lower-income families, even if they have the skill, most likely won’t have the money to develop the talent they have. Though there are some analyses which point to basketball being played by lower-income children—and I have no reason to disagree with them—when it comes to professional play, both blacks and whites are less likely to become NBA players if they grew up in poverty.
The limb length differences between blacks and whites which are conducive to sport success are a function of the climate that their ancestors evolved in. Now, although athleticism is irreducible to biology (because biological and cultural factors interact to create the elite athletic phenotype), that does not mean that there are no traits conducive to sporting success. Quite the opposite: A taller player would more often than not beat a shorter player; when it comes to players with the same height and different limb lengths, the one with the longer limbs will stand a better chance at beating the one with shorter limbs. Blacks and whites have different limb lengths, and this explains how and why blacks are more successful at basketball than whites. Cultural and biological factors combine in order to cause what one is good at.
Basketball is huge in the black community (due in part to people gravitating toward what they are good at), and due to this, since blacks have an advantage right out of the gate, they will gravitate more toward the sport and, therefore, height and limb length is a huge reason why black dominate at this sport.
Two months ago, I wrote about the two transgender high-school athletes in Connecticut that competed in the in-door running competition. Of course, the two top-placers were the ones who went through male puberty. There is a short interview involving some of the competitors in that specific competition. One of the girls shows her face—the others do not, because they fear the repercussions of discussing this. They are scared of airing their grievances due to “the far left” as one of them says. And this is a completely rational thing to do, especially if they are attempting to make track a career and compete in college.
In any case, the one girl—Selina Soule—who does show her face in the interview levels some solid points. (The quotes are from Selena and they come from 8th Place: A High School Girl’s Life After Transgender Students Joined Her Sport.)
“When I’m at the start of the race, when I’m lining up and getting into my blocks, everyone already knows the outcome. Those two athletes are going to come one and two, and everyone knows it.”
Now, think back to what I wrote about the two individuals who took first and second place. You can see in the pictures from the competition that they have extremely narrow bodies—specifically narrow hips—compared to the actual female competitors. In the previous article on this matter, I discussed numerous variables that men have that are more conducive to success in running sports. Such as larger stroke volumes, smaller Q-angle, and larger hearts. Testosterone stimulates red blood cell production. This is important during exercise, since the more blood that can get to the muscle means that the muscle can work harder.
Sprinting is a full-body sport—each part of the body needs to work in harmony. So, if the whole of the system of individual A is better than B, then A will most likely win. Take A to be a transgender runner who went through puberty and “presents” as a “girl.” Take B to be a normal girl who went through a female puberty. They were exposed to differing levels of steroid hormones (estrogen is a steroid, too—the main differentiator between men and women). So, even if A takes hormones, A STILL had the physiological and anatomic advantages from going through male puberty.
So, to take the girl’s point that “everyone already knows the outcome”, this is on its face already true. In a competition like this, one can get a general idea on the results of the event by looking at the somatotype differences between the girls. Of course, some girls have a narrower frame than others—but the thing is is that they were not exposed to a male puberty, and so, while they do have certain (natural) advantages over other girls, they do not have the main advantage that these transgender runners had.
“No one thinks it’s fair, because we all know that males are physically stronger than females and they compete at a higher level.”
Men have 63 percent more muscle mass than women, which is related to their higher levels of exposure to testosterone both developmentally (in the womb) and during puberty. Most of this muscle mass is located in the upper-body, with men having around 75 percent more arm muscle mass than women. This difference then translates to about a 90 percent higher upper body strength in men over women. Sex also explains about 70 percent of the variance in muscle mass and upper body strength in humans. Men have 50 percent greater muscle mass than women and their lower body strength is about 65 percent greater (see Lassek and Gaulin, 2009).
Let’s get back to development and puberty. If testosterone explains a lot about why men have more muscle mass than women, and muscle mass is conducive to success in sport (in this instance, running), then if an individual is exposed to higher levels of testosterone during development and at puberty—along with the conducive somatotype that is involved with success in the sport—then they will necessarily be better. Even a transgender athlete that has “transitioned” or “presents as” a girl/woman WILL necessarily be stronger than any girl/woman who did not, on average, since they were exposed to way more of the hormone testosterone then they were.
Here’s the most ridiculous part about this. Back in March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed the Equality Act. Now, of course, individuals should not be discriminated against, that is wrong. The relevant part about this, though, is that this Act can make it so that transgender athletes can just “declare to be” female without any evidence of any changes to their bodies. (And, I have argued at length that, even if they did go through such “changes” that they would still have inherent, unfair, advantages over bio-women).
This will mark the end of women sports if ONLY one’s gender identity is the basis for who they will compete with—there will be men’s sports and unisex sports, and if that is to be the case, then I feel that most girls would just stop competing.
“It’s giving the transgender females the right to compete with biological females and eventually it’s going to get to the point where the biological females will be on the sidelines, watching their own sports.”
“It’s very frustrating and hearbreaking when us girls are at the start of the race, and we already know these athletes are going to come out and win no matter how hard we try.”
This is the biggest problem of all. With the creation of the Equality Act, we can imagine this scenario. Individual A (a male) competing in competition C does not do well. They then change their gender identity to compete in women’s sport. They will then blow away the competition. How is that fair? If you were a girl who competed in, say, track, and you saw someone who you knew would win even before the starting gun, what would that do to your will to compete? What would that do to your confidence?
Now, I can already here trans-activists say “Just try harder! Train harder!” Statements like that are jokes. No matter how hard they train, no matter if they give it their all to win, the transgender females will just decimate them.
“My freshman year in outdoor, I saw at the 200 start, this girl who looked kind of masculine. Her arms were much more defined than the average girl’s, and same with her legs, but she had long hair, long braider hair, and I didn’t think much of it. And then I watched the race, and I saw that this girl was blowing away the competitors, and I thought, “Hey, this isn’t right. This usually doesn’t happen.” And then later, in that same meet, I found out that athlete was a transgender female.”
How the hell is this in any way, shape, or form, fair? Quite clearly, just by looking at this person’s anatomy—arms that “were much more defined than the average girls, and same with her legs”—we can make a very solid educated guess on what will go down at this competition. I want to know what is going through the minds of these athletic directors who allow this sort of thing. What are they thinking by allowing it? Do they not realize that they are—with others—setting a precedent to change girl’s and women’s sport forever?
“And then in outdoor last year, there was another transgender that came out and she competed as a male for three seasons, and was mediocre as a male. And then ended up transitioning over to female, and, again, blew everyone out of the competition.”
And there we have it: Any male who is mediocre can then “declare his gender to be” female and then compete with the females and then have way better standing in the competition that he is now competing in. Can’t cut it in the male event? Just say you’re a woman! (Think the movie Juwanna Mann.) That’s like me being a mediocre lifter, and then declaring my gender to be female so I can compete with the women and then I blow away the competition. Is that fair? No, it’s not.
Soul’s mother brought up a very good point: Selena placed 8th in State final, and the first two spots were taken by two “boys who identify as girls”. If those two competitors did not compete, then Selena could have more than likely taken the 6th spot and went on to the New England Championships. When it comes to high-school sport, this is really ridiculous. They are screwing girls who could get good scholarships and looks from scouts from different Universities around the country.
“No one thinks it’s fair, but everyone is afraid of retaliation from the media, from kids around their school, from other athletes, coaches, school administrators. They dont want to attract attention to themselves, and they don’t want to be seen as a target for potential bullying and threats.”
Of course, if the girls who were anonymously interviewed by The Daily Signal identified themselves, they could be screwing up future chances and their current relationships. The fact that Selena is doing this out in the open shows her courage and her will to fight for what she—and rational people—believes is right. Here is what the anonymous girls said:
Girl 1: “Watching them run was just heartbreaking. I mean, you almost don’t even want to watch, but how can you not? You can clearly see these two biological guys just absolutely crushing it and it almost brings you to tears.”
Girl 2: “We’ve competed head to head with these people many times, and it hurts to see them win when you know that you probably should’ve won.”
Girl 3: “There’s really nothing else you can do except get super frustrated and roll your eyes because it’s really hard to even come out and talk in public just because of the way with the far left and how immediately you’ll just be shut down. We are totally accepting of who they are and who they want to be. We just have an issue when it comes to sports.”
Each girl brings up a great point: (1) It would make one not want to watch AND not want to compete because they know that their attempts at winning are futile. (2) Girl 2 said that they’ve competed against them many times, and, of course, they have won. What would it due to one’s confidence knowing that there are individuals there with such unfair advantages? Yes, I know that the other day I said that sport is all about watching people with inherent advantages—watching the best-of-the-best. However, there is a difference here: The best-of-the-best when it comes to men and women are two completely different things. For, if this is the case, why not just eradicated women’s sport all together? (3) Makes perhaps the best point of all. One cannot come out and air their grievances because “the far left” as so succinctly stated by girl 3 would shut you down without even hearing what they would have to say and their feelings on the matter.
“With the case in Connecticut, it can be difficult showcasing my talents to coaches from around the country, as they only look at the results online. They see the first and/or second place girl so far ahead of the rest of the girls. And they’re going to reach out to and try to recruit those two top giels versus everyone else, since they’re so far behind in time.”
This is the most ridiculous part of this whole fiasco. Selena makes a good point that since recruiters only look at results online, that they will see the disparity between the top two placers and the others and only go to speak to the top two. For example, Miller’s (one of the transgender athletes) time in the 55 m dash was 6.96 seconds; Yearwood’s time was 7.01 seconds (the other transgender athlete); and the third place winner’s—a biological female—time was 7.23 seconds. A coach looking at this time online will not even look at the third placer and will only look at the top two—biological males. I wonder if those who allow these types of things in high-school sport truly understand what they are doing. I wonder if they truly understand that they are possibly screwing the careers of some of these girls since they may get overlooked by scouts.
I think it’s gotten to the point where some girls are starting to stray away from those events, and are hoping to go to other events, so then they actually have a fair chance of winning. In my case, I have my field event, long jump. That was my safe haven, if you want to call it, where the results were fair no matter what because it was girls competing against girls. But now, unfortunately, one of those [transgender] athletes has started to compete in long jump, so now none of my events are safe. It’s frustrating when you know that you run your best, and no matter what, your best is never going to be enough.
So even Selena’s other event is getting taken over now. Where will it end? Will we see the de facto elimination of girl’s sport throughout the country one day? Will it be men’s sport and co-ed sport eventually (with of course bio-males taking the top spots)? Take the long jump. Men have a larger abundance of type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers than women who have an abundance of type I (slow twitch) fibers. If Selena is now competing against bio-males, and muscle fiber typing DOES NOT CHANGE, then, of course, there is another unfair advantage that these competitors have since they went through male development and puberty. The same point on muscle fiber typing can then be made in regard to the 100 and 200 m competitions as well. No matter how hard they try or train, what they do will never be enough. How is that fair?
For these girls and others to feel better about this fiasco, they should—in their minds—know that the true competition was between the 3rd place and lower, even though it will not fix the problem that they will be overlooked by scouts since their times are so disparate compared to that of the “winners.” When will this be put to an end? When women are on the sidelines watching what is supposed to be their sport while they watch a slew of men who identify as females take over their sports? Will we eventually have co-ed sports and male sports with the de facto elimination of women’s sport that the Equality Act will put into effect? These types of questions are best answered by sport ethicists and philosophers of sport (I will discuss them in the future), and I, personally, await what some of them have to say about matters like this and similar ones.
I can, of course, see trans-activists clamoring about how “bigoted” and “trans-misogynist” that Selena and her teammates are being. That is irrelevant. They are airing their grievances about how they feel about their sport being taken over by boys—no matter if they “identify as” girls or not. For if girls do not speak out about this now, then they will eventually lose their sport and women’s sport will become co-ed sport—effectively eliminating women’s sporting events. Is that what people would truly want in the name of “equality”? Wouldn’t true “equality” be having separate events for trans-athletes? What about Kerr and Obel’s (2017) argument that sport should be segregated by attributes conducive to success in that sport? I think that’s a route that can and should be tried—and girls like Selena would then still get to have fair competitions.
However, as of today, it is complete bullshit that these girls are competing with boys and people look at it as OK. It is bullshit that the three girls had to conceal their identities because they fear repercussions from their classmates, teammates, and administrators. Selena is brave for airing her grievances publicly and putting her name and face out there on issues she feels strongly about. I hope all goes well for her in the future and that scouts will eventually look at her, and not the two blowing away the competition. Is it any surprise when men have so many physiologic and anatomic advantages over women (see Lassek and Gaulin, 2009 for muscle and strength differences)?
If nothing is changed, girls will be watching their own events from the sidelines.
Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Caster Semenya: Should Semenya Take Drugs to Decrease Testosterone Levels?
In the past week in the world of sport, all the rage has been over mid- to long-distance runner Caster Semenya. Semenya has won the 800 m in 1:56.72 and setting world records in the 400, 800, and 1500 m with times of 50.74, 1:58.45 and 4:10.93 respectively. In 2012 and 2016, Semenya won the gold for the 800 m with times of 1:57.23 and 1:55.28 respectively. I won’t really discuss the anatomic and physiologic advantages today. What I will discuss, though, is the fact that Semenya has been told that she has to take drugs to decrease her testosterone levels or she cannot compete anymore. Semenya was told to decrease her testosterone levels or she could face a ban in the 800 m. The new rules state that:
Female athletes affected must take medication for six months before they can compete, and then maintain a lower testosterone level.
If a female athlete does not want to take medication, then they can compete in:
- International competitions in any discipline other than track events between 400m and a mile
- Any competition that is not an international competition
- The male classification at any competition, at any level, in any discipline
- Any intersex, or similar, classification
But Semenya has declined taking these drugs—so her future is up in the air. So, if Semenya—or any other athlete—has to take drugs to decrease their levels since it gives an unfair advantage, then, in my opinion, this may lead to changes in other sports as well.
Look at Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps has won a record 28, winning 23 medals at Rio in 2016. Phelps has a long, thin torso which decreases drag in the water. Phelps’ wing span is 6’7” while he is 6’4”—which is disproportionate to his height. He has the torso of a 6’8” person, which gives him a greater reach per stroke. His lower body is 5’10” which lowers the resistance against the water. He has large hands and feet (with flexible ankles), which help with paddling capacity (size 14 shoe; yours truly wears a size 13).
There is one more incredible thing about Phelps: He produces around 50 percent lower lactic acid. Think of the last time that you have run for some distance. The burning you feel in your legs is a build up of lactic acid. Lactic acid causes fatigue and also slows muscle contractions—this occurs through lactic acid passing through the bloodstream, becoming lactate. (Note that it does not necessarily cause fatigue; Brooks, 2001.) Phelps does not produce normal levels of lactic acid, and so he is ready to go again shortly after a bout of swimming.
Phelps said “In between the 200m free and the fly heats I have probably had in total about 10 minutes to myself.” A normal person’s muscles would be too fatigued and cramped. I would also assume that Phelps has an abundance of type I muscle fibers as well.
Now take Usain Bolt. The 100 m dash is, mostly, an anaerobic race. What this means is that mitochondrial respiration has minimal effect on the type of energy used during the event (Majumdar and Robergs, 2011). So during anaerobic events, there is no free oxygen to drive energy—the energy stored in the muscle is used to perform movement through a process called glycolysis. Sprinting is an intense exercise—fuel choice during exercise is determined by the intensity of said exercise. “A 100-meter sprint is powered by stored ATP, creatine phosphate, and anaerobic glycolysis of muscle glycogen.”
Now we can look at the physical advantages they have. Swimmers and runners, on average, have different centers of mass (Bejan, Jones, and Charles, 2010). In all actuality, Phelps and Bolt are the perfect example of this phenomenon. Winning runners have a West-African origin and winning runners are more likely to be white. These somatotypic differences between the two races influence why they excel in these two different sports.
Usain Bolt is 6’5”. Since he is that height, and he has long legs, he necessarily has a longer stride—Bolt is the perfect example of Bejan, Jones, and Charles’ (2010) paper. So take the average white sprinter of the same height as Bolt. Ceteris paribus, Bolt will have a higher center of mass than the white athlete due to his longer limbs and and smaller circumference. Krogman (1970) found that, in black and white youths of the same height, blacks had shorter trunks and longer limbs, which lends credence to the hypothesis.
Phelps is 6’4”. As noted above, he has a long torso and long limbs. Long torsos are conducive to a lower center of mass—what whites and Asians have, on average. So long torsos mean that one will have taller sitting heights than those with short torsos. This means that whites and Asians have taller sitting heights than blacks, who have shorter torsos. This average taller sitting height is conducive to the longer torsos which is why whites excel in swimming. Bejan, Jones, and Charles (2010) also note that, if it were not for the short stature of Asians, they would be better swimmers than whites.
In any case, the different centers of mass on average between blacks and whites are conducive to faster times in the sports they excel at. For whites, the three percent increase in center of mass means that there would be a 1.5 percent increase in winning speed and a 1.5 percent decrease in winning time in the case of swimming. The same holds for blacks, but in the case of running: their higher center of mass is conducive to a 1.5 percent increase in winning speed and also a 1.5 percent decrease in winning time, which would be a .15 second decrease, or from 10 s to 9.85 s—which is a large differential when it comes to sprinting. (Note that this phenomenon also holds for black women and white women—black women are better sprinters and white women are better swimmers. Asian women excel in the 100 m freestyle, but not Asian men for reasons discussed above.)
Now put this all together. If Phelps and Bolt have such advantages over their competition and they—supposedly—win due to them, then if Semenya has to decrease her T levels, why shouldn’t Phelps and Bolt decrease X, Y, or Z since they have physiologic/anatomic advantages as well? Why does no one talk about Semenya’s anatomic advantages over, say, white women and why only bring up Semenya’s testosterone levels? Forcing Semenya to decrease T levels will set a bad precedent in sport. What would stop a losing competitor from complaining that the winner—who keeps winning—has an “unfair” physiologic/anatomic advantage and must do X to change it? (Or say that the anatomic advantage they possess is “unfair” and they should be barred from competition?)
Here’s the thing: Watching sport, we want to see the best-of-the-best compete. Wouldn’t that logically imply that we want to see Semenya compete and not rid herself of her advantage? If Semenya’s physiologic advantage(s) is being discussed, why not Semenya’s anatomic advantages? It does not make sense to focus on one variable—as all variables interact to produce the athletic phenotype (Louis, 2004). Phelps and Bolt perfectly embody the results of Bejan, Jones, and Charles (2010)—they have, what I hope are—well-known advantages, and these advantages, on average, are stratified between race due to anatomic differences (see Gerace et al, 1994; Wagner and Heyward, 2000).
Phelps and Bolt have anatomic and physiologic advantages over their competition, just as Semenya does, just like any elite athlete, especially the winners compared to their competition. If Semenya is forced to decrease her testosterone levels, then this will set a horrible precedent for sport, and people may then clamor for Phelps and Bolt to do X, Y, and Z due to their physical advantages. For this reason, Semenya should not decrease her testosterone levels and should be allowed to compete in mid-distance running.
Blacks are better sprinters and whites are better swimmers. Why is this? A whole slew of factors influence this—social, physiological, anatomic. However, there is a stereotype about blacks that has been repeated since I was a child: that blacks can’t swim. How true is this? If it is true, what explains it? It is my opinion that it is true, and that social, cultural, and anatomic and physiologic factors account for this. The same for whites and running. Black children drown at a rate of about 3 times higher than white children. About 70 percent of black children cannot swim, compared to 60 percent of “Hispanic” children and 40 percent of white children. Why is that? Well, one of the most telling answers why is anatomic. Irwin et al (2011) note in their study that blacks are more likely to be “aquaphobes”—having a fear of water—compared to whites.
Almost three years ago, I wrote White Men Can’t Jump? That’s OK, Black Men Can’t Swim. In the article, I explain how and why blacks have a harder time swimming than whites. One anatomic reason is their chest cavity. Compared to whites, blacks have a narrower chest cavity. They have denser, shallower chests. This is a burden while swimming, since those who have a wider chest can take longer strides with their arms while swimming. Blacks have denser bones than whites (Ettinger et al, 1997), Swimmers have lower bone density than non-swimmers (Gomez-Bruton et al, 2013), and so, high bone density is not conducive to swimming success, either.
The first black man to make the swim team for America in the Olympics was Anthony Ervin in 2000. (Funny story. In a class I took a few years ago, racial differences in sports came up. I brought up race differences in swimming. A black guy behind me said “My grandfather was the first to qualify for the Olympics.” I said “Yea? Your grandfather is Anthony Ervin?” He didn’t say anything, it seemed like he got mad at me for calling him out.) That it took this long for a black man to qualify for the US in swimming is telling, and anatomy and physiology, in my opinion, are how we can explain the observed disparity,
So, blacks have lower body fat (on average), and narrower chest cavities. These two things play a role in why blacks are not good swimmers. Yet another role-player, could be, the fact that black women don’t want their hair to get wet and so never taught their children how to swim, parental encouragement, to “swimming is something that white people do” (Wiltse, 2014). Who knows? Maybe in the coming years, blacks could match whites at swimming. Though, with what we know about anatomy and physiology of elite swimmers, this is highly unlikely. It’s like saying “Who knows? Maybe in the coming years, whites could match blacks at running.” Our knowledge of anatomy and physiology throws a wrench in claims like that.
The phenomenon of fast black sprinters and fast white swimmers is predictable through physics (Bejan, Jones, and Charles, 2010). The finalists of running competitions are continuously black, whereas in the swimming competitions they are continuously white. What accounts for this? Well, other than the factors discussed above, there is one more: center of mass.
It is well-known that different races have different anatomic measurements. Blacks have longer limbs than whites (Gerace et al, 1994; Wagner and Heyward, 2000) and longer legs and smaller muscle circumferences (e.g., calves, arms), then they have a higher center of mass than an individual of the same height. So since Asians and whites have long torsos (i.e., since they are endomorphic), they have a lower centers of mass. Asians have the tallest sitting heights, matched with people of the same height, and so we would expect them to be exceptional swimmers. However, since they are not as tall as whites, they do not set records. Blacks, on the other hand, have a lower sitting height when matched with someone of the same height—3 cm shorter. Whites’ sitting height was lower than Asians, but whites are taller so whites dominate swimming compared to Asians because of their average center of mass. See Table 3 from Bejan, Jones, and Charles (2010).
So the difference between blacks’ and whites’ center of mass is 3 percent. This 3 percent difference can account for why the two races excel in running and swimming. When it comes to the runners (blacks), the 3 percent increase in center of mass translates to a 1.5 percent increase in winning speed for the 100 m dash, and a 1.5 percent decrease in winning time, from 10 s to 9.85 s, for example. So the 3 percent difference in running is a huge advantage for blacks.
When it comes to whites, the same holds, except for swimming. So the 3 percent increase in correct length for whites translates over to a 1.5 increase in winning speed and a 1.5 decrease in winning time.
So for taller athletes, mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster, down and forward; speed increases with larger physiques. So since blacks have larger physiques than whites, then, at the extremes of elite sports (running), their mass allows them to fall down forward, faster and since they have larger physiques, they are faster. So world records are set by athletes with different centers of mass: black athletes in running and white athletes in swimming.
Shifting away from physics, we will now discuss the cultural/social component. The fact that many blacks do not know how to swim became apparent after the Red River drownings of 2010 (Wiltse, 2014). Wiltse (2014) notes three reasons why blacks may be bad swimmers compared to whites: (1) white swimmers denied blacks access to pools; (2) cities provided few pools to black communities and the pools they did provide were small; and (3) the cities closed many public pools after desegregation occurred. White parents taught their children how to swim, but black parents hardly ever did. As this occurred as swimming became popular in American culture, this could be one reason why blacks aren’t as represented in swimming when compared to whites.
Wiltse’s (2014) argument is that past discrimination to blacks from whites when it came to swimming explains the drowning disparity between the races. Whites passed down their swimming knowledge, whereas blacks had little to no chance to pass theirs down—if they even knew how to swim, that is. This type of cultural transmission could explain most—if not all—of the disparity in drowning between the races. It is simple: to address the disparity, the claim that swimming is “what white people do” needs to be addressed. I would assume that this claim grew from the 60s and desegregation from when blacks were barred from swimming pools, as Wiltse (2014) notes. While the swimming and drowning gap can be closed, the elite sports (running and swimming) gap cannot be—as most of what drives the relationship between race and those sports are anatomic and physiologic in nature, combined with numerous other irreducible variables.
However, pointing to these types of cultural/social causes can be reversed. We can say that since white parents don’t teach their children how to sprint and thus they have not taught their children how to sprint for successive generations, then if white parents did just that then whites would begin to close the gap when it comes to sprinting. While I do not deny that we would have more black swimmers had these types of discriminatory acts had not occurred, it is ridiculous to claim that the two races can and will become equal if this were to occur. It’d be like saying that if we train this person from birth to become an elite sprinter then they would be. Though the right analogy would be that since there are fewer whites than blacks in elite running sports, then what explains the disparity is that they are not trained that way from pretty much conception. However this betrays the systems view of athleticism, and while there are necessary factors in regard to running success, the whole system must be looked at when assessing what makes an elite athlete.
In conclusion, there are many anatomic and physiologic reasons why blacks and whites differ in running and swimming sports. Anatomic differences, such as center of mass, explain the disparities in swimming and running. Blacks’ morphology—long limbs and short torso—is conducive to running success. They can take longer strides and take fewer strides a race compared to someone of the same size that does not have the same limb length. When it comes to white swimmers, where the altitude is set by the body rising out of the water, whites hold a 1.5 percent speed advantage in swimming.
Though there are these anatomic differences that lend themselves to differences in elite sporting competitions, these differences do not lend themselves do the swimming and drowning gap in regard to blacks and whites. What explains those gaps is generational access to swimming pools; blacks were barred access to swimming pools just as they started to become popular in America, after the 60s when the country was desegregated. This led to swimming being looked at as “something that white people do”, and so, fewer and fewer black parents taught their children how to swim. Further cultural and social factors explain this, too. While I would assume that some of these aforementioned factors would then play a role in the black-white swimming/drowning gaps, I doubt that it would count for a super-majority of it. Thus, the gap can be closed by ridding the stigma that swimming is “something that white people do”.
The elite sporting gap in running and swimming, however, cannot be closed.
Usain Bolt is one of—if not the—fastest men who has ever lived. At age 12 he was already the fastest boy in his school (Irving, 2010: 54). At the 2009 Berlin Olympics, he set the world record for 100 m race (Bolt also holds the world record for the 200 m dash, at 19.19s), clocking in at 9.58 seconds. His average speed was 27.8 mph with an average speed of 23.5 mph. Why is Bolt so fast? Of course, there are multiple interacting factors that contribute to Bolt’s world record times. Bolt’s somatotype, muscle fibers, will to win, intense training, mind, etc all contribute to his world record—along with the type of athlete he is. In this article I will discuss what Bolt does, his anatomy and physiology, what lead up to his record-breaking time, and a possible challenge to his record.
Usain Bolt is tall, as far as sprinters go, with a height of 6’5”. Since he is so tall, compared to other sprinters, his average stride length is at the extreme upper-limit of modern sprinters. So what makes Bolt unique as a sprinter is his stride length (Shinabarger, Hellrich, and Baker, 2010). So Bolt has to take fewer strides than other sprinters, which, in part, explains his success.
During Bolt’s record-setting 9.69 s dash in 2008, during the last 2 seconds—when 20 meters were left to run—Bolt looked to the side and started celebrating (Eriksen et al, 2009). Bolt’s coach claimed that he would have shattered even his future record-setting performance of 9.58 s running 9.52 s or better. The runner-up of this race was Richard Thompson. By 4 s, Bolt and Thompson were neck-and-neck, so Bolt’s medal was won between 4 and 8 s. After 8 s, Bolt considerably decelerated while Thompson equalizes and surpasses Bolt. Thompson could not match Bolt’s speed, though, and slows down after 8.5 s. Then, to answer the question “How fast would Bolt have run had he not celebrated the last 2 s?”, Eriksen et al (2009: 226) make two assumptions:
Assumption 1: Bolt matches Thompson’s speed at up to 8 s.
Assumption 2: Bolt maintains a 0.5 m/s2 higher acceleration than Thompson at 8.5 s.
Of course the justification for A1 is obvious: Bolt outran Thompson between 4 and 8 s. But in regard to A2, it is difficult to quantify exactly how much stronger Bolt was than Thompson, since Bolt is a 200m specialist, they take the 0.5 m/s2. So, in two scenarios that Eriksen et al (2009) put forth, the world record would either be 9.61 s or 9.55 s. Eriksen et al (2009: 228) conclude “that a new world record of less than 9.5 s is within reach by Usain Bolt in the near future.” And what do you know: a year later, Bolt ran the 100 m at 9.59 s.
Bolt has a slow reaction to the gun—that is, he has more moving to do to get to the sprinting start since he is so tall. His reaction time at the Beijing Olympic Final was 0.165 s. So if he could reduce his reaction to the gun by .3 s then he would have beaten his world record of 9.58 s to 9.56 s. If he could get it down to 0.12 s then he would be looking at a 9.55 s time, and if he could get it down to as fast as the rules allow—at 0.10 s—then his time would have been 9.53 seconds, almost right there by his coach’s prediction had he not celebrated during his record-setting run (Darrow, 2012).
Since Bolt is so tall—taller than his competitors—he can take fewer steps per 100 m. For instance, he set his record time in 2009 taking 41 steps to win, whereas his competitors took 45 steps (Beneke and Taylor, 2010). The average sprinter has a higher proportion of type II fibers compares to type I fibers (Zierath and Hawley, 2004). So one thing that separates Bolt from his contemporaries is superior biomechanical efficiency along with relative power generated per-step (Beneke and Taylor, 2010; Coh et al, 2018). So Bolt’s record-setting performances comes down to anthropometric characters, coordinated motor abilities, his ability to generate power, and an effective running technique. Sprint performance on the force generated during ground contact.
Bolt has an ectomorphic-dominant somatotype. Since he is ecto-dominant, this gives him certain advantages over more endo- and meso-dominant competitors. Furthermore, along with his body type, Bolt is Jamaican. Most of the ancestry found in Jamaicans is derived from West Africa. Jamaicans are more likely to have the RR ACTN3 genotype (Scott et al, 2010), while the RR genotype—along with type II fibers (with a greater cross-section area) contributes to whole muscle performance during high-velocity contractions (Broos et al, 2016). I am not aware of any analyses of Bolt’s genotype, but I would bet what’s in my bank account that he has the RR genotype—that he has two copies of ACTN3.
Tyson Gay then emerged as a challenger to Bolt (in 2013, Gay gave a dirty urine for PEDs, performance-enhancing drugs, and Bolt said that Gay should be “kicked out of the sport“). Varlet et al (2015) state that Bolt and Gay influenced how fast the other ran in Berlin, 2009. Both Bolt’s and Gay’s steps were pretty much synchronized with each other. Though since Gay was slightly behind Bolt in the race, he had the better chance to synchronize his movement with Bolt’s. However, Blikslager and de Poel (2017) argue against this: they state that there is no sufficient evidence for the claim that Bolt and Gay had synchronized movements.
The center of mass in blacks is around 3 percent higher in blacks than it is in whites. This 3 percent difference in center of mass between whites and blacks leads to them doing better in one sport over another: sprinting for blacks and swimming for whites (this is one reason why blacks are worse swimmers than whites). Further, for runners, the 3 percent increase in center of height translates over to a 1.5 percent increase in running speed, translating to a difference of 10 s compared to 9.85 s (Bejan, Jones, and Charles, 2010). So the change is 0.15 s for runners. This is yet another reason why Bolt excels: he is exceptionally tall.
Bolt is really tall compared to his contemporaries; Bolt goes through insane training (as do his contemporaries). Of course, the explanation for Bolt’s running success is due to numerous factors, including (but not limited to) his height, leg length/stride length, running economy, Vo2 max, training, where he grew up, and a whole slew of other—irreducible—factors. The fact that Bolt could have set an even more unbelievable record had he not celebrated with 2 s—or 20 meters—left during his record-setting run is incredible. That he can even hit at or near to what his coach predicted that he would have gotten had he not celebrated, while getting his reaction time better is even more incredible. Bolt does not even need to improve his running skill to become better—just improve his reaction to the gun and he will, in my opinion—set records that no one wull ever break.
The Boston Marathon is one of the oldest continuous running marathons around. The 122nd just finished today, and—surprise surprise—a Kenyan man and Ethiopian woman took first place. For the men, Lawrence Chereno (time at 2:07: 57) barely edged out the second place winner Lelisa Desisa Benti (2:07:59; an Ethiopian) while for the women Worknesh Degefa (2:23:31) beat Edna Kiplagat (2:24:13; a Kenyan). For the men, all 5 of the top placers were East African, whereas for the women all 3 were East African. What explains Kenyan marathon success? Incredibly, from 1992 onward—with the exception of 2001 and 2018—East Africans have won the Boston Marathon. We know that athleticism is irreducible to biology, and while genes do play a part in morphology and other things that are conducive to running success, they do not—of course—tell the whole story. A whole slew of factors needs to come together to make an elite athlete, while one thing does not fully explain marathon success.
Back in September of 2017, I covered many factors that make both elite marathoners and sprinters. All of the factors that make an elite athlete combine, no one factor is more important than any other, but if one does not have the will to train and win, of course, they will not do well.
When it comes to Kenyans, a small tribe in Kenya explain the success of—the Kalenjin, most specifically, the Nandi sub-tribe and a complex interaction of genotype, phenotype, and socioeconomic factors explain their success (Tucker, Onywera, and Santos-Concejero, 2015). The Kalenjin account for a whopping 84% of Kenya’s Olympic and world championship medals, 79 percent of Kenya’ top 25 marathon performances, contributing to 34%. Kenyans have won 152 medals, compared with 145 with other African countries—42-61% being Ethiopian—while the rest of the world combined won 153 medals. The Nandi sub-tribe has won 72 medals, accounting for 47& of the total for Kenya. What accounts for the insane disparity between East African marathoners (specifically Kalenjin, and a more specific sub-tribe at that) and the rest?
In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk (2010: 102) writes:
Take the running Kenyans. Relatively new to the international competitions, Kenyans have in recent years become overwhelmingly dominant in middle- and long-distance races. “It’s pointless for me to run on the pro-circuit,” complained American 10,000 meter champion Mike Mykytok to the New York Times in 1998. “With all of the Kenyans, I could set a personal best time, and still only place 12th and win $200.”
The Kenyan-born journalist John Manners describes a just-so story to explain how and why Kenyans dominate these competitions: The best young men who were the fastest and had more endurance acquired more cattle, and those who acquired more cattle could then get a bride and have more children, Shenk explains. “It is not hard to imagine that such a reproductive advantage might cause a significant shift in a group’s genetic makeup over the course of a few centuries” (John Manners, quoted in Shenk, 2010: 103).
However, no matter what the origin of Kenyan running success is, the Kalenjin have a passionate dedication to running. Kipchoge Keino was the one who put Kenya on the map regarding distance running. Shenk quotes Keino saying:
I used to run from the farm to school and back … we didn’t have a water tap in the house, so you run to the river, take your shower, run home, change [run] to school . . . Everything is running.
However, when Keino entered 1968 Olympics in Mexico, he came down with gallstones and his doctor told him not to race. However, he took a cab to Aztec Stadium, and when he get caught in traffic he ran the last mile to the stadium and barely got there before the race started. Even though Keino was sick, he destroyed the then-world record by 6 seconds.
Sports geographers don’t point to one variable that explains Kenyan running success—because they all interact. They train at high altitude—and while high altitude is not the only factor regarding long-distance running success, it is crucial. Because training at a high altitude and then running at a lower altitude can change running time by a large amount. One with a normal running economy who goes by the mantra “live high, train low” can shave off about 8 minutes of their time in a 26.2-mile marathon (Chapman and Levine, 2007). Further, socioeconomic variables also explain the success, with it being part of what drives them to succeed, along with favorable morphology, a strong running economy, high intensity training (living at and training at high altitude) and a slew of psychological factors related to social status and socioeconomic factors (Wilbur and Pitsiladis, 2012). This paper speaks perfectly to the slew of variables that need to come together to make an elite athlete.
Shenk (2010: 108) then reverses John Manner’s just-so story:
… it’s an entertaining theory that fits well with the popular gene-centric view of natural selection [it fits well because it’s selected to be so]. But developmental biologists would point out that you could take exactly the same story line and flip the conclusion on its head: the fastest man earns the most wives and has the most kids—but rather than passing on quickness genes, he passes on crucial ingredients. such as the knowledge and means to attain maximal nutrition, inspiring stories, the most propitious attitude and beliefs, access to the best trainers, the most leisure time to pursue training, and so on. This nongenetic aspect of inheritance is often overlooked by genetic determinists: culture, knowledge, attitudes, and environments are also passed on in many different ways.
Further, Shenk also cites sports scientist Tim Noakes who states that the best Kenyan runners cover 230 km (about 143 miles) a week at 6,000 feet in altitude—and this, of course, would be conducive to running success when the event is held at lower altitudes.
David Epstein wrote a solid book on athleticism in 2014—The Sports Gene. Chapters 12 and 13 are pivotal for this discussion. Chapter 12 titled Can Every Kalenjin Run? In this chapter, Epstein, too, cites John Manners, explaining the same thing that Shenk did, but adds this:
In the next breath of the very same chapter [after describing the just-so story about cattle-gathering and wife-acquisiton], though, Manners seems to doubt the suggestion as soon as he raises it. “The idea just occurred to me, so I just put it in.” (pg 184)
Manners came to see his just-so story as less powerful since, over the years as he interviewed Kalenjin runners because “other “hot spots” of endurance running talent have materialized in East Africa, and the athletes responsible are also from traditionally pastoralist cultures that once practiced cattle raiding” (Epstein, 2014: 184-185).
Epstein then discusses how 17 American men in history have run a marathon better than 2:10—or 4:58 per mile—while 32 Kalenjin men did it in October of 2011 alone. Five American high-schoolers have run a sub-4 minute mile, while one high-school in Kenya alone produced 4 sub-4 mile runners!
Kenyan runners have long legs for their height, along with “upper leg length, total leg length and total leg length to body height ratio were correlated with running performance” (Mooses et al, 2014)—which means that they can cover more distance than one with shorter legs. This is critical for running success—of any kind. Kenyans have a high number of type I muscle fibers, but, of course, this alone does not explain their running success. Elite Kenyan distance runners are characterized by low BMI, low fat mass and slim limbs (Kong and de Heer, 2008).
So now let’s discuss altitude adaptation. One objection to this variable—out of many others, of course—that are conducive to running success is why are Tibetans and Andeas not succeeding in these types of competitions as well as the Kalenjin? The answer is simple—because they do not have the long, ecto-dominant (Vernillo et al, 2013) body types. There is also another, perhaps more critical, component to altitude training—hemoglobin, since the amount of oxygen one has in their blood is dictated by two factors—how much hemoglobin one has in their blood and the amount of oxygen the hemoglobin carries. Altitude increases the number of red blood cells in the body, since it is a good way to get oxygen in an environment with less oxygen.
Epstein (2014: 208) writes:
Preferable to moving to altitude to rain is being born there. Altitude natives who are born and go through dilchood at elevation tend to have proportionally larger lungs than sea-level natives, and large lungs have large surface ares that permit more oxygen to pass from the lungs into the blood. This cannot be the result of altitude ancestry that has altered the genes over generations, because it occurs not only in natives of the Himalayas, but also among American children who do not have altitude ancestry but who grow up in the Rockies. Once childhood is gone, though, so too is the chance for this adaptation. It is not genetic, but neither is it alterable after adolescence.
Epstein (2014: 213) quotes the first man to run a sub-4 minute mile, Roger Bannister who says:
The human body is centuries in advance of the physiologist, and can perform an integration of heart, lungs, and muscles which is too complex for the sciencist to analyze.
This, of course, is a hard pill to swallow for some people, who may not believe this. I believe this is true—though we can point to certain factors, each individual’s trajectory into X is unique, and so, explaining Y for all will be close to impossible.
Finally, Epstein (2014: 214) cites Claudio Berardelli:
Berardelli believes that Kenyans are, in general, more likely to be gifted runners. But he also knows that no matter their talent or body type or childhood environment or country of origin, 2:05 marathon runners do not fall from the sky. Their gifts must be coupled with herculean will.
Although that, too, is not entirely seperable from innate [whatever that means] talent.
Hamilton (2000) concludes that:
It seems that the presumed causes of such domination are often recycled, out of date, and based on misinformation and myth.
This, however, betrays understanding of a systems view of running success. Just because North Africans are beginning to show up in these types of competitions it does not mean that the systems view of athleticism is false.
Of course, the East African running advantage is more than ‘genetic’, it is also cultural—which, rightly, shows how every part of the system interacts to produce an elite athletic phenotype. As Louis (2014: 41) notes “The analysis and explanation of racial athleticism is therefore irreducible to biological or socio-cultural determinants and requires a ‘biocultural approach’ (Malina, 1988; Burfoot, 1999; Entine, 2000) or must account for environmental factors (Himes, 1988; Samson and Yerl`es, 1988).” Genetics alone cannot explain the running success of East Africans.
In sum, what explains the success of East African runners? A whole slew of factors that are irreducible, since the whole system interacts. Of course, I do not deny the role that physiological and anatomic factors have on running performance—they are crucial, but not the only, determinant for running success. Reducing a complex bio-system to X, Y, or Z does not make any sense, as every factor interacts to create the elite athlete. East African dominance in middle- and long-distance running will, of course, continue, since they have the right mix of factors that all interact with each other.
Reductionists would claim that athletic success comes down to the molecular level. I disagree. Though, of course, understanding the molecular pathways and how and why certain athletes excel in certain sports can and will increase our understanding of elite athleticism, reductionist accounts do not tell the full story. A reductionist (which I used to be, especially in regard to sports; see my article Racial Differences in Muscle Fiber Typing Cause Differences in Elite Sporting Competition) would claim that, as can be seen in my article, the cause for elite athletic success comes down to the molecular level. Now, that I no longer hold such reductionist views in this area does not mean that I deny that there are certain things that make an elite athlete. However, I was wrong to attempt to reduce a complex bio-system and attempt to pinpoint one variable as “the cause” of elite athletic success.
In the book The Genius of All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ, David Shenk dispatches with reductionist accounts of athletic success in the 5th chapter of the book. He writes:
2. GENES DON’T DIRECTLY CAUSE TRAITS; THEY ONLY INFLUENCE THE SYSTEM.
Consistent with other lessons of GxE [Genes x Environment], the surprising finding of the $3 billion Human Genome Project is that only in rare instances do specific gene variants directly cause specific traits or diseases. …
As the search for athletic genes continues, therefore, the overwhelming evidence suggests that researchers will instead locate genes prone to certain types of interactions: gene variant A in combination with gene variant B, provoked into expression by X amount of training + Y altitude + Z will to win + a hundred other life variables (coaching, injuries, etc.), will produce some specific result R. What this means, of course, What this means, of course, is that we need to dispense rhetorically with thick firewall between biology (nature) and training (nurture). The reality of GxE assures that each persons genes interacts with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, customs and spirituality—everything—to produce unique lifestyle trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint. A seven- or fourteen- or twenty-eight-year-old is not that way merely because of genetic instruction. (Shenk, 2010: 107) [Also read my article Explaining African Running Success Through a Systems View.]
This is looking at the whole entire system: genes, to training, to altitude, to will to win, to numerous other variables that are conducive to athletic success. You can’t pinpoint one variable in the entire system and say that that is the cause: each variable works together in concert to produce the athletic phenotype. One can invoke Noble’s (2012) argument that there is no privileged level of causation in the production of an athletic phenotype. There are just too many factors that go into the production of an elite athlete, and attempting to reduce it to one or a few factors and attempt to look for those factors in regard to elite athleticism is a fool’s errand. So we can say that there is no privileged level of causation in regard to the athletic phenotype.
In his paper Sport and common-sense racial science, Louis (2004: 41) writes:
The analysis and explanation of racial athleticism is therefore irreducible to
biological or socio-cultural determinants and requires a ‘biocultural approach’
(Malina, 1988; Burfoot, 1999; Entine, 2000) or must account for environmental
factors (Himes, 1988; Samson and Yerl`es, 1988).
Reducing anything, sports included, to environmental/socio-cultural determinants and biology doesn’t make sense; I agree with Louis that we need a ‘biocultural approach’, since biology and socio-cultural determinants are linked. This, of course, upends the nature vs. nurture debate; neither “nature” nor “nurture” has won, they causally depend on one another to produce the elite athletic phenotype.
Louis (2004) further writes:
In support of this biocultural approach, Entine (2001) argues that athleticism is
irreducible to biology because it results from the interaction between population-based genetic differences and culture that, in turn, critiques the Cartesian dualism
‘which sees environment and genes as polar-opposite forces’ (p. 305). This
critique draws on the centrality of complexity, plurality and fluidity to social
description and analysis that is significant within multicultural common sense. By
pointing to the biocultural interactivity of racial formation, Entine suggests that
race is irreducible to a single core determinant. This asserts its fundamental
complexity that must be understood as produced through the process of
articulation across social, cultural and biological categories.
Of course, race is irreducible to a single core determinant; but it is a genuine kind in biology, and so, we must understand the social, cultural, and biological causes and how they interact with each other to produce the athletic phenotype. We can look at athlete A and see that he’s black and then look at his somatotype and ascertain that the reason why athlete A is a good athlete is conducive to his biology. Indeed, it is. One needs a requisite morphology in order to succeed in a certain sport, though it is quite clearly not the only variable needed to produce the athletic phenotype.
One prevalent example here is the Kalenjin (see my article Why Do Jamaicans, Kenyans, and Ethiopians Dominate Running Competitions?). There is no core determinant of Kalenjin running success; even one study I cited in my article shows that Germans had a higher level of a physiological variable conducive to long-distance running success compared to the Kalenjin. This is irrelevant due to the systems view of athleticism. Low Kenyan BMI (the lowest in the world), combined with altitude training (they live in higher altitudes and presumably compete in lower altitudes), a meso-ecto somatotype, the will to train, and even running to and from where they have to go all combine to show how and why this small tribe of Kenyans excel so much in these types of long-distance running competitions.
Sure, we can say that what we know about anatomy and physiology that a certain parameter may be “better” or “worse” in the context of the sport in question, no one denies that. What is denied is the claim that athleticism reduces to biology, and it does not reduce to biology because biology, society, and culture all interact and the interaction itself is irreducible; it does not make sense to attempt to partition biology, society, and culture into percentage points in order to say that one variable has primacy over another. This is because each level of the system interacts with every other level. Genes, anatomy and physiology, the individual, the overarching society, cultural norms, peers, and a whole slew of other factors explain athletic success not only in the Kalenjin but in all athletes.
Broos et al (2016) showed that in those with the RR genotype, coupled with the right morphology and fast twitch muscle fibers, this would lead to more explosive contractions. Broos et al (2016) write:
In conclusion, this study shows that a-actinin-3 deficiency decreases the contraction velocity of isolated type IIa muscle fibers. The decreased cross-sectional area of type IIa and IIx fibers may explain the increased muscle volume in RR genotypes. Thus, our results suggest that, rather than fiber force, combined effects of morphological and contractile properties of individual fast muscle fibers attribute to the enhanced performance observed in RR genotypes during explosive contractions.
This shows the interaction between the genotype, morphology, fast twitch fibers (which blacks have more of; Caeser and Henry, 2015), and, of course, the grueling training these elite athletes go through. All of these factors interact. This further buttresses the argument that I am making that different levels of the system causally interact with each other to produce the athletic phenotype.
Pro-athletes also have “extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes” (Faubert, 2013). This is yet another part of the system, along with other physical variables, that an elite athlete needs to have. Indeed, as Lippi, Favalaro, and Guidi (2008) write:
An advantageous physical genotype is not enough to build a top-class athlete, a champion capable of breaking Olympic records, if endurance elite performances (maximal rate of oxygen uptake, economy of movement, lactate/ventilatory threshold and, potentially, oxygen uptake kinetics) (Williams & Folland, 2008) are not supported by a strong mental background.
So now we have: (1) strong mental background; (2) genes; (3) morphology; (4) Vo2 max; (5) altitude; (6) will to win; (7) training; (8) coaching; (9) injuries; (10) peer/familial support; (11) fiber typing; (12) heart strength etc. There are of course myriad other variables that are conducive to athletic success but are irreducible since we need to look at it in the whole context of the system we are observing.
In conclusion, athleticism is irreducible to biology. Since athleticism is irreducible to biology, then to explain athleticism, we need to look at the whole entire system, from the individual all the way to the society that individual is in (and everything in between) to explain how and why athletic phenotypes develop. There is no logical reason to attempt to reduce athleticism to biology since all of these factors interact. Therefore, the systems view of athleticism is the way we should view the development of athletic phenotypes.
(i) Nature and Nurture interact.
(ii) Since nature and nurture interact, it makes no sense to attempt to reduce anything to one or the other.
(iii) Since it makes no sense to attempt to reduce anything to nature or nurture since nature and nurture interact, then we must dispense with the idea that reductionism can causally explain differences in athleticism between individuals.
That High-School Running Competition: Anatomic and Physiologic Differences Between Men and Women and the Possibility of Sports Segregation by Anatomy and Physiology
Recently there has rightly been, much written about a certain high-school running competition. The competition in question was a girl’s high-school in-door state competition in Connecticut. The first two spots went to two transgender athletes, as if that is a surprise to anyone who knows basic body mechanics and anatomy and physiology. What really irks me about this is that it is demoralizing to the women who train hard year-round, who eat right and have the right mindset to be able to compete in these competitions. Then men who “identify” as women just pretty much walk onto the track and blow away the competition. In this article, I will discuss anatomical and physiological differences between the sexes and how and why these competitions are segregated. Finally, I will discuss Roslyn Kerr’s thoughts on why it may be time to end sex segregation in sports, because she drives a very compelling argument—and this may end the current problems we have regarding these current controversies in high-school—and all—sports.
I have previously written on transgender athletes competing in weight-lifting and the IOC’s (International Olympic Committee’s) guidelines on testosterone levels and “acceptable limits” regarding “transitioning” athletes. The IOC writes:
The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).
The athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.
Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition will be suspended for 12 months.
This is very strange to me. Quoting myself:
10 nanomoles per liter of blood converts to about 288 ng/dl (nanograms per deciliter). Going with the lower end suggested by other members of the IOC, 3 nanomoles per deciliter of blood converts to 87 ng/dl. The range for women is 15 to 70 ng/dl. Now, the 10 nmol/l is, as you can see, way too high. However, 10 nmol/l converts to slightly higher than the lower end of the new testosterone guidelines for the average male in America and Europe (which I covered yesterday, the new levels being 264-916 ng/dl). As we can see, even 10 nmol/l is way too high and, in my opinion, will give an unfair advantage to these athletes
10 nanomoles per liter of blood converts to slightly higher than the lower end for males. How is that fair, in any capacity? Though it is worth noting that other members of the IOC have contested this, saying that 10 nmol/L is too high. In any case, this discussion is really about what should happen at the 2020 Olympic Games, but it is useful for the current discussion since there is evidence that testosterone influences sporting performance. Now let’s get to this high-school running competition.
Transgender athletes Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood finished first and second in an in-door track competition. Miller’s time in the 55 m dash was 6.96 seconds; Yearwood’s time was 7.01 seconds; and the third place winner’s—a biological female—time was 7.23 seconds. Now, quite obviously, since the top-two placers times are, far and beyond, better than the third placer’s time, there is something strange about it. Since Miller and Yearwood are biological males, they have the anatomy and physiology of males since they were born males and went through male puberty. Miller and Yearwood also won competitions last year as well. Looking at their anatomy, compared to the women’s in the competition, how is that fair? That they went through male puberty and were exposed to higher levels of testosterone, how is that fair?
(From the Washington Times)
Look at the hips of the runner in red (a bio-male). Narrow hips are conducive to running success. This is because the quads run in a straight line from the hips, compared to a woman’s wider hips, where the quads sort of are on an angle. Another reason that wider hips are not conducive to running success—and why narrow hips are—is that women have what is called a wider Q-angle—or the quadriceps angle. Think of the average woman. Since they have wider hips, the angle for to their quads from their hips is wider. Males, obviously, have a narrower Q-angle, since they have narrower hips. Since they have narrower hips and therefore a narrower Q-angle, just on the basis of anatomy alone, we can say that, more often than not, men will blow women away in running—ceteris paribus.
You can even see what I mean just by looking at the above picture—there is a clear shot of the girl in yellow and how wide her hips are, although she is in motion.
Since males have narrower hips, then the quads almost go in a straight line, and since they are in the same line as the hips, they are in effect moving the same direction which does not impede running. Now, think of the Q-angle and how it is wider in women. Since the quads are not in-line with the hips, the quads need to do extra work in order to move the same distance as someone who has narrower hips. Women, compared to men, are less-efficient runners and this is due to their hip width and Q-angle.
Once puberty occurs is when the sexes really differentiate in both anatomy and physiology. This is due to the surge of testosterone increases in men, which cause harder bones, and is a driver of muscle growth. Testosterone stimulates red blood cell production (Beggs et al, 2014), which is important for work during a sprint, since the more blood that gets to a muscle, the harder that muscle can work. Women produce less testosterone. So, naturally, women will have less muscle than men. Even in men who “transition” to “women”—especially if they went through the male puberty—they will still have this advantage over them. A higher proportion of a man’s leg is muscle compared to women which can also help in running faster. Furthermore, since they have larger muscles and a higher percentage of their legs are muscle, then they necessarily would have higher amounts of type II muscle fibers which are conducive to sprinting success; sprinters are more likely to have fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers in their vastus lateralis (Zierath and Hawley, 2004). (Also see Trappe et al, 2015 for a case-study on a world champion sprinter.)
Women have higher levels of estrogen than men; these higher levels of estrogen lead to higher body-fat percentage which then impedes running success. Higher levels of body-fat are not conducive to running speed/success because the body needs to work harder to move and, thusly, uses more energy to move since there is more weight—more fat—to move. Therefore, this is yet another reason why women are poorer runners than men.
Women have smaller, lighter lungs with fewer bronchioles than men at birth; boys have larger lungs than girls (Carey et al, 2008). Since women have smaller lungs than men, then, necessarily, women have a lower Vo2 max than men—meaning that women utilize less oxygen during exercise than men. The average Vo2 max for women is about 70-75 percent of that of males after puberty (Sharma and Kailashaya, 2016), while these differences in Vo2 max are still present even after correcting for muscle/fat mass (Stagner, 2009). So, the amount of oxygen that is produced during maximal exertion is greater for men; women have to work much harder than men to deliver more oxygen to their muscles to keep them going.
Women have smaller hearts (and smaller coronary vessels), which pump less blood per beat, meaning that their heart has to beat faster than a man’s to match a man’s cardiac output (Haward, Kalnins, and Kelly, 2001; Prabhavathi et al, 2014). Since women have smaller hearts, they have a smaller stroke volume—meaning the amount of oxygenated blood that the left ventricle releases is less than that of men who have bigger hearts and therefore bigger stroke volumes. Women have a higher heart rate than men (Lufti and Sukkar, 2011), but this is not enough to offset the lower stroke volume. Therefore, each time a woman’s heart pumps, it delivers less blood and oxygen to the muscles. Furthermore, women have 12 percent lower levels of hemoglobin than men (Murphy, 2014). Hemoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells (which women have fewer of) that transports oxygen to the blood. Since women have lower levels of hemoglobin and lower levels of red blood cells, then, less oxygen gets carried to the body’s tissues—muscles included.
I am a betting man and I would bet that both of those individuals who took first and second place in the competition in question would have beaten the women in all of the physiological variables that I have just discussed. We can outright see that the winner had extremely narrow hips. This is not to say that women who have narrow hips should not compete—but the fact of the matter is, that person has a whole slew of advantages over the women that he competed against because he went through male puberty.
What should be done here? There are three courses of action:
(1) Don’t let transgender athletes compete with women.
This is the most obvious course of action. Due to the anatomical and physiological differences between men and women that I described above, these types of people have an unfair advantage over women who did not go through the same type of puberty that they did. Now, one can make the same type of argument for Caster Semenya, who has been the subject of controversy the past few years, though, point (3) will address this.
(2) Have a separate competition for transgender athletes.
This seems to be a logical point. Just because people “identify” as something does not mean that they should compete in that competition. If someone identifies as disabled—even though they are not, physically, for instance—should they then be allowed to compete in the Special Olympics? Having separate competitions for these types of athletes would end these types of discussions—women who bust their ass year-round in order to succeed against their competition would not have to worry about competing against someone who went through a male puberty which would then throw out all of their hard training out the window.
(3) Separate individuals by anatomy and physiology.
This third and final point is separating individuals on the basis of anatomical and physiological parameters. Kerr and Obel (2017) compellingly argue that, instead of segregating sporting competitions by sex, sporting competitions should be segregated by anatomical and physiological parameters.
For example, take sprinting. Success in sprinting hinges on a few things: (1) muscle mass; the more muscle mass one has, especially in their legs, the more power they can generate in order to efficiently move; (2) fast twitch fiber count: the greater number of fast-twitch fibers in, for example, the vastus lateralis dictates how quick and explosive one can be. Coupled with the right morphology and fast-twitch fibers, this leads to more explosive contractions in RR genotypes (Broos et al, 2016). So we can say that for the 100m dash, it can be segregated on the basis of RR genotypes, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers and a mesomorphic somatotype. So, if we know about what certain anatomic and physiologic variables are conducive in certain sporting events (we do know this) then segregating certain sports on the types of variables more conducive to success in that sport would lead to more balanced competition.
This would then end these types of arguments. Transgender athletes would then compete with individuals—male or female—on the basis of whichever anatomic and physiologic variables are conducive to the sport in question. The argument that Kerr and Obel advance is certainly intriguing—dare I say, it makes sense. Though it would take a lot to get it put into practice, it is an interesting thought experiment and makes more sense than just segregating based on sex alone.
Finally, Miller and Yearwood made some comments on their performance in that competition. When some of the girls said that it was unfair that they had to compete against people who went through male puberty, Miller said that the girls just need to “work harder” to compete with them [Miller and Yearwood]. This is ridiculous, due to what I outlined about the anatomic and physiologic differences between men and women. One of the competitors in the competition, Selina Soule said “We all know the outcome of the race before it even starts; it’s demoralizing.” Miller is the third fastest in the “women’s” (scarequotes due to the fact that it’s not all women anymore) 55-meter dash, while Yearwood is tied for 7th. These two should not be competing with women; they should either be competing with other transgender athletes or not competing at all.
In sum, we will be hearing a lot more about these types of things in the future. As more and more schools become “inclusive” to allow individuals who identify as X to compete in Y, there will be more and more outrage and then something would have to be done. I don’t see anything wrong with having them compete with other transgender athletes and only transgender athletes. Because then, the women who actually are women who train and bust their ass year-round to be the best they can be won’t be up-ended by men who walk onto the field who have anatomic and physiologic advantages who then blow them away (that much is clear by the time differences between the top two and third competitors in this competition).
Everyone wants to know the keys to athletic success, however, as I have argued in the past, to understand elite athletic performance, we must understand how the system works in concert with everything—especially in the environments the biological system finds itself in. To reduce factors down to genes, or training, or X or Y does not make sense; to look at what makes an elite athlete, the method of reductionism, while it does allow us to identify certain differences between athletes, it does not allow us to appreciate the full-range of how and why elite athletes differ in their sport of choice. One large meta-analysis has been done on the effects of a few genotypes on elite athletic performance, and it shows us what we already know (blacks are more likely to have the genotype associated with power performance—so why are there no black Strongmen or any competitors in the World’s Strongest Man?). A few studies and one meta-analysis exist, attempting to get to the bottom of the genetics of elite athletic performance and, while it of course plays a factor, as I have argued in the past, we must take a systems view of the matter.
One 2013 study found that a functional polymorphism in the angiotensinogen (ATG) region was 2 to 3 times more common in elite power athletes than in (non-athlete) controls and elite endurance athletes (Zarebska et al, 2013). This sample tested was Polish, n = 223, 156 males, 67 females, and then they further broke down their athletic sample into tiers. They tested 100 power athletes (29 100-400 m runners; 22 powerlifters; 20 weightlifters; 14 throwers and 15 jumpers) and 123 endurance athletes (4 tri-athletes; 6 race walkers; 14 road cyclists; 6 15 to 50 m cross-country skiers; 12 marathon runners; 53 rowers; 17 3 to 10 km runners; and 11 800 to 1500 m swimmers).
Zarebska et al (2013) attempted to replicate previous associations found in other studies (Buxens et al, 2009) most notably the association with the M235T polymorphism in the AGT (angiotensinogen) gene. Zarebska et al’s (2013) main finding was that there was a higher representation of elite power athletes with the CC and C alleles of the M235T polymorphism compared with endurance athletes and controls, which suggests that the C allele of the M235T gene “may be associated with a predisposition to power-oriented
events” (Zarebska et al, 2013: 2901).
Elite power athletes were more likely to possess the CC genotype; 40 percent of power athletes had the genotype whereas 13 percent of endurance had it and 18 percent of non-athletes had it. So power athletes were more than three times as likely to have the CC genotype, compared to endurance athletes and twice as likely to have it compared to non-athletes. On the other hand, one copy of the C allele was found in 55 percent of the power athletes whereas, for the endurance athletes and non-athletes, the C allele was found in about 40 percent of individuals. (Further, in the elite anaerobic athlete, explosive power was consistently found to be a difference maker in predicting elite sporting performance; Lorenz et al, 2013.)
Now we come to the more interesting parts: ethnic differences in the M235T polymorphism. Zarebska et al (2013: 2901-2902) write:
The M235T allele distribution varies widely according to the subject’s ethnic origin: the T235 allele is by far the most frequent in Africans (;0.90) and in African-Americans (;0.80). It is also high in the Japanese population (0.65–0.75). The T235 (C4027) allele distribution of the control participants in our study was lower (0.40) but was similar to that reported among Spanish Caucasians (0.41), as were the sports specialties of both the power athletes (throwers, sprinters, and jumpers) and endurance athletes (marathon runners, 3- to 10-km runners, and road cyclists), thus mirroring the aforementioned studies.
Zarebska et al (2013: 2902) conclude that their study—along with the study they replicated—supports the hypothesis that the C allele of the M235T polymorphism in the AGT gene may confer a competitive advantage in power-oriented sports, which is partly mediated through ANGII production in the skeletal muscles. Mechanisms can explain the mediation of ANGII production in skeletal muscles, such as a direct skeletal muscle hypertrophic effect, along with the redistribution of between muscle blood flow between type I (slow twitch) and II fibers (fast twitch), which would then augment power and speed. However, it is interesting to note that Zarebska et al (2013) did not find any differences between “top-elite” level athletes who had won medals in international competitions compared to elite-level athletes who were not medalists.
The big deal about this gene is that the AGT gene is part of the renin-angiotensin system which is partly responsible for blood pressure and body salt regulation (Hall, 1991; Schweda, 2014). There seems to be an ethnic difference in this polymorphism, and, according to Zarebska et al (2013), African Americans and Africans are more likely to have the polymorphisms that are associated with elite power performance.
There is also a meta-analysis on genotyping and elite power athlete performance (Weyerstrab et al, 2017). Weyerstrab et al (2017) meta-analyzed 36 studies which attempted to find associations between genotype and athletic ability. One of the polymorphisms studied was the famous ACTN3. It has been noted that, when conditions are right (i.e., the right morphology), the combined effects of morphology along with the contractile properties of the individual muscle fibers contribute to the enhanced performance of those with the RR ACTN3 genotype (Broos et al, 2016), while Ma et al (2013) also lend credence to the idea that genetics influences sporting performance. This is, in fact, the most-replicated association in regard to elite sporting performance: we know the mechanism behind how muscle fibers contract; we know how the fibers contract and the morphology needed to maximize the effectiveness of said fast twitch fibers (type II fibers). (Blacks have a higher proportion of type II fibers [see Caeser and Henry, 2015 for a review].)
Weyerstrab et al (2017) meta-analyzed 35 articles, finding significant associations with genotype and elite power performance. They found that ten polymorphisms were significantly associated with power athlete states. Their most interesting findings, though, were on race. Weyerstrab et al (2017: 6) write:
Results of this meta-analysis show that US African American carriers of the ACE AG genotype (rs4363) were more than two times more likely to become a power athlete compared to carriers of the ACE preferential genotype for power athlete status (AA) in this population.
“Power athlete” does not necessarily have to mean “strength athlete” as in powerlifters or weightlifters (more on weightlifters below).
Lastly, the AGT M235T polymorphism, while associated with other power movements, was not associated with elite weightlifting performance (Ben-Zaken et al, 2018). As noted above, this polymorphism was observed in other power athletes, and since these movements are largely similar (short, explosive movements), one would rightly reason that this association should hold for weightlifters, too. However, this is not what we find.
Weightlifting, compared to other explosive, power sports, is different. The beginning of the lifts take explosive power, but during the ascent of the lift, the lifter moves the weight slower, which is due to biomechanics and a heavy load. Ben-Zaken et al (2018) studied 47 weightlifters (38 male, 9 female) and 86 controls. Every athlete that was studied competed in national and international meets on a regular basis. Thirty of the weightlifters were also classified as “elite”, which entails participating in and winning national and international competitions such as the Olympics and the European and World Championships).
Ben-Zaken et al (2018) did find that weightlifters had a higher prevalence of the AGT 235T polymorphism when compared to controls, though there was no difference in the prevalence of this polymorphism when elite and national-level competitors were compared, which “[suggests] that this polymorphism cannot determine or predict elite competitive weightlifting performance” (Ben-Zaken et al, 2018: 38). Of course, a favorable genetic profile is important for sporting success, though, despite the higher prevalence of AGT in weightlifters compared to controls, this could not explain the difference between national and elite-level competitors. Other polymorphisms could, of course, contribute to weightlifting success, variables “such as training experience, superior equipment and facilities, adequate nutrition, greater familial support, and motivational factors, are crucial for top-level sports development as well” (Ben-Zaken et al, 2018: 39).
I should also comment on Anatoly Karlin’s new article The (Physical) Strength of Nations. I don’t disagree with his main overall point; I only disagree that grip strength is a good measure of overall strength—even though it does follow the expected patterns. Racial differences in grip strength exist, as I have covered in the past. Furthermore, there are associations between muscle strength and longevity, with stronger men being more likely to live longer, fuller lives (Ruiz et al, 2008; Volkalis, Haille, and Meisinger, 2015; Garcia-Hermosa, et al, 2018) so, of course, strength training can only be seen as a net positive, especially in regard to living a longer and fuller life. Hand grip strength does have a high correlation with overall strength (Wind et al, 2010; Trosclair et al, 2011). While handgrip strength can tell you a whole lot about your overall health (Lee et al, 2016), of course, there is no better proxy than actually doing the lifts/exercises to ascertain one’s level of strength.
There are replicated genetic associations between explosive, powerful athletic performance, along with even the understanding of the causal mechanisms behind the polymorphisms and their carry-over to power sports. We know that if morphology is right and the individual has the RR ACTN3 genotype, that they will exceed in explosive sports. We know the causal pathways of ACTN3 and how it leads to differences in sprinting competitions. It should be worth noting that, while we do know a lot more about the genomics of sports than we did 20, even 10 years ago, current genetic testing has zero predictive power in regard to talent identification (Pitsladis et al, 2013).
So, of course, for parents and coaches who wonder about the athletic potential of their children and students, the best way to gauge whether or not they will excel in athletics is…to have them compete and compare them to other kids. Even if the genetics aspect of elite power performance is fully unlocked one day (which I doubt it will be), the best way to ascertain whether or not one will excel in a sport is to put them to the test and see what happens. We are in our infancy in understanding the genomics of sporting performance, but when we do understand which genotypes are more prevalent in regard to certain sports (and of course the interactions of the genotype with the environment and genes), then we can better understand how and why others are better in certain sports.
The genomics of elite sporting performance is very interesting; however, the answer that reductionists want to see will not appear: genes are difference makers (Sterelny and Griffith, 1999), not causes, and along with a whole slew of other environmental and mental factors (Lippi, Favaloro, and Guidi 2008), along with a favorable genetic profile with sufficient training (and everything else that comes along with it) are needed for the athlete to reach their maximum athletic potential (see Guth and Roth, 2013). Genetic and environmental differences between individuals and groups most definitely explain differences in elite sporting performance, though elucidating what causes what and the mechanisms that cause the studied trait in question will be tough.
Just because group A has gene or gene networks G and they compete in competition C does not mean that gene or gene networks G contribute in full—or in part—to sporting success. The correlations could be coincidental and non-functional in regard to the sport in question. Athletes should be studied in isolation, meaning just studying a specific athlete in a specific discipline to ascertain how, what, and why works for the specific athlete along with taking anthropomorphic measures, seeing how bad they want “it”, and other environmental factors such as nutrition and training. Looking at the body as a system will take us away from privileging one part over another—while we also do understand that they do play a role but not the role that reductionists believe.
These studies, while they attempt to show us how genetic factors cause differences at the elite level in power sports, they will not tell the whole story, because we must look at the whole system, not reduce it down to the sum of its parts (Shenk, 2011: chapter 5). While blacks are more likely to have these polymorphisms that are associated with elite power athlete performance, this does not obviously carry over to strongman and powerlifting competition.