Sunday 1 August 2010

The European Athletics Championships

I've been watching the European Athletics Championships every night this week from Barcelona. There's been some great performances from the British team.

The current group of British athletes might not have the same number of household names as in previous years, but this week's performances have been one of the best from a British team.

In the end we finished third in the medal table behind Russia and France, winning 19 medals overall. It seems the tough love approach from UK Athletics chief, Charles van Commenee is paying off. It's great to see and bodes well for the Olympics in 2012.

Ok, you can argue the standard in some of the events aren't truly world class, but it's still important for our athletes to get into the winning habit and deal with the pressures of championship competition.

What I've really enjoyed is that many of the events have been truly competitive. Without having the American and Caribbean sprinters, and the East African distance runners, we've seen some real competition and surprise winners on the track.

After football I've always considered athletics to be my favourite sport. Despite the decline in popularity in recent years and the never ending problems with drug cheats, I still love the sport.

Mens 100m Final

The BBC pundit and athletics legend, Michael Johnson made a good point about the 100m final which I agreed with. He said this 100m was really fascinating because it was a major final that didn't involve Usain Bolt.

As much as I love and admire Bolt for what he's done for sprinting and athletics, he's in a league of his own at the moment. In this week's final you genuinely didn't know who was going to win.

The final had an extra edge with the two favourites, Dwain Chambers and the new French kid on the block Christophe Lemaitre. Chambers divides opinion within athletics on whether he should still be competing following his drug ban, I'll come onto this in a minute.

As for Lemaitre, I'd never heard of him until this week. But as the first white sprinter to break the 10 second barrier he's being hailed as the 'Great white hope' of world sprinting.

Looking beyond the racial cliches, it's been good to see a new name and talent emerge. If he happens to be white then so be it.

As for the race itself, with 40 meters to go it looked as if Chambers was going to win the title, but Lemaitre came from quite a way down to snatch it, with Chambers being run out of things and finishing a disappointing fifth.

The winning time was nothing special, but Lemaitre is only 20 years old and his technique is a little ragged. If he sorts his technique out and stays injury free it's going to be interesting to see how he progresses in the next few years.

Despite Chambers performance, there was British success with Mark Lewis-Francis claiming the Silver medal. I've felt in the past that Lewis-Francis was one of the great underachievers of UK athletics.

So much was expected of him after his success as a junior and he's never quite lived up to that early promise. I can't believe this was his first major individual medal.

He's shown a lot of character to come back, especially after his lottery funding was stopped. He's still only 27, so hopefully there's time for him to have more success at major championships.

Dwain Chambers - Should he still be competing for Britain?

This is a tough one. Everytime a major athlete tests positive for drugs, it's another nail in the coffin for athletics.

Dwain's problem was that after he was banned his attitude did him no favours. He seemed to suggest that nobody could seriously win major titles without taking drugs. I remember seeing an interview with him where he made this point and I thought, I don't have much time for you. You're killing this sport.

To be fair to him his attitude has changed and you get the impression that he realises how lucky he is to be back competing on this stage.

I think for me he should be allowed to compete if that's what the rules say. He's committed the offence and served his ban and is entitled to start competing again.

The main problems I have is the inconsistency applied to drug cheats. UK Athletics says he can compete, but the British Olympic Association say he can't compete in the Olympics for GB. The Diamond League, the group of top level athletics meetings in the world will not invite Chambers to compete in their events.

The second issue I have is that once an athlete returns from a drugs ban they may start competing as a 'clean' athlete but the affects of taking drugs previously may still be there in terms of physique and muscle build up. An athlete could still be gaining an advantage.

As an athletics fan, I believe all athletes are representing the sport to the rest of world. They know that if they're caught taking drugs they're damaging the credibility of the sport.

The likes of Chambers may well come back as reformed characters, but even if they come back the damage has already been done. In the world of athletics there will always be a stain on that athletes character.

I have nothing personal against Chambers, and will support him as a British athlete in major championship, but I can't see that I'll have the same level of affection for any of his victories as I would do for other athletes who have never taken drugs.

Are Black people better runners than Whites?

A controversial subject, but I'm going to discuss it.

There was a great article on this in yesterday's Times which raised some important issues.

This topic has come up again following the success of the new European 100 and 200m champion Christophe Lemaitre. The first white person to run under 10 seconds for 100m. His personal best is nothing special but because he's white this debate has been re-opened

It's a subject that many don't want to discuss, but the Times report mentioned a book by the American Journalist Jon Entine entitled Taboo:Why Black Athletes Dominate Sport and Why We're Afraid to Talk about It.

He argues that there are natural differences between different races and these differences should be confronted, something which liberal establishments fail to do.

Clearly black people have dominated sprinting for decades, but Entine points out that the success of black sprinters is limited to a small number of sprinters whose ancestry can be traced back to West African coastal states.

I've heard this before. You don't see any top sprinters from East Africa, from Kenya or Ethiopia who tend to dominate in the middle and long distance events.

The reality is that many black people aren't very good at sprinting at all, so is it right to say that black people are better sprinters than whites?

Within the 'black' population of the world there is a huge variety of genetic diversity. Just because a small sub group of sprinters whose DNA originates from West Africa have proved successful, it's unrealistic to believe they can represent the sporting ability of an entire group of people who all happen to share the same colour pigmentation.

Another great point that the Times story made was that none of the major West African nations which include countries like Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone have ever won a medal at Olympic or World level in sprinting.

It's seems so obvious but it's true, sprinting has always been dominated by Americans and more recently athletes from the Caribbean. Just to complicate things further. Most black people from America and the Caribbean will have some white ancestry. As someone of Caribbean origin I know this is a fact within my own family.

If the best sprinters in the world all have some white European DNA in their genetic make up where does this leave the argument that blacks are better sprinters than whites?

When you think about these things you realise it's all a lot more complex and complicated then you first realise.

The Times report mentioned a Dr Yannis Pitsiladis from the University of Glasgow, who found there was no unique genetic evidence for the success of American and Caribbean sprinters after taking DNA swabs from elite sprinters.

I think I agree with the belief that much of the success of sprinting from black American and Caribbean athletes is down to cultural and environmental factors.

In Jamaica sprinting has become their national sport. The idea of success breeding success is certainly true in their case. You're also seeing the same in the Bahamas and Trinidad who also seem to be producing a conveyor belt of sprinting talent.

If there are any conclusions to be drawn, it's that the idea of 'race' is quite arbitrary. It's just a label. Within any race of people there is a huge amount of DNA variation which makes the idea of that one race is athletically superior to another unscientific, dangerous and highly unreliable.


  1. Black runners are clearly better than white runners as the results from over the years has clearly suggested.

  2. I think the argument is far more complex than black and white! Forgive the pun, but there is a great deal of grey area in this topic as your article correctly points out! I can’t accede to the cultural difference argument that a small group of sprinters are superior because of their West African genetic make-up. This is flawed by your argument, correctly so, that the West Africans, who are supposed to be dominating these sports, are missing from the medal league tables. The likes of Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Senegal are all missing. It's true you can find top athletes that are black dominating the sport; however you mostly find these athletes are from the Western world and the Caribbean, who take their sport seriously from an early age. As you’ve quite rightly said ‘success breeding success’.

    So I think the correct conclusions to be drawn is that; the blacks that dominate the sport are from the western part of the world (the Americans) and the Caribbean. But why? Is it because of genetic make-up? Do they have something in their blood because of their ancestors that the whites don’t? Well I think the reason is twofold!

    1. Those parts of the world take sprinting very seriously. As your article said, in Jamaica, it is, or fast becoming, the national sport. In USA it forms part of your schooling. Potential promising young athletes can win scholarships to attend top universities if they show such talent. Just as with Basketball and American Football.

    2. This leads me on to my second point. The reason you may find that blacks dominate the sport so much is perhaps this: Many young black children are from poor, disadvantage backgrounds. Often you'll find that at an early age, sport is seen as a way out of such improvised situations. Indeed, when attending schools it is, rightly or wrongly, actively encouraged by teachers. Such encouragement, starting from an early age will see constant training, active participation in the sport and breeding of the talent in a way that is not done with the well off, middle class, white children.

    So if ever there was an argument, it should come from the labels of background (not race), opportunity and training not race and genetics. It should come from the fact that breeding and training with these athletes starts early, often because it is a way out of their improvised situation as I’ve already mentioned. It should come from the fact that many are offered scholarships which proves to be a major incentive to enhance their young talents and later success in these sports. It should come from the fact that it becomes their national sport. The fact that they’re hungry not haven eaten for the best part of their childhood lives (I use ‘eating’ in the colloquial sense to mean that they are poor).

    I think the UK will win a lot more medals if the right incentives were provided at an early age for our young undiscovered talents. Start a scholarship system in colleges and universities and watch our talent, and medal pool grow. We’ve seen recently from the Evening Standard that the poor in London are not just black but also whites. Start the scholarship system and watch Britain being represented with successes from all races. Show them (the impoverished in the UK of all races) the pot of gold, provide them with the opportunity and training and watch them develop an appetite for it. Watch them sprint towards Gold medals….