Thursday, August 28, 2014

Guess you can't nurture foot speed

Just one white sprinter has broken the 10-second barrier in the 60 meters; France's Christophe Lemaitre. His analysis of the achievement:

"Of course, it was my goal to break it. One has to run under 10 seconds in order to be part of the world's best. I will be recognised as the first white man to do so, but today's achievement is mainly about making history for myself!...It is not about the color it is about hard work." 
Hard work...that old staple. I'm sure you've heard it too: you're having a late night conversation at the bar. The topic comes up (usually in a hushed voice): why don't all groups excel equally in sports?
Progressive "Nurture is Everything" Guy: The poor and disadvantaged excel in athletics because they don't have access to the other rungs of economic mobility.
Once or twice I've even seen a mote of sincerity in the eyes of these people. If they truly believe this, one can only conclude they are intellectually disadvantaged. Or blind.
I don't deny that economic status plays a factor. How many prep school kids take up serious boxing? How many trailer park residents become elite skiers? But economics alone don't come close to telling the whole (apparently uncomfortable) story.
Below is a list of the top 25 recorded times in the 100-meters. 10 countries are represented. Now Google Image these folks. Tell me if you notice they all have something in common; despite the number of different nations represented.
Spoiler alert: None of them resemble Rick Astley:

Rank
Time
Wind (m/s)
Athlete
Country
Date
Location
1
9.58 WR
+0.9
 Jamaica
16 August 2009
2
9.69
+2.0
 United States
20 September 2009
Shanghai
−0.1
 Jamaica
23 August 2012
4
9.72
+0.2
 Jamaica
2 September 2008
5
9.78
+0.9
 Jamaica
29 August 2010
6
9.79
+0.1
 United States
16 June 1999
+1.5
 United States
5 August 2012
London
8
9.80
+1.3
 Jamaica
4 June 2011
9
9.82
+1.7
 Trinidad and Tobago
21 June 2014
10
9.84
+0.7
 Canada
27 July 1996
+0.2
 Canada
22 August 1999
12
9.85
+1.2
 United States
6 July 1994
+1.7
 Nigeria
12 May 2006
+1.3
 United States
4 June 2011
15
9.86
+1.2
 United States
25 August 1991
Tokyo
−0.7
 Namibia
3 July 1996
+1.8
 Trinidad and Tobago
19 April 1998
+0.6
 Portugal
22 August 2004
+1.4
 Trinidad and Tobago
23 June 2012
20
9.87
+0.3
 United Kingdom
15 August 1993
−0.2
 Barbados
11 September 1998
22
9.88
+1.8
 United States
19 June 2004
+1.0
 United States
8 August 2010
+0.9
 United States
29 August 2010
+1.0
 Jamaica
30 June 2011
.

Apart from Mr. Fredericks, everyone on this list is of predominantly West African descent. Mr. Lemaitre is the sole white man to break 10 seconds. No Asian sprinter has been recorded breaking 10 seconds.
If poverty is such a determinant factor, why don't we see any U.S. Hispanics on this list? There are estimates that perhaps 1/4 live in poverty. What about the poor South Asians who flock to the U.K.; why don't they become elite sprinters? Where are the poor Arabs from France? Why does just one "disadvantaged group" show up time and time again no matter the country? 

The disadvantaged group doing the elite sprinting is in a better position economically than they were in, say, 1974. So why haven't the demographics shifted a bit to reflect this? The last white sprinter to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters was Allan Wells in 1980. Last white sprinter to win the 200: Pietro Mennea, 1980. Yes, Jeremy Wariner won gold in 2004 in the 400, but did you have a look at the rest of the field? Which one of these things is not like the other? In 2012, the aforementioned Lemaitre was just the fifth white sprinter since '84 to make the 200 meter final.
China and India make up more than 1/3 of the world's population. Why hasn't a single sprinter from either country, poor or otherwise, broken 10 seconds? They aren't capable of the same "hard work" as Lemaitre? None of them have enough interest to pursue sprinting with the same dedication?
Given that Mr. Lemaitre studied industrial engineering, I find it hard to believe he can't calculate how unlikely that is.

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