Commentary: It’s All in the Genes

Michael Johnson says the slave trade gave its survivors a "superior athetic gene" that makes Black people natural champions. He's actually right — and woefully wrong.

Posted: 07/02/2012 01:35 PM EDT
Michael Johnson says slavery gave Black people a superior athletic gene.

After years of racking up accolades and commendations, Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson has admitted to possessing a performance-enhancing secret: He’s Black.

Johnson recently told The Daily Mail, a U.K.-based newspaper, that the reason why such a large number of Olympic champions are Black is because those of us from America and the Caribbean possess a “superior athletic gene” that developed as a result of the rigors of the slave trade.

“All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations,” he told the paper. “Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me — I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”


It isn’t like Johnson doesn’t have some compelling evidence in the form of his own success to bolster his point. Also, four years ago, before the last Summer Olympic games, the ranks of finalists for the 100m track competition were dominated by runners from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and America.

Now, before you go clapping for this scientific stretch, just remember that making assumptions about genetic predisposition is a slippery slope. Please take a moment to recall some of the other genes Black people are believed to carry that allegedly make us inherently different (and inferior) than the rest of the human family.

Earlier this year, a Chinese scientist made similar claims about how slavery’s harsh conditions served as a catalyst for natural selection — leaving only the fittest and strongest behind. However, this research was summarily discredited by intellectuals who note that there is no fast-track to natural selection. 


Cultural anthropologist at Indiana University Richard Wilk told theGrio that the assumption that slavery, an event that occurred over several hundred years, could do what takes thousands of years, is too big a scientific leap.


“People do not adapt physically in a couple of generations,” he said. “A couple of thousand years is the minimum.”

The unfortunate part about this discussion is that it uses science to make up for the vacuum of true knowledge about our ancestors that exists as a result of the slave trade’s inhumanity.

Let's be real: In the grand scheme of things, while Black people find themselves atop the winner’s pedestal quite often, only a small percentage of us are world-class athletes. Johnson is on to something in connecting his African roots to his incredible talent, but it probably has more to do with the unknown lineage of strong people who were left behind — both on the shores of Africa and the bottom of the Atlantic — than a leap of genetic mutation.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks. 

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(Photo: Peter Heeger/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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