Where are the black athletes at Winter Olympics?

We own long distance and short distance running….and by we, I am counting Caribbeans, African Americans and Africans who have adopted other nationalities. But when it comes to the Winter Olympics – there is hardly a black face to be seen. Only three African countries are represented, Morocco has two alpine skiers (one who has dual Canadian citizenship), Togo is making its Winter Olympics debut with two female athletes – an alpine skier and a cross-country skier. Zimbabwe is also making its Winter Olympics debut with an alpine skier. Surprisingly no South African Athletes!

11 - Mae Berenice MEITE, FRA

Black athlete numbers at Sochi are bolstered by African American athletes, French athletes like figure skater Maé Bérénice Méité and of course after a 12 year absence the Jamaican bobsled team but compare this to the estimated 2800 total number of athletes at the Winter Olympics or the 47 athletes that represented Kenya in the Summer London Olympics – …..it is still a dismal black showing.

Are we afraid of the cold? Or are we genetically indisposed to winter sports?

According to researchers at Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living in Australia.

Studies have shown an association between more than 25 genetic markers and elite athletic performance in several populations around the world.

These genes tend to be associated with cardiovascular endurance and muscle fiber type.

A Polish study of 100 power athletes, 123 endurance athletes and 344 nonathletes found a variant of angiotensiogen (AGT) gene was two to three times more common in elite power athletes, compared to nonathletes.  This gene is involved in the regulation of blood pressure, body salt, and fluid balance and may increase production of angiotensin II, which is involved in muscle performance.

Similarly ACTN3 involved in the production of alpha-Actinin 3 that contributes to the muscle’s ability to generate forceful, repetitive muscle contraction, was studied in 429 Australian elite athletes.

There is a  genetic test for ACTN3 but that’s another story…..back to the subject at hand. There is no genetic evidence to suggest that there is a genetic difference between African and Caucasian athletes. Yannis Pitsiladis , a researcher at the University of Glasgow who has studied genetic traits in athletes around the world, sums it up well in an article the summing  up of the sums it up well when he says

The notion of race, therefore, is not an acceptable surrogate for genetics in assessing performance differences between populations.

(NB race defines skin colour….)

He goes on to say certain traits are inherited and confer athletic advantages such as height in volleyball or basketball. But not everyone who is seven foot tall is an all star basketball champion. Environment plays a huge factor. He suggests that environmental conditions  in East African are suitable for developing endurance which is much needed in long distance events.  When Pitsiladis compared 400 elite Kenyan atheletes, he found that as children they were more likely to run several miles to school. A similar pattern of running as a child was found in Ethiopia, a country also known for its marathon runners like Haile Gebrselassie.

(this has me thinking if one starts running long distances at young age are you more likely to be a successful marathon runner? Is socio-economic disadvantage (schools miles away) an advantage in this regard..at least?  When (and not if) these countries develop what factors will influence the next generation of endurance runners)? On a side note are the Williams sisters born talent or years or training? or both?)

Returning to the Winter Olympics…of note is that bobsledding favours athletes who have previous backgrounds in track and field. Speed is necessary to get the bobsleigh going fast. Maybe African marathon runners could become cross country skiers? As for luge and skeleton….that stuff is scary!

Philip Boit, Kenyan Cross Country Skier.

Philip Boit, Kenyan Cross Country Skier.

However the challenge of access remains. Training might be somewhat of an issue in Africa unless you live on Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa, Drakensburg mountains in South Africa or Atlas Mountains of northern Africa. A lack of the snowy ski slopes or ice rinks prohibits Africans from engaging in winter sports. Add to that the cost of winter sports. Running is a relatively cheap sport – skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, bobsledding require expensive equipment and gear.

This quote illustrates some of the constrains of getting into sports.

“Interest in sporting activities are often dictated by environment. That’s why Nordic and European countries have excelled in past Winter Olympics. It’s a simple fact that winter sports are not part of black culture for both geographic and economic reasons. Accessibility, affordability and motivation are key requirements for individuals to excel in sport activities, not the color of one’s skin.”  Project 21

My opinion therefore is the reasons why black people don’t competitively swim, surf, or participate in a wider array of sports has nothing to do with athletic ability but more to do with physical and socioeconomic access. I’m sure talents would abound if free and easy access ice rinks and ski slopes were to pop up in villages and towns around Africa.

Africa Australia Research Forum

Hosted by J Max Bankole Jarrett, UNECA with Dr Florence Chenoweth, Minister for Agriculture, Liberia; HE Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana; John Kerin Chairman, Crawford Fund and Ms Ann Harrap, former Australian High Commissioner to South Africa.

Fireside chat hosted by J Max Bankole Jarrett, UNECA with Dr Florence Chenoweth, Minister for Agriculture, Liberia; HE Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana; John Kerin Chairman, Crawford Fund and Ms Ann Harrap, former Australian High
Commissioner to South Africa.

Where was the research at the recent ‘Mining, Agriculture and Development: Bread from Stones?’ meeting jointly organizing by the Crawford Fund and Africa Australia Research Forum held on 25-28th August.

It had a stellar line-up, including ministers, former presidents, CEOs and research centre directors. The stage was set for an informative and inspiring conference but….read more

Calling all budding African scientists for the Google Science Fair

Interest, passion, creativity, commitment, curiosity and above all love for science starts at a young age. The best and brightest inventors started at an early age. None of the Science Heroes on the Google Science Fair page are black. Its time to change that…Africa has young talented, innovative people -esteemed African scientists include Phillip Emeagwali who performed the world’s fastest computational records, Gebisa Ejeta winner of a World Food Prize and Tebello Nyokong a female South African nanotechnologist. There is also a budding generation of innovators, William Kamkwamba who harnessed the wind, Mubarak Muhammed Abdullahi building working helicopters from car parts, Juliana Rotich co-founder of Ushahidi and Victor Kawagga a robotics enthusiast.

Google Science Fair is looking for the next generation of scientists and engineers to change the world. Last year a group from Swaziland were among 15 finalists. Their project on hydroponics for poor subsistence farmers also won the Science in Action prize.

This is our time to shine….find out more at Google Science Fair.

Baby with HIV “cured” – what does this mean for Africa?

Are we a step closer to finding a cure? In 2008, the first person Timothy Ray Brown known as “The Berlin Patient” was the first person reportedly “cured” of HIV. Six years on since having a series of complex medical procedures which included chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, he has no detectable levels of HIV.  Last week  the media was in a frenzy over a second possibly cured patient – this time a two year old child, dubbed the Mississippi baby.  The infant, now two and half years old needs no antiretroviral drugs.

The baby tested positive for the virus at birth. She became infected because the mother was not tested in early pregnancy and was not given antiretroviral treatment to prevent mother to child transmission (PMTCT).

By the time the doctors realised that the mother had HIV, it was too late for the normal PMTCT protocol so instead as soon as the baby was born, 30 hours after birth, she was given the full three antiretroviral drug combination as opposed to the single dose ARV drug normally given to babies. The baby continued treatment for 18 months then the baby and mother disappeared – which is referred as “lost to follow up”. However when the infant returned six months later, even though she had not been on treatment for six months,  when tested the infant was found to have an undetectable viral load.

Scientists refer to this as a “functional cure”- when people test negative for the virus but some of the virus has remained but is inactive. Normally babies treated with this drug complement stay on treatment but this mother never came back for more treatment so this unexpected event of the baby not continuing treatment is how the scientists derived their “functional cure”.

According to UNAIDS, there were 330 000 children newly infected with HIV in 2011.Every child born free of HIV a UNAIDS initiative reports only a third of infants in need of antiretroviral prophylaxis receive it.

Is this the big one? Do scientists have the cure? Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. What this “functional cure” does provide is exciting new areas for research. This one HIV-free baby may also be an exception to the rule. It is possible that this baby, for reasons unknown, may be different to other babies. More rigorous research is required before scientists can determine whether newborn babies can be treated in this way.  Furthermore this potential treatment may not work when HIV is discovered later, such as with adults.

What does this mean for Africa? Unfortunately with most new and improved treatments, developing countries are always the last ones to benefit. Odd, when they are places most in need. But do we really need a cure for babies with HIV if they are already effective methods of preventing transmission from mothers to children?

Dr. Mary Guinan writes in CNN

But there was another great advance against the HIV virus that did not make big headlines. A simple treatment with anti-retroviral drugs can prevent babies from being infected by their HIV positive mothers in the first place. Of course, a patient cure is much more visible than an infection prevented. Maybe that is why we celebrate cure in a way that we do not celebrate prevention”

But she also ends well by saying

…..let us celebrate each success. Each one gives hope that we will eventually conquer one of the most formidable of viruses.

 

More scientists and engineers becoming African presidents

Guest post by Kenyan Harvard Professor Calestous Juma
at Forbes.

Africa’s Leadership Fails Billionaire Mo Ibrahim’s Test, But Technocrats Rise

Calestous JumaThis is a guest post by Harvard professor Calestous Juma

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has announced that it could not find a winner for its US$5 million prize for good governance in Africa. The selection panel said no candidate had met all of the criteria, as was the case in 2009 and 2010.

The foundation has set high and commendable standards for performance, which African leaders should aspire to achieve as the continent works to strengthen other democratic institutions. Two decades ago Africa’s leadership was dominated by autocrats, many of whom had risen to power through military coups. (For an opinionated take and some bacon the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Award, see this post).

But it appears that the road to democracy is being bridged by a rising technocracy.

While the Mo Ibrahim Foundation was announcing the “no winner” in London, the African Union was installing a South African medic, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as its new chairperson in Addis Ababa. In 2012 alone, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, Tunisia and Somalia elected engineers to top political offices. Eritrea and Nigeria are headed by an engineer and a fisheries scientist, respectively.

Read the rest at Forbes.

Black hair – why nappy, kinky and out of control?

Growing up I had the nattiest, kinkiest, toughest, roughest, driest, most unmanageable hair. No blow drier, no relaxer and no hot comb could tame my unruly fro. It is the curse of the wild black hair. They don’t call them “relaxers” for nothing!

Hair and culture
Hair is an outward expression of culture and heritage. It also represents a sense of personal style.  Women’s hair is teased, straightened, crimped, permed, braided – we adorn it with beads and shells and shape it into intricate styles. For the last few centuries, different hair styles have indicated a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community.

In the very insightful documentary Good Hair by Chris Rock, he estimates that the American black hair industry is valued at about 9 billion dollars. In America,  black women make up about 6.5 percent of the population yet they buy up to 40 percent of all hair care products. South Africa’s black hair industry is estimated at $1.1 billion a year.  We care a lot about your hair!

Byrd and Tharps write in a book – Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America – that for the Yoruba (an ethnic group in Nigeria), braided hair was a message to the gods. They considered hair a gateway to the spirits because hair occupies the most elevated part on the body. Shaving during slavery was soul destroying because hair was culturally and spiritually significant to African people.

Nuba woman of Sudan

Following slavery, wigs became the fashion, to suit European notions of beauty and straight hair. Then came the Afro. The Afro was a sign of rebellion, pride and differentiation in all things black, powerful and beautiful. The Afro was not just sported in America, even in African countries who were vying for independence the Afro was a symbol of strength.

What is hair?
Hair has two parts, the follicle which is in the skin and the shaft which is visible above the head. The hair follicle has several layers with different functions: growth, protection, secretion of sebum -an oily substance that helps prevent hair and skin from drying out.

Hair follicle

Hair contains water, lipids, traces of mineral elements and melanin but the main component of hair is a hard protein called keratin. The hair shaft is made of keratin. This protein is actually dead, so the hair that you actually see is dead.

Hair is incredibly strong. Each hair can withstand the strain of 100 grams, meaning that an average head of 120,000 hairs could cope with 12 tons, if the scalp were strong enough!

Hair growth
Hair grows about .3 to .4 mm/day or about 6 inches a year. Hair growth is cyclically with shedding occurring randomly unlike other mammals e.g. dogs which shed seasonally.

Hair growth occurs in the follicle through cells that multiply and differentiate. As these cells migrate to the centre of the hair shaft they become filled with keratin and eventually die. The keratin in the hair shaft is organized into protofibrils which are  held together by chemical bonds. It is the reassembly of these chemical bonds that change hair shape. These chemical bonds are reassembled by heat such as when blow drying or using a hot comb or chemically such as during perming.

Hair colour
Melanin is responsible for natural colour of hair. This process occurs in the hair root during hair development.  There are two types of melanin: eumelanin (dark) and pheomelanin (light).  The level of melanin can vary over time causing a person’s hair to change colour and it is possible to have follicles with different combinations of melanin.

Why is African hair so different?
Did you know that all your hair follicles are developed when you are foetus. By week 22 when you are in mom’s belly you have about five million hair follicles: one million on your head and about 100,000 on your scalp. As we get older our hair density reduces because we do not generate new follicles as our scalp expands. But black people actually have less hair shafts approximately 190 hairs per square centimetre compared to Caucasians who have approximately 227 hairs per square centimetre.

Black hair may appear more dense because of the texture of our hair which is springy and taut. If you look at a cross section of African hair down a microscope, you will notice that it is relatively flat compared to Caucasian hair which is round. This flat cross section may be what renders black hair dry and matte as well as easily prone to breakage when combed and brushed.

Cross section of African hair.

Black hair also grows slower approximately 256 micrometers per day, while Caucasian hair grows at approximately 396 micrometers per day.

Cross section of Caucasian hair

What happens when you relax your hair?
The keratin in hair is arranged in bundles. These bundles are held together by chemical bonds called disulphide bonds. These bonds give the hair strength. Relaxers simply break these disulphide bonds and cap them so that they cannot chemically reform. Classically, hair relaxers use a reducer or a base (the opposite of an acid) such as lye (sodium hydroxide) to break and cap these bonds. Unfortunately, sodium hydroxide can burn your skin and damage your hair. That is why some women opt for no-lye relaxers.

What is the risk of relaxing your hair?
You might be wrong if you think the only risk of relaxing your hair is burning your scalp.
My sister once said to me when I was young girl who desperately wanted a pony tail, those chemicals we put on our hair to make it straight; they must be very strong, who knows maybe they leach into our brain and make us go crazy!  My sister was not that far off, studies suggest that black hair care might be toxic. A study published this year showed that black women are more likely to be exposed to hormonally-active chemicals in hair products. These chemicals in black hair products  (shampoos, relaxers,  conditioners) are known as estrogen and endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s hormonal system. They are believed to be linked to reproductive effects and birth defects, breast cancer and heart disease to name a few.

Another study from Boston University followed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal Black American women from 1997 to 2009 and found that hair relaxer use and chemical exposure from scalp lesions and burns may be linked to increased fibroids. Fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in the womb. Fibroids are fairly common but black women are particularly suspectible and can experience problems conceiving,  pain during intercourse and heavy menstrual flow.

In the end…
Aubrey David-Sivasothy writes in The Science of Black Hair, the two most important things for our hair are products that support protein growth and moisturise our hair.   Black women know how tough it is to manage natural hair and to grow longm beautiful natural hair is the ultimate challenge. Natural hair challenges are all the rage. Natural hair challenges are about healthy, longer, stronger hair. Relaxer kits sales have dropped by 17% between 2006 and 2011, according to an industry study.

After disastrous relaxed hair growing up….I now have dreadlocks. I occasionally have nightmares where I wake up with a long luxuriant perm. I love my dreds! I am not one to judge whether you weave it, perm it or braid it as long as it looks good.