Why Are There So Many Black Athletes in the Olympics?

Sisters Venus and Serena Williams changed the face of tennis when they appeared on the tennis scene around a decade ago, and are still winning Grand Slams and bringing home Olympic medals today.

“Mom, why are there so many black people in the Olympics?” my 12 year-old son asked me last night, when my three kids and I were sitting around the television, watching the opening ceremonies together. It was obvious why he asked that question. As nation after nation marched past on the screen, it was interesting to note how many of them had darker complexions and probable African heritage, like me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the only countries that were not represented by at least one black athlete were North Korea and Iran. Though I could be mistaken.

I didn’t really know how to answer my son’s question though. Um…because Black people are awesome at sports? No, that’s just a stereotype. Even though I’ve always been pretty good at sports. Even though my kids appear to be graced by some natural athletic talent. Even though my sisters, my brother, both my parents, many cousins, and even my aunts and uncles (including one that used to play for the Minnesota Vikings) have all excelled at one sport or another at some point in their lives. Even though I cannot recall having ever met a single black person, within my family or outside, who was not coordinated, good with a ball, and able to run fast. Ooof! Now I am only perpetuating a stereotype. Or is it?

Yes and no, say anthropologists. Although it is illogical (and, in fact, racist and ridiculous) to say that all people with dark complexions are superior athletes, there is some actual evidence of high concentrations of people in certain regions of Africa with a great deal fast-twitch muscles — the muscle structure that gives one the ability to sprint very quickly, for short distances. There are other genetic reasons, too, for success in particular types of sports, such as shorter torsos/longer legs, increased lung capacity, and higher levels of testosterone than the general population. No, not all black people have these genetic tendencies. Okay, I probably do. And at least two of my kids appear to be built like me. But not all of us! Really, I think that natural talent is only one side of the coin, anyway. It takes interest in sports, too, which often comes from one’s family culture. And some sports are expensive…one reason one comedian used to joke that “Black people only do sports you can do for free in the park.” With the rise in more affluent Black American families, we are starting to see more black athletes playing sports that were traditionally accessible only to wealthier white families, such as tennis, gymnastics, and swimming. (Let’s not forget…the stereotypes also suggest that black people cannot swim, which is now negated by the appearance of more black Olympic swimmers).

Cullen Jones is only the second Black American swimmer to qualify for the Olympics and bring home a gold medal.

So what did I tell my kids last night? “I don’t really know why there are so many black athletes. But isn’t it great to see so many different types of people come together to compete in sports?” Because although it is a neat feeling to see people who look like me do well in sports, that is not the point of the Olympic Games. It is about people with every shade of skin color, from every region of the world, representing their countries in the ultimate competition. And one day, should my own children be among the group of Americans marching around the Olympic stadium during Opening Ceremonies, I hope that people will not see them and say, “Look, there goes a black athlete!” But instead, say, “Look, there goes a great American athlete!”

Olympic gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco are excelling in sports that were traditionally closed to many black athletes, due to the high cost of training and lack of facilities.

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2 responses to “Why Are There So Many Black Athletes in the Olympics?

  1. I was an 5’9″, 150# Irish/Geman kid with little talent for sports. I spent a lot of time in the library, which isolated me from the bigger Irish/Polish/Newyorican kids who could k**k my a**. I also noticed that a lot of people had special talents that compensated for their lack of talent in other areas. I went to high school in the Bronx that had 4000 boys. I always wore sneakers to school because the school yards were much like prison yards and sneakers often made the difference between a good day and a bad day.
    Often we hear that every one equal. Well, that is true (sometimes) in law, intellectual ability, and opportunity (we are told). I am here to upset that myth. Some people have genetic advantage in sports. Kenyans, (for a variety of reasons) are good runners but poor weight lifters. The inhabitants of the Ituri are poor basketball players. Why? because they keep reproducing with other pygmies.
    Who you reproduce with has a great influence on height, hair color, and strength, among other phenotypes. In Brazil there is a village where most women have twins because of a German immigrant who had a family with lots of twins. He must have had brothers or cousins to avoid any funny business. It’s caused the founder effect.
    While humans are thinking animals as opposed to dogs or horses, the same rules of genetics apply. Chihuahuas and Great Danes all have a wolf as a common ancestor. All humans have common a common ancestor way, way back. When man migrated north their genes mutated and melanin offered no survival benefit. Sickle cell disease offers a survival benefit in Africa but not at higher latitudes.
    I ramble. Everyone has their talents: celebrate them! — a fan

    • I think that is true, Carlos. No matter how determined one is, no matter how much training one has, and no matter how much one loves the sport, a tall man graced with natural speed and agility will always be a better basketball player than a man who lacks those genetic traits. I am coordinated because my parents (who happen to be Black), were coordinated. I run fast, because they could run fast, as could many of my ancestors before them. Is it due to our African heritage from so many generations ago? Is there some truth to the myth that slave owners purposely bred slaves, as one would breed animals, in order to produce stronger, faster workers? I do not know. But I know that I am not the only one who sees the large number of professional and Olympic athletes with dark complexions and thinks hmmm, I wonder….

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