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!
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.
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!
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.