David Owen

Publication of my cricket buddy Adam Rutherford's new book – How to Argue with a Racist – could hardly have been better timed.

Sport can play an unintended role in perpetuating the attitudes and prejudice at the root of racism, both casual and ideological.

This is because of the way certain events can be dominated by members of a relatively small, readily identifiable group.

The dominance of the 100 metres, probably the most prominent event in the entire Olympic canon, by athletes of West African heritage, some of whose ancestors may have been enslaved, and the dominance of long-distance disciplines by runners of East African origin are the two most frequently-cited examples.

They are also, understandably, the two examples Rutherford, a geneticist, focuses on in a long chapter – one of just four in the book – devoted to genes and ethnicity and sport.

Personally, I am just as fascinated by the long list of Olympic sports and events over which white athletes retain a near complete stranglehold.

On returning from Athens in 2004, I spent months researching the case of swimming in this context, having found my eyes drawn under the azure Greek sky to silver medallist Malia Metella, and then realising with a clang that could have been heard all the way to Piraeus, that it was because of her skin tone – black in a sea of white.

Usain Bolt wins the men's 100 metres final at the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt wins the men's 100 metres final at the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images

Rutherford does touch on swimming, after making the point that if West African heritage were really the be all and end all of sprint success, you might expect African-American and Caribbean athletes to dominate sprint swimming as well.

But athletics is his prime focus.

If the title of the book does not give you enough of a clue as to his stance on one of the most explosive/divisive issues of our times, then perhaps the knowledge that he has named his new whippet puppy Jesse will.

It is a stance I am in total sympathy with; but, unlike me, Rutherford has half a lifetime of scientific study and a gift for clean, simple, explanatory prose with which to back it up. 

One point he makes is that the dominant groupings associated with particular events can, and do, change.

Be honest: which nation's runners do you think this is about?

"Running is certainly in the blood of every [blank].

"[Blank] and his friends are like animals in the forest.

"Their awe-inspiring times are a way of giving thanks to Mother Nature."

The answer? Finland – the second blank in the quotation is distance-running legend Paavo Nurmi, and the writer a certain Jack Schumacher.

What you will not find in Rutherford's book is the definitive explanation of why white athletes no longer qualify for Olympic men's 100m finals.

As he concludes: "Human genetics is as complex as human history because human genetics is part of human history."

Nor does he reject out of hand the notion that our genetic make-up may, indeed does, play a part in determining what we are good at.

But, to quote a gazillion Facebook profiles: it's complicated.

Adam Rutherford's book covers genes and ethnicity in sport ©W&N
Adam Rutherford's book covers genes and ethnicity in sport ©W&N

"More than 150 individual points of genetic difference have been identified in 83 genes in elite athletes in hundreds of studies, of which approximately three-fifths appear to relate to endurance and the rest strength or power," he writes.

Moreover: "Genes have many effects, and rarely can single attributes be ascribed to them."

The variant of the famous angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE, gene associated with superior powers of oxygen uptake, and therefore endurance, is indeed prevalent in distance-running superpowers Kenya and Ethiopia; but it is just as prevalent in non-runners as runners.

In other words, "It is a national genetic characteristic, irrespective of athleticism."

But if you will not find a clear-cut explanation of why Jamaican sprinters are so outstanding, the book will almost certainly give you a better understanding of why the theories and arguments of racists observing the great global theatre of sport do not stack up.

If you look at the prevalence of the version of the so-called "speed gene", alpha-actinin-3, ACTN3 for short, that is associated with a high incidence of fast-twitch muscles, and hence of explosive power, occurring in African Americans versus white Americans, Rutherford explains, it might usefully account for an imbalance of six African American elite sprinters to every five white runners.

In fact, the observable imbalance is far greater: it is unlikely that any of the Tokyo 2020 men's 100m finalists, assuming for the moment that that starting-pistol does get fired, will be white.

"Maybe there are probabilistic predictions one could make about ethnicity and sporting success based on genetics," Rutherford acknowledges. 

East Africa is considered the powerhouse region of long-distance running ©Getty Images
East Africa is considered the powerhouse region of long-distance running ©Getty Images

"But they would be weak at best….

He goes on: "Having the right genes is necessary, but not nearly sufficient, to account for the dominance of any group of athletes in any sport….

"Just as ACTN3 is not a speed gene, ACE is not an endurance gene…

"There is a real danger here of fetishising two genes out of 20,000 in a way that steers us back towards an essentialist view of racialised sport."

If you are interested in Olympic sport – and why would you subscribe to insidethegames if you were not? – do read this book.

It is short and to the point.

If we all take on board its contents, and act accordingly, the world would be a better place.

It is hard to think of a higher recommendation for any text.