White Men Can't Run – Are Genes To Blame?

The 10 fastest men and 9 fastest women of all time are exclusively the descendants of West African slaves who survived the excruciating journey to America.

Most of the time, regardless of the context, the word “slave” makes people uncomfortable. 

Recently, scientists started researching how much of a factor being descended from slaves contributes to athletic ability.

Nearly all the sprinters who have beaten the 10-second barrier are of West African descent.

Four times olympic gold medalist and eight times World Champion, American sprinter Michael Johnson DNA test revealed that he is of West African descent.

The worlds fastest man, Usain Bolt is of African decent and ancestry traces back to a slavery plantation in Jamaica. 


Why Do Athletes From West African Descent Dominate The Sprint Events? 

Olympic legend Michael Johnson said he believes the reason black athletes tend to dominate certain competitions is because the descendants of slaves have a “superior athletic gene.”

Based on the available evidence, it is plausible that there are physical differences between the races which cannot be accounted for by environmental influences. 

Genetically linked characteristics, such as skeletal structure, muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, and lung capacity are not evenly distributed among different people.

These traits help to explain why some people succeed – and sometimes fail – in certain sports.

Mere observation of both male and female sprinters reveals that the overwhelming majority of them have short torsos and relatively long upper and lower extremities.

Furthermore, extreme leanness is a hallmark characteristic of elite sprinters.

Thus, it would make sense that at least with regard to this characteristic, black people have an advantage.


Why are Jamaicans So Good at Sprinting?

There is a fascinating link between factors that influence survival in ancient humans and the factors that contribute to athletic abilities in modern man.

Some scientists believe a combination of selective breeding by slave owners and appalling conditions meant that only the strongest slaves endured, creating a group predisposed to record-breaking athletic performance.

The slave trade might have played a role, intervening in natural selection with the strongest and fittest West Africans loaded on slave boats bound for the Americas, contributing to a dominance of Caribbean sprinters several centuries later.

Interestingly, the toughest journey was to Jamaica, the last stop on the slave trail.

African slaves underwent a rigorous selection process and only the fittest were transported on ships.

It is postulated that slaves possessing more responsive androgen receptors experienced a survival advantage under which the slaves were transported from the African continent to the ‘New World’.


“Speed Gene” Discovered by Australian Sports Scientists

Australian researchers studied athletes at Canberra's Australian Institute of Sport, a national Olympic athlete training centre, discovered a gene called alpha-actinin-3, or ACTN3.

The researchers found that alpha-acitn gene can make runners better at either sprinting or endurance, depending on which version of the gene they have.

They found that sprinters tend to have one version of the gene – ACTN3, found in fast muscle fibres. These fibres help to produce the explosive bursts of speed and power that sprinters need. While long-distance runners tend to have a different version, ACTN2.

The association between the ACTN3 genotype and sprint performance has been replicated in a number of studies in populations of varied ethnicity, including European, American, and Israeli athletes.

Studies have found that West Africans tend to have higher numbers of muscle fibers responsible for “short, explosive bursts of action” than white people do – an advantage in running competitions. 

This is the second gene to be shown to confer athletic ability. The first, angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE, makes an enzyme which influences how efficiently our muscles burn oxygen, and the rate at which some muscles grow.

Several studies focused on the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) gene, which also seems to have alternate versions in sprinters and endurance runners. The I form of the gene is more common in sprinters while the D form of the gene is associated with long-distance runners. 

Another vital gene associated with athletic performance is the EPO-receptor gene (EPOR), which controls the number of red blood cells a person has. Since blood carries oxygen to the muscles, a rare mutation in this gene that causes the production of more red blood cells can enhance performance significantly.

The same genes that play key roles in sports performance also sometimes figure in common chronic problems such as:


  • cardiovascular diseases
  • diabetes
  • osteoporosis
  • obesity and others


Knowing more about these genes could lead to prevention and treatment of disease.


Emed's Comment

Being a sports champion is a very complex attribute that results from the combined influence of hundreds of genetic polymorphisms. 

The main question is no longer whether there is a genetic component associated with elite athletic status and endurance/power trainability, but rather, which genetic profiles contribute to elite performance.

Genetic profile might help determine whether athletes are in the right event, whether they have a significant capacity to improve, what sort of training load they can bear and their susceptibility to injury. 

It must be kept in mind that, beyond genes and gene-environment interactions, athletic performance is determined by a complex mixture of many other interacting factors e.g., diet, training, motivation, socioeconomic factors, or simply opportunity.

Genetics are important in anything you do, however hard work and dedication is the difference between the winners and losers.


Further Reading:


1. “ACTN3 genotype is associated with human elite athletic performance.”, Yang N, MacArthur DG, Gulbin JP, Hahn AG, Beggs AH, Easteal S, North K, Institute for Neuromuscular Research, Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, Australia, Am J Hum Genet. 2003 Sep;73(3):627-31. Epub 2003 Jul 23.

2. “Influences of the G2350A polymorphism in the ACE Gene on cardiac structure and function of ball game players”, Yongwoo Jang and Sung Min Kim, Institute for Neuromuscular Research, Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, Australia, Am J Hum Genet. 2003 Sep;73(3):627-31. 

3. “Is there an ACE ID – ACTN3 R577X polymorphisms interaction that influences sprint performance?”, Eynon N, Alves AJ, Yamin C, Sagiv M, Duarte JA, Oliveira J, Ayalon M, Goldhammer E, Sagiv M, Meckel Y., Int J Sports Med. 2009 Dec;30(12):888-91, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20013558

4. “Charting the ancestry of African Americans”, Salas A, Carracedo A, Richards M, Macaulay V.. Am J Hum Genet. 2005;77:676–680. doi: 10.1086/491675.