Race and Athletics in the 21st Century

14.07.2006

By John Hoberman
Knowledge bank: excerpt from article by John Hoberman on race and athletics

Blackness and Physicality
The haunting of our integrated sports world by deeply rooted racial preoccupations was brought home to me once again several years ago by a young black woman enrolled in my course on “Race and Medicine in African-American Life” at the University of Texas. As we discussed stereotypes of black athletic aptitude, she described the indignation she had felt when her boyfriend, a massive lineman on the university’s football team, had returned from the physical tests and interviews that are administered each year to the most promising college players by the National Football League (NFL) at its scouting combine event. This procedure had reminded both her and the athlete of the slave markets of the antebellum South, and her anger was still evident as she recounted her friend’s ordeal to her classmates. Years later, in another classroom, I was present when a black former University of Texas football player described college football as a form of slavery.

The resemblance between the NFL's assessment of athletes and the assessments of slaves in the antebellum South is quite real. As Walter Johnson notes: "Throughout the day, the traders goaded the slaves into motion so that the buyers could better evaluate they way they moved…. Around the walls of the pens, slaves were set into motion to prove their stamina and agility…. Robert Chambers remembered seeing slaves being asked to run across the sale room in Virginia. [The slave] John Brown remembered slaves dancing, jumping, walking, leaping, tumbling and twisting before the buyers’ eyes, showing off that they had 'no stiff joints or other physical defects'…. Following the conventions of antebellum racism, slaves were made to demonstrate their salability by outwardly performing their supposed emotional insensibility and physical vitality."[1] A century and a half after the slave auctions, those hoping to join the highly paid (and primarily African-American) labor market of the NFL were required to undergo a ritual that bears comparison with the exhibitions of slave bodies in a meaningful way.

Both scenarios present evaluations of black human beings for the purpose of measuring the labor power that is latent in their bodies. While both procedures include an assessment of the temperament of the person being examined, the potential value of personality traits lies in whether they will promote the efficient functioning of the physical apparatus, whether this means picking cotton or carrying a football. In both cases, the value and identity of the person being assessed is confined to his or her body. His (or, in the context of slavery, her) identity excludes the development of the mind. This identity also excludes the full range of human emotions, as evidenced by the slave traders' interest in finding slaves endowed with an "emotional insensibility" that would promote their productivity as laborers. A similar conception of black hardiness was evident during the 1960s as black athletes integrated college sports: "The double standard applies to injuries," Jack Olsen pointed out in 1968. "'They figure that the Negro is Superman,' says a Negro back. 'We can't get hurt,' says an esteemed basketball player. 'We're supposed to be made of stone.' This is a view aired by every dissident group of black athletes that has publicly madder an issue of its grievances in recent months."[2] I heard similar accounts from black college athletes during the 1990s. It should be noted that the presumption of physical hardiness [see below] includes a presumption of psychological hardiness, as well, since coping with injuries (and white authority figures' reactions to injuries) draws on emotional and not simply physical resources.

The significance of the traditional Western habit of identifying black people with their bodies has been noted by black intellectuals such as Franz Fanon and Ralph Ellison. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon identifies the white person's sense of the black person as a fear ("Negrophobia") that exists "on an instinctual, biological level." "To suffer from a phobia of Negroes is to be afraid of the biological. For the Negro is only biological." "The Negro symbolizes the biological. First of all, he enters puberty at the age of nine and is a father at the age of ten; he is hot-blooded, and his blood is strong; he is tough. As a white man remarked to him not long ago, with a certain bitterness: 'You all have strong constitutions'."[3] The presumption of black hardiness includes the sexual precocity, instinctive ("hot-blooded") passion, and "tough" resilience that are universally regarded as "biological" phenomena and that once again exclude the life and development of the mind.

In a similar vein, Ralph Ellison lamented the reductionism inherent in seeing black people as physical specimens. Ellison saw the "'physical' character of their expression" as a consequence of racial trauma that concealed the human complexity of black people from white observers. This state of affairs "makes the American Negro far different from the 'simple' specimen for which he is taken. And the 'physical' quality offered as evidence of his primitive simplicity is actually the form of his complexity."[4] Ellison's comments in 1945 on this theme antedate the consequences of "black dominance" in some high-profile sports, which has reinforced the identification of black people with their bodies, so he did not apply his critique of the simplistic treatment of black people to the hyper-physical and thus truncated identity of the black athlete.

The absence of the black athlete from Ellison's treatment of the black body does not mean, however, that black athleticism was not a potent racial marker at this time. Fanon reports having carried out an informal survey of white opinion on this theme. His method consisted in administering word association tests to some 500 people in which he "inserted the word Negro among some twenty others." As he describes it: "I took advantage of a certain air of trust, of relaxation; in each instance I waited until my subject no longer hesitated to talk to me quite openly -- that is, until he was sure that he would not offend me." The result of this experiment was that almost 60 percent of his respondents reported associations with Negro that clustered around the following related themes: "Negro brought forth biology, penis, strong, athletic, potent boxer, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Senegalese troops, savage, animal, devil, sin."[5] Here athleticism serves as a locus that can absorb and reformulate a variety of racial fantasies focusing on sexual, military, and even animal prowess.

The significance of the black athlete as a paradigmatic representative of his "race" has thus persisted and even intensified over the half-century that has elapsed since Fanon elicited white reactions to the word Negro. Ideas about racial athletic aptitude acquire meaning within evolutionary narratives about apparently racially differential traits that might account for the disproportionate achievements of athletes of East and West African origin, respectively. The dominant performances of East African distance runners, male and female, over the past generation has stimulated much scientific and pseudo-scientific thinking about the origins of these performances. Sprinters of West African origin, primarily African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, utterly dominate these events; for example, no sprinter the modern world would classify as "white" has ever run a legal time of under 10 seconds for the 100-meter event, while dozens of "black" athletes have done so.[6]

The Evolutionary Narrative
The evolutionary narrative about racial athletic aptitude belongs to a cultural construct of African biology the historian of science Nancy Stepan has called "tropical nature." This "imaginative construct" posits an "untamed nature" that is regarded as a crucible of biological energy and innovation that has no counterpart anywhere else on earth. For the European imagination, Stepan writes, "tropical nature stood for many different values -- for heat and warmth but also for a dangerous and diseased environment; for superabundant fertility but also for fatal excess; for species novelty but also for the bizarre and deadly; for lazy sensuality and sexuality but also for impermissible racial mixings and degeneration." Almost two centuries ago Alexander von Humboldt put it as follows: "Nature in these climates appears more active, more fruitful, we might say, more prodigal of life."[7] Africa is a biological hot-house where anything can happen. The appearance of astonishing African distance runners during the 1960s eventually gave rise to an evolutionary narrative of athletic superiority that has drawn on the positive (super-energized) aspects of tropical nature and its potential for producing "superabundant" forms of life.

The persistence of this fantasy of extreme African biology is confirmed in a travel essay that appeared in 2004 in a distinguished German newspaper: "It is this overwhelming freedom of the senses, this indifferent arbitrariness of being, that seizes you deep inside. For the central European who is used to inhabiting a landscape which for centuries has been subdivided and domesticated, and who knows wild animals only as a road hazard, Botswana and Africa are not just another continent: this is another world for which we lack a mythological sense… [it is] a maelstrom of evolution." In this evolutionary fantasy world of unlimited possibilities the tourist "gazes at the presence of the relentless process of devouring and being devoured" and is forced to acknowledge his own unfitness to survive. "Everything is so intense, so full of immediacy, that at times one wants to weep with gratitude for being allowed to be here at all. And then you breathe a quick sigh of relief, because you know that you will not have to remain here forever."[8] Confronted with the fact of his own biological inadequacy, the humbled (but also grateful) European tourist recapitulates the experience of the European athlete who makes the pilgrimage to Africa to seek (and find) that performance limit beyond which only Africans can go.

An eloquent testimonial to the natural world of Africa as an arena of biological and athletic struggle appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1990. The scene is the Kenyan highlands: "On Christmas morning you awaken to the cries of hawks and the songs of children, and lie there thinking about how Africa can seem a sieve of afflictions through which only the hardy may pass. The largest, fastest, wildest, strangest beasts are here. Every poisonous bug, screaming bird and thorned shrub has arrived at this moment through the most severe competition. They have a history of overpowering more gentle environments. You think of lungfish, of killer bees, of AIDS. Of men. Of the great Repo Men, the Nandi, turned from their raiding and become runners." But this evolutionary drama also promises the end of multiracial sport: "In the rest of the world, sport serves as an initiation, as a true test. In East Africa, initiation is the initiation. Sport is a pale shadow of the competitive life that has gone on forever across this high, fierce, first continent. Is it any wonder that frail European varieties feel threatened?"[9]

We shall see that the world's non-African distance runners have experienced their own version of this humbling, even humiliating, confrontation with the "superabundance" of African life forms that now include the athletic prodigies who dominate the most prestigious distance running competitions around the world. First, however, let us examine the perception of an African super-vitality that contains the potential for a prodigal athleticism.

The idea of a superabundant African human biology appeared during the 1950s in the form of reports of developmental precocity among black children and, in particular, East African (Ugandan) infants. "The most remarkable finding," according to a 1957 report, "was the precocity of the younger infants. The motor development was greatly in advance of that of European infants of the same age, but was not an isolated phenomenon; it was paralleled by advanced adaptivity, language and personal-social behaviour." While it was still too early for these authors to be thinking of their athletic potential, the Ugandan babies are described as being able to run by the age of one. What is more: "From birth, the muscular tone of the African infant is different from that of the European, and the head is held better."[10] In 1970 there are reports of Jamaican children who "were precocious in age of creeping, standing, and walking when compared with New Haven White children."[11] As early as 1958, however, other authors were expressing doubts about whether such findings were real.[12] It is possible that these perceptions of African infants, like other perceptions of African athletes, belong to a larger category consisting of "images of the naturalized and idealized African -- physically perfect, naturally gifted, graceful, and able to outperform the best the Occident could offer."[13] We have already seen that white reactions to the natural phenomena of Africa and the idea of their sheer vitality can be submissive and even reverential, and scientists and physicians too can react in this manner.

The athletic version of this evolutionary narrative also includes the precocious child-athlete of African origin. While the best known prodigies of this kind are the golfer Tiger Woods and the soccer player Freddy Adu, there are others, such as the 14-year-old African-American basketball player Demetrius Walker, whose perceived athletic ability have stimulated commentaries that recall earlier accounts of precocious African infants. "I've never seen a combination of speed, size and coordination like this kid has," one coach says. "He's so athletic that he can dominate without developing the fundamentals." "He's so advanced physically, but he still doesn't have a man's body," says another. "Imagine when that happens."[14] The Haitian soccer star Fabrice Noel was a professional at fourteen. "I've been around soccer for 30 years," says his high school coach. "I've never seen a kid like this. He was as fast with the ball as he is without it. Faster than Freddy Adu. He has so many moves, I'm not sure he has a spine."[15] When the Tanzania Stars soccer team, made up of handicapped boys, played a handicapped Norwegian boys team in 1991, the result was a rout. "We have a lot to learn from these boys," said the Norwegian coach. "They are considerably more handicapped than we are, but they play soccer as though they've never done anything else."[16]

Only time will tell whether legendary children like Freddy Adu fulfill their early promise or eventually display the diminished capacities that the traditional (racist) doctrine of precocious development predicts. In the meantime, trafficking in African children who might become the prodigies of the future has been common in parts of Europe. One Italian youth soccer official has called this trade "a new slave market. Anyone who isn't a second George Weah [the Liberian star of the 1990s] is discarded." The odds of any boy's making it into the Series A league is about one in 50,000. “The Italians import our children as if they were bananas,” said the president of the African Soccer Association, Issa Hayatou.. He was supported in this view by the former Brazilian star Pelé, who describes a modern slave trade to Europe. Soccer-playing children are also imported into to France, Holland, and Belgium.[17]

Black "Hardiness" and Racial Athletic Aptitude
The evolutionary narrative of black athletic aptitude belongs to a folkloric doctrine of black "hardiness" that posits a more primitive human type that is biologically distinct from and physiologically superior to that of civilized man. The alleged traits of this more robust human organism have traditionally included a nervous system that is resistant to pain, a supernormal capacity to recover from surgery and injuries, supernormal fertility, osseous hardiness (greater bone density), dental hardiness (decay-resistant teeth), obstetric hardiness (ease of birth), cardiovascular hardiness, hematological hardiness (normal functioning with fewer red blood cells), dermatological hardiness (thicker and tougher skin), thermal hardiness (heat resistance), and immunity to some disorders. The basic premise is that blacks are endowed with a biological toughness and resiliency that constitute an enduring racial trait.

The extension of the hardiness doctrine to include racial athletic aptitude proceeded throughout the 20th century. Indeed, a team of scientific authors writing in 1940 infers the existence of racial biological differences from different levels of athletic performance: "The existence of physiological differences between Negroes and Whites other than those dependent on pigmentation and external anatomical features is suggested by the superior records of Negroes in track and field athletics and by the commonly expressed opinion that they have greater resistance to high temperatures than have Whites. So far, however, no one has demonstrated unique physiological characteristics of the Negro that might be related to the capacity for energy transformation."[18] Over the past decade scientific studies of anatomical and physiological factors related to elite athletic performance have begun to shed some light on the superiority of African distance runners.[19] These studies remain virtually unknown to ordinary citizens and even athletes. Their reactions to the consequences of black athletic superiority are examined in the later sections of this essay.

Racism in European Sports Venues
The "black dominance" established by athletes of African origin in some high-profile sports has provoked various xenophobic reactions among those elements of the European population that engage with multiracial sport as a political and cultural issue that can be used for propagandistic purposes.

The neo-fascist French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, for example, has made unusually candid remarks interpreting the social and biological significance of the racially integrated sports world. At a meeting of his Front National in 1996 he declared "that the French national soccer team did not deserve the title of national championbecause of the large number of 'foreigners' on the team. In addition, most of the team did not sing the national anthem or do not even know it, while the 'other teams boomed theirs out' with robust voices."[20] When asked the same year whether he believed in superior and inferior races, Le Pen replied with considerable polemical guile: "First you have to define what a race is and what you are comparing. It is obvious that an illiterate Eskimo is superior to a European Nobel Prize winner in literature if what counts is killing a polar bear on the pack ice. The best sprinters at the Olympic Games are black, the best swimmers are white. Is it forbidden, illegal or immoral to state that those differences are real? As a humanist and as a Christian, I can assure you that I believe in the equal dignity of all people."[21] The act of comparing the killing of polar bears to the production of Nobel Prize-winning literature conveys its own sarcastic message about the relative value of savage and civilized cultures. Pointing to racially segregated athletic events carries its own message about distinct racial biologies. Posing as "a humanist and as a Christian," the anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant politician stakes his claim to a universal humanism worthy of the United Nations Charter. Like every accomplished racial demagogue, Le Pen had learned how to cross the threshold of civilized discourse without stranding himself past the point of no return.

Three years earlier the neo-fascist Parisian newspaper Rivarol had ridiculed the idea that soccer was serving as a "fantastic laboratory for [racial] integration" in Marseille.[22] Anti-racist social engineering of this kind has become standard practice in the European Union, with various anti-racist groups active in this campaign. In April 2005, FARE, the European Network Against Racism in Soccer, protested against the massive verbal harassment directed against two black players on England's national team, Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole, in a stadium in Bratislava, Slovakia.[23] Two years earlier Cole and another black player, Marcel Desailly of the French national team, had described their experiences with racist crowds in Europe. " The racist taunts and attacks are seen as a 'test of character' and not as a cause for complaint – that, Desailly said, is how black professionals were once advised to handle such incidents. 'The clubs said that racists are paying customers,' said the captain of the French European champions, 'and that they have a right to say what they want'."[24] Racist agitation in European soccer stadiums remains a widespread problem in the EU to this day, calling into question the effectiveness of anti-racist initiatives such as FARE. Even a small minority constituting a critical mass of xenophobic agitators can transform the mood inside a stadium with racist or anti-Semitic banners (as in Rome), racist chanting, or ape-like grunting noises and showers of bananas directed at black players on visiting teams.

As these episodes make clear, less sophisticated European racialists than Le Pen are inclined to express their resentments against racial aliens directly and dramatically. In Belgium the right-wing Vlaams demagogue Bruno Stevenheydens complains that: "The Africans are taking our jobs [in professional soccer]. The invasion must stop." The chairman of a German soccer fan club reveals an interesting ambivalence. "What [the Africans] do with the ball is fantastic," he says. So why does he want to replace them with (inferior) white players? "Because they're black."[25] In Italy pressure from right-wing racist fans intimidated the Hellas Verona soccer club to the point where it gave up pursuing a black player from Holland whom fans had hung in effigy in the stadium.[26] In Israel, where many African-American basketball players have worked, the coach of the European-champion Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, Pini Gershon, was quoted as follows: "There are two shades of blacks. There's the light-skin, who are a lot smarter than the dark blacks – those are really dummies." And: "The dark ones are like slaves; whatever you tell them to do, they'll do without thinking about it. They usually come from the streets."[27] These are comments (made in 2001) that could have been made by a plantation physician in the American South a century and a half ago. Once again we are reminded that even the most primitive tenets of 19th-century racial anthropology can flourish in the sports culture of the early 21st century. It thus appears that in some societies racially integrated sport confers little or no immunity against archaic ideas about racial difference.

Racism in Romanian soccer stadiums is directed most often against the Roma minority. In April 2005 one stadium announcer derided the visiting coach of a Roma-associated team as a "miserable gypsy." During halftime the same announcer had played over the loudspeaker system one of Romania's best-known racist songs, "Gypsies and Ufos." Because in Romania Roma are denigrated as "crows," the mayor of one city raged against "all these crows and players from the Internet who I'd put in a zoo and tell the children they should look at the apes, because they wouldn't be able to tell them apart."[28] Here, along with the grunts and the bananas, one hears a 21st-century version of the evolutionary narrative of 19th-century racial anthropology that distinguishes between the savage and the civilized. The persistence of aggressive racism in these public venues raises questions about how much multiracial sport can do as an integrationist social strategy in a Europe that is becoming racially integrated faster than it can deal with the social stress such integration creates. The widespread violence directed against French society by immigrant youths in late 2005 marked the failure of among other institutions a French sport club system that counts 14 million members as well as an elite soccer league that employs stars of immigrant origin who appear to lead charmed lives far removed from the immigrant suburbs from which they came.[29]

White Coping Strategies
The superiority demonstrated by athletes of African origin has provoked various reactions among European, American, and Asian athletes.[30] On at least a couple of occasions Europeans have attempted to find encouragement in the idea of an African mentality that impedes performance in distance running. Thus the German coach Dieter Hogen claimed that Kenya produces few world-class marathoners because: "They would rather run fast for an hour than slow for two hours." In a word, they must learn to be patient.[31] In a similar vein, the Spanish marathoner Martin Fiz said in 1999: “You can run a Spanish record in the 5,000 or 10,000 meters and not even get close to the best times of the Africans.” But in the marathon it is different. “They run too anarchistically,” he said.[32]

In the chorus of white athletes' reactions to their apparent disadvantages this sort of bravado is exceptional. Another and more respectful approach to the African runners is what might be called the pilgrimage to Africa. Perhaps the best-known pilgrim of this kind was the German runner Dieter Baumann, the Olympic champion in the 5000-meter run at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Baumann went to Kenya to train with the world's best, and according to one German reporter: "The result was a miracle. The only white runner who could tolerate such body- and soul-lacerating workouts without skipping a single training session reached a new level of performance. The group dynamic carried him along."[33] Another star of the 1990s, the American runner Bob Kennedy, did not travel to Kenya but did the next best thing by training with Kenyans outside their homeland. Admiring American sportswriters noted his acculturation to the Africans' training culture. Kennedy, said one, "is the only American to have consistently competed with the Africans and the only one to have won their respect."[34] "In effect," another wrote, "he became one of them. He has been much admired by his peers as an 'honorary Kenyan'."[35] It should be noted that Baumann and the American runner Bob Kennedy are the only white runners ever to break the 13-minute barrier in the 5000-meter event.

A closer look at their careers makes it clear, however, that both men eventually developed that sense of their own limitations that has enveloped so many white distance runners over the past two decades. Baumann's wife and trainer, Isabelle, spoke in 1996 about how they had responded to the African challenge: "Generally speaking, athletes try to do more than they are physically capable of doing. That is why we have to be careful about reacting too emotionally. We have already tried to adapt to the current trend and to ratchet up the stress level in training even higher. But we had to admit that it wasn't working."[36] The American steeplechaser Pascal Dobert said in 1998: "I don't expect to set World Records or anything, but maybe to be the fastest non-African ever to run" his event.[37] The talented American marathoner Keith Brantly explained his predicament in the following way: "People think I don't train as hard as the Kenyans. I've trained with them, because I wanted to know for myself. And I found out – I do train as hard. I'm simply not as talented. I'm driving as hard as they are, but I don't have as big an engine. They just have bigger engines. Big, big engines."[38]

Bob Kennedy tried to adapt to the Africans' superiority by telling himself and others that they were not insuperable and that a solution to his problem was to be found somewhere. “Their dominance is not the Kenyans’ fault, it’s our fault," he said in 1987. "What are they supposed to do, go slower? What we have to do is learn how to go faster, how to keep up with them.”[39] Many years later Kennedy recalled a conversation he had once with the great Kenyan runner Kipchoge Keino: "He said just remember that the Kenyan athletes, they're just men. [You're a] man, they're men. There's nothing different except they work really hard and they want to win really badly. And if you work really hard and want to win very bad, you can be just as good as they are. And it's true. They are just human beings and there is no mystique about them. And American athletes can be as good or better than Kenyan athletes, if we get the best talent we have and that talent is committed to the task that is at hand."[40] “There’s not much that separates us," Kennedy said in 1997. "The Kenyans respect the way I run. I race hard. I train aggressive. When I train with these guys I am not merely hanging on. Just as often I am pushing the pace.”[41] Such training did not, however, enable him to run world-class times with the Africans in international competitions.

"I'm training to be the fastest, period," the white American sprinter Kevin Little said in 1997.[42] (He did not come close to succeeding.) The Norwegian sprinter Geir Moen, who never quite made it into the world elite during the 1990s, spoke in the same vein about his superior black rivals: "The people of color have dominated the sprints for many years. It’s time for the whites to do something. I think there’s an advantage to being white, because there are a lot of people who want to see a white sprinter make his move. But there’s no point in being the world’s fastest white man. I want to beat everyone." The (more realistic) alternative to being a world-beater was to become the champion of his own racial category: "There’s a way to go, but I see a chance to be one of a few white Europeans under 10 seconds in the 100 meters and under 20 seconds in the 200 meters.”[43] But no white sprinter has ever run under 10 seconds in the 100-meter event under legal conditions, and Moen would not even get close to that barrier over the remainder of his career. The German sprinter Tobias Unger announced in 2005 that he had decided to pursue "realistic goals" such as breaking the German 200-meter record set by the East German Frank Emmelmann (20.23) during the (steroid-soaked) 1980s.[44] Bob Kennedy, too, was capable of taking comfort in being at the top of his racial cohort: "It means something to be the first non-African because they've dominated so much."[45] “This was a liberating event for Europe,” Dieter Baumann said after he ran a good race against Africans in 1997, as if his best performances represented a kind of racial redemption for the white population of the Old World.[46] In the end, however, none of these earnest resolutions enabled white athletes to meet black standards.

The auto-suggestive recitations of these and other athletes are attempts to enlist the power of positive thinking on behalf of preserving athletic self-respect in the face of constant demoralization.[47] Alternatives to this auto-therapeutic strategy have ranged from teaching (German) sprinters the "natural feel of running"[48] -- a symbolic pilgrimage to Africa -- to "scientific" techniques that include the untested and the implausible. In 2000, for example, the Fila athletic shoe company and Runner's World magazine announced an initiative called Discovery USA, a program to identify and develop world-class distance runners in the United States. The director of this scheme was Dr. Gabriele Rosa, an Italian physician and coach who had become prominent developing Kenyan marathoners.[49]"What I'm trying to do is begin a new strategy in America," said Rosa. "It's not easy for Americans. The athletes like to enjoy outside things and want to have girlfriends and stay out, too. So it's a difficult situation…. In Kenya, it's a different social and economic atmosphere. At first, I wasn't sure if this idea would work in America. But now, I think it can. There's only one way to reproduce the mentality and philosophy and mission of running. This program is the way." A distance runner who participated in this program, Jeff Cox, expressed confidence that it would transform American runners into world-class competitors: "I would put Dr. Rosa's program up against what anyone else in the world is doing."[50] Five years later there is no evidence it has produced any runners who can compete with the world's best. The American citizens who finished third and fifth in the 2005 New York Marathon, Meb Keflezighi and Abdihakim Abdirahman, are both African immigrants. The coach of the first-place finisher in the New York race, the Kenyan Paul Tergat, is Gabriele Rosa.[51]

The more "scientific" scheme that has aimed at producing world-class American distance runners is the Oregon Project financed by Nike and headed by the former marathon star Alberto Salazar. A description of this program published in 2002 conveys both the technological ambition involved and the credulity enough high-tech equipment can inspire in journalists who should appreciate the role of caution in assessing such enterprises:

Then there's the laptop loaded with some $35,000 worth of Russian software. By analyzing heart rate patterns, the software aims to take the guesswork out of training. Plug electrodes into the auxiliary box, wire up the runner's chest, and four minutes later there's an onscreen message suggesting just how intensely to work out that day. If the runner adds an electrode to his forehead, in 15 more minutes the system assesses overall health by checking the condition of his liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. [Chad] Johnson, for one, is a big believer in the software. 'It knows when I'm ready to go,' he says.

Other high tech tools available to the Oregon team include a vibrating platform to increase leg power and a hyperbaric (high-pressure oxygen) chamber to repair muscle tears. The company's goal in all this is clear: use technology to counter the increasing domination of African runners, many of whom were born and train at altitude. "The rest of the world has gotten faster, and Americans have gotten slower," says Salazar. "Our methods have gone awry.[52] [Emphasis added]

The house in which these athletes live has been converted into a hypobaric ("altitude") chamber that produces extra red blood cells by simulating the lower oxygen levels of high altitude. We are told that a so-called OmegaWave Sports Technology System, developed by Russian scientists during the 1980s and 1990s, is used to measure brain waves indicating whether the athlete should rest or exert himself. The problem is that neurologists "have never heard of the 'omega waves' the system supposedly charts."[53] Here, too, the application of a purportedly scientific technology has failed to produce athletes who can run on the same level as Africans whose training methods do not require the application of technologies beyond effective running shoes.

A very unusual "scientific" scenario is the discovery of the prodigal white child runner whose further development can be imagined to eventually match the preternatural ability of the best Africans. Julie Aßmann is an eleven-year-old German girl whose biological development, according to the scientists who have examined her, is that of a nine-year-old child. But her blood flow of 3.9 liters per minute is 50% higher than the norm for her body size. Like many of the best Kenyan runners, her legs carry significantly less muscle mass than other athletes. According to one prominent German sports scientist, she is "an absolutely extraordinary talent."[54] Whether she will ever develop into an elite athlete is an entirely different question. As a member of a wealthy and technologically advanced society, Julie Aßmann will never confront the brutal economic circumstances that face her Kenyan counterparts, such as Regina Jerotich, who said in 2005: "God has given me the talent to win races and support my family."[55] Julie Aßmann's eventual decision not to devote her youthful life to athletic training, should it come, will represent yet another failure to recruit the best "white" talent into the losing race against the Africans.


Due to a system error, the rest of this article is missing. The full article is available from the book "Physical culture, power, and the body", by Vertinsky/Hargr, Rotuledge, ISBN-10: 0415363519

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