Deconstructing the Taboo; Building the Elite Athlete; Scientific American Presents; by Gary Taubes; 8 Page(s)
Last September a 20-year-old Kenyan runner named Noah Ngeny ran the fastest 1,000 meters in history, breaking a world record that had been set by British runner Sebastian Coe in 1981. Ngeny was a latecomer to the sport of competitive running. He had been a volleyball player until 1996, when he switched sports, he said, because "in Kenya, it's the runners who become national heroes." Ngeny had first tried to break Coe's record last July, in Nice in southern France, but fell short by less than half a second. The press reports of his September race suggest that he had carefully planned his second attempt. He chose a track in Rieti, Italy, in the mountains north of Rome that was considered to have the ideal combination of track surface, altitude and climate for record-breaking performances. Seven world records had been set there. Three days before the meet Ngeny persuaded the organizers to schedule a 1,000-meter race, which they had not originally planned on doing. The weather would be perfect-a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The end result of these preparations was the breaking of the oldest outstanding individual record in the books. It had also been the last record in competitive running-from 100 meters up to the marathon-not held by a runner from Africa or of African descent.
The domination of sports by black athletes has become one of the most remarkable phenomena of modern athletics. Blacks make up only 12 percent of the world's population, but take the top 100 times in almost any event in competitive running and you'll find that 70 percent are held by black athletes. In sprinting, the numbers are even more overpowering. In the 100-meter dash, the only runners ever to break the 10second barrier have been black, and they have done so more than 200 times. And this predominance extends far beyond running. African-Americans constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population but 80 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association and 70 percent of those in the Women's National Basketball Association. Sixty-five percent of the players in the National Football League are black, and in those positions requiring speed and agility more than size, weight and strength, the appearance of a first-rate white player is inevitably hailed by fans and the sporting press as noteworthy. As Sports Illustrated put it in 1997, "The best athletes on the planet are black. Stop the conversation right there and few will argue the point."