Race and racing: An English icon wades into the ’slave genes’ controversy

Sir Roger Bannister raises a controversial thesis at the London Olympic Games
FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 27, 2012 file photo Sir Roger Bannister is photographed at his home during an interview with The Associated Press, in Oxford, England. Roger Bannister is a potential leading candidate to light the cauldron for the London 2012 Olympics. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)

Deep in Saturday’s Times of London is a riveting interview with Sir Roger Bannister, who comes out in support of a controversial thesis that has surfaced once again at the London Olympic Games: that black West African runners have a genetic “inbuilt advantage.”

Bannister, of course, was the first athlete to break the four-minute mile in 1954, a feat he repeated a month later in the so-called Miracle Mile race with John Landy in Vancouver, B.C.

Bannister, now 83, went on to a distinguished career as a neurologist and researcher, and a champion of drug testing in sport. He’s also a man to speak his mind.

“I love watching people like Usain Bolt,” he told Times writer Alice Thomson. “The West Africans, of course, have an inbuilt advantage. Having been transported [as slaves] to the West Indies, only the toughest endured. They have astonishing muscle composition with those fast fibres and superior genes.”

East Africans, he adds, “spent thousands of years working in the fields at high altitude, still run to school and have the best slow-twitch fibres, which are very efficient at contracting and make them great distance runners.”

At this writing, Bannister’s comments have raised little notice or controversy. That’s in contrast to similar remarks by Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, an African American who predicted in June that Caribbean track athletes will storm the podium at the 2012 London Summer Games. Descendants of slaves possess a “superior athletic gene,” he says. The slaves that survived the brutal conditions of transport and the abuse at the hands of slave masters in Jamaica and elsewhere were the strongest of the strong, he told London’s Daily Mail in June.

Johnson, also a BBC commentator, conceded the issue is controversial. “It’s a fact that hasn’t been discussed openly before. It’s a taboo subject in the States, but it is what it is.”

Actually, it’s a subject that is as old as the hills and remains highly charged. Johnson’s comments have indeed enraged many. Historian Amy Bass argues in Salon that “ ‘Slave genes’ is a myth that must die.” It plays too easily into the stereotypes that “feed into the racist structures upon which the United States was built,” she writes.

Whether Bannister, who is venerated here, draws similar heat remains to be seen.
He adds, in the wide-ranging interview, that running is one of the most democratic sports in the Olympics, “which means that an obscure country, which may face mass starvation or civil war can still produce great runners at little cost.”