LONDON. — In late 2009, the question everyone was asking was put to the man himself.

What made Usain Bolt — an era-defining champion of immense speed and consummate ease at just 23 — so fast?

Bolt cited his God-given talent, while crediting a diet that ranged from ultra-processed chicken nuggets to the Jamaican staple of yams. 

But he also pointed to the cruelties of man.

“I think over the years what makes Jamaica different is because of slavery really,” he said of his sprinting roots. 

“The genes are really strong.”

It is a hypothesis that existed before Bolt’s comments and has persisted since; that the barbarity of the slave trade, which forcibly took men, women and children from Africa and exported them into forced labour in the Caribbean, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere, still echoes in modern-day track and field.

The theory runs that the unnatural selection of black physical prowess centuries ago affects podium potential today.

Not since British sprinter Allan Wells triumphed at the boycott-hit Moscow 1980 Games has a white man made an Olympic or world 100m podium.

In fact, it was more than four decades after Wells’ triumph that China’s Su Bingtian became the next man without black parentage to even compete in an Olympic 100m final, in 2021.

During that time, black sprinters from North America and the Caribbean have claimed 24 out of 30 medals in the men’s 100m at the Olympics.

But was Bolt right? Does the link between modern glory and a dark past hold true? Or are appearances deceiving?

Yet the extrapolation some have made is startling; that slavery turned sprinters of West African descent into world beaters.

An estimated 10 million slaves were transported by ship from Africa across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, with appalling conditions on board meaning many never arrived at their destination.

This was combined with a rigorous physical selection process prior to boarding the ships and selective breeding by slave owners at the other end.

The result, it has been argued, was to create a population of West African descendants in the United States and the Caribbean that was predisposed to athletic performance.

Many feel this diminishes black sprinters’ hard work, and the hunt for a specific gene to strengthen such a theory with scientific evidence has not proved successful.

It was in 2003 that a group of Australian scientists first thought they had struck genetic gold. 

The gene in question was Alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3), and the academics involved identified that the more copies of the R variant a person possessed — and therefore the less of the X variant — the more likely they would excel at sprint and power disciplines. 

So far, so good.

A number of studies showed people of West African origin were almost guaranteed to have the right variant of the so-called ‘sprint gene’ to run fast.

But there was a problem: further testing found virtually all Olympic sprinters of every nationality and ethnicity also possessed it. 

So did billions of other people.

“All that ACTN3 can tell us, it seems, is who will not be competing in the (Olympic) 100m final,” wrote David Epstein, in his book The Sports Gene.

One disputed study by scientists Adrian Dejan and Edward Jones, published in the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics, external suggested people of West African origin benefited from a higher centre of gravity than white people, providing them a 1.5 percent advantage over the course of a 100m race as they were able to fall to the ground more quickly between strides.

Another built on the high prevalence of sprint-aiding fast-twitch muscle fibres, which tire easily but contract quickly, among black populations.

In spite of wholesale racial theories espoused by many, no West African country — from Ivory Coast to Ghana and Senegal to Mali — has ever produced a single individual male Olympic or world medallist over 100m or 200m.

The impact of an Atlantic crossing — on which it is estimated that death rates were around 10-20 percent — brutal labour on arrival and owners’ selective breeding of slaves shaped the black population of the Caribbean and North America.

But so did Jamaica and the United States’ athletics heritage and infrastructure.

West Africa lacks both. 

So does Brazil, which is estimated to have been the destination for between 4 and 5.5 million African slaves — many times more than went directly to the United States.

From 1920 to 1936, athletes from Finland and Sweden won 25 of the 30 available Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m medals.

As those nations have faded, distance running has become a national sport in Kenya and Ethiopia, where there are also natural physiological benefits to be reaped from training at high altitude.

When France’s Christophe Lemaitre became the first white man to break 10 seconds for 100m in 2010, he made global headlines for the colour of his skin. 

A subsequent invitation he received to attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting showed the dangers of such a narrative.

The ubiquity of three black athletes standing on a global sprint podium has created a dogma of biological superiority that decades of scientific evidence has so far been unable to support.

But the belief remains strong and perception is powerful — it can make or break champions. — BBC Sport.

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