Here’s a graph I made up for a VDARE article after the 2008 Olympics. I haven’t updated it, but I doubt all that much has changed in the last 8 years.
My calculations aren’t perfect, but I spent a lot of time looking at pictures of runners to ascertain their race. For example, the great Cuban 400m and 800m gold medalist at the 1972 and 1976 Games, Alberto Juantorena, wore his hair in the ‘fro style popular at the time.
The results are most informative. …
Blacks of West African descent utterly dominate the 100 meter dash, accounting for all but one of the 200 quickest marks in history.
Since 2008, Christophe Lemaitre of France, the 2016 bronze medalist in the 200m, has lowered the white world record in the 100m to 9.92 seconds. A Chinese guy has broken 10 seconds too.
They’re almost as dominant at 200m, not quite as overwhelming at 400m, and only modestly competitive at 800m. They aren’t world class at any longer lengths, although a black Brazilian did once run a fast marathon in the 1990s. (Brazilian blacks appear to average more East African ancestry than American and West Indian blacks.)
In contrast, this graph shows the strengths of the three African distance running powerhouses. The Kenyans (green line) are not competitive in the short sprints but occasionally show up in the 400. They are tremendously strong from 800m through the marathon.
The Kenyans’ northern neighbors, the Ethiopians (red line), don’t emerge until 3000 meters (I’ve averaged the 3000m steeplechase and the 3000m flat race). They peak at 5000 and 10000 meters.
I think the Ethiopians have been working on being better in the middle distances lately.
The northwest Africans (from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) aren’t competitive below 800m. Their most famous runners specialized in the 1500 but they are competitive at all the longer distances.
Both the black-skinned Kenyan and brown-skinned Ethiopian runners come overwhelmingly from highland portions of their countries, where evolving an efficient use of the limited oxygen is crucial.
Moreover, the “running tribe” of Kenya, the Kalenjin, had a history of cattle rustling on foot, sending young men to steal neighbors’ cows and stampede them home. The slower ones got spears in their backs, while the faster ones got multiple wives.
Ethiopia tends to produce superstar runners with long careers, such as Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, while Kenya burns through countless speedy farmboys.
The differences between East Africans and West Africans are often overemphasized. While the former tend to have more aerobic capacity and slow twitch muscle fibers and the latter more musculature and more fast twitch fibers, black Africans tend to share the body structure most efficient for running. As O.J. Simpson, who once shared a world record in the sprint relay with his USC track teammates, explained in 1977: “We are built a little differently, built for speed—skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks.”
The Northwest Africans, such as 2004 Olympic hero Hicham El-Guerrouj, in contrast, are primarily olive-skinned Caucasians. Many Berbers and Arabs live in the tall Atlas Mountains of the Maghreb, but it’s not clear whether their runners are predominantly highlanders. Hicham El-Guerrouj, for instance, grew up on the Mediterranean. More research into northwest African runners is needed.
Maybe they just like running the way Belgians like road cycling?
People of European descent (blue line) appear to be about equally strong at all distances, but do relatively best at the lengths where West Africans and East Africans aren’t as specialized: 400 to 1500 and again at the marathon.
East Asians are noticeable only in the marathon, although there have been several good-but-not-great Japanese sprinters. In the 100, Japanese have comprised four of the 64 semifinalists over the last four Olympics, and they account for one of the top 200 times at 200 meters.
The Japanese men won the silver medal in the 4 x 100 meter sprint relay tonight, beating the Americans (who were subsequently disqualified). They might have been in the lead after three runners, but Jamaica had Usain Bolt as anchorman.
The Japanese national record is 10.00 in the 100m, set in 1998 with a barely legal tailwind. That’s the 829th best time ever. (Bolt’s world record is 9.58.) The Japanese are consistently quite good at the 100m and 200m (a Japanese sprinter finished 6th in 100 m final at the Los Angeles Olympics — not 1984, but 1932) without ever being great.
They’re very poor at the middle distances, then decent at the marathon.
My guess is that some number of Japanese just really like sprinting and go about being good at it in a methodical fashion. But I don’t know — there’s nothing much on Google in English about Japanese sprinting.
By the way, that reminds me: the Americans got disqualified from their bronze medal for passing the baton outside the passing zone. That’s actually a ticky-tack violation that officials should reduce in frequency by making the passing zones, say, 50% longer. Yeah, if you have Usain Bolt on your team, you could then have him carry the baton for 105 meters instead of 100, but that’s pretty minor compared to DQ.
The DQ of the Americans is actually unfair to the Japanese who flat out beat the Americans to the finish line. But in the future, people will look up the results, see Japan’s silver medal, then notice that the Americans were disqualified and naturally assume that the Japanese finished behind the Americans and got promoted to the silver medal because the Americans were disqualified. (Canadians may disagree with my logic.)
Not shown on these graph are all the regions with negligible representation. In particular, South Asia is a black hole for sports other than cricket.
It`s true that each culture has its peculiar favorite length—Americans in the 400, Kenyans in the 3000m steeplechase, and Maghrebians in the 1500.
Still, hereditary differences are the simplest explanation for why track-crazy countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco can’t buy a sprinter, while Jamaica can’t produce a competitive miler. Runners and coaches always have an incentive to explore longer and shorter distances.
The relationship between amount of effort and amount of success in running is usually assumed to be high, but the relationship is complicated. Sprinting requires less exercise to be world class than just about any other sport. In preparation for winning four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Carl Lewis worked out eight hours per week.