Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest


Ahmed Sule CFA responds to Channel Four’s recent documentary, Survival of the Fastest, in which US Olympian Michael Johnson explored whether slavery was a contributory factor to the success of Black people in athletics. Ahmed writes an Open Letter to Michael Johnson to share his thoughts.

Dear Michael Johnson

Brother, you may not know me, but I am what you will call an athletics enthusiast. There is no doubt that you are one of the greatest athletes that ever walked the surface of this earth – holding the World and Olympics titles for the 200m and 400m at the same time (a record which you held for over a decade) is the stuff of legends. When I heard about your documentary titled  Survival of the Fastest I eagerly looked forward to watching the documentary.

In your documentary, you explored whether slavery was a contributory factor to the success of Black people in athletics. While you acknowledged that this is a sensitive topic, you attempted to open up a conversation on the continued success of Black people in athletics. You argue that although hardwork and determination plays a role in an athlete’s performance, there has to be more than hard work to explain the success of Black athletes.

You stated,

“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. Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me – I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”

Your thesis suggested that: during the time of slavery, the slave traders/owners carried out a rigorous selection process, in which the fittest slaves were captured for onward shipment to the Americas and the Caribbean. Due to the harsh conditions that the slaves were subjected to while on the ship from Africa to the Americas, many slaves died during the journey. Consequently, only the strongest and fittest slaves survived the terrible conditions on the ship, while the weak slaves died. The slaves that survived possessed a superior form of gene, a ‘cleaner’ gene which enabled them to survive. Their descendants who populate the Black communities in the Caribbean’s and the USA inherited this superior gene. This gene accounts for the success of Black people in athletics.

Some could make the mistake of accepting your thesis without subjecting it to rigorous analysis because they could be relying on your profile. In short there is a risk that there could be a fallacious appeal to your authority as a sports celebrity and as one of the fastest men on earth.

But is this really the case? Upon further examination I have to disagree with your analysis. Your thesis on the prevalence of a superior athletic gene among Black athletes is flawed for a number of reasons.

In building up your thesis, you interview Dr. Herb Elliot, the Jamaican team doctor who advocates that during the slave trade, the most aggressive and troublesome slaves were taken to Jamaica and this aggressiveness was inherited by future generations, which explains why Jamaicans excel in the sprints. You both argue that unlike long distance athletics, sprint requires a higher level of aggressiveness, hence the success of Jamaicans in the sprints. If we assume that sprinting is an aggressive sport relative to long distance athletics, then it suggests that there should be a high correlation between aggressiveness and success in other forms of aggressive sports. While I do not believe that Jamaicans are aggressive (because aggressiveness cuts across people of all nations and races), if we are to accept Dr. Elliot’s theory that Jamaicans are aggressive, then Jamaicans would be expected to excel in more aggressive sports such as boxing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo. However, this is not the case. On that basis Dr. Elliot’s thesis does not hold.

If Black people have a superior athletic gene, then one would expect athletes from Africa (where most Black people in America and the Caribbean’s originate) to excel in the sprints just like their American and Caribbean counterparts, however, this is not the case. In addition, if there is truly a superior or ‘cleaner’ athletic gene among slave descendants, one will expect Americans and Caribbean’s to dominate the whole athletic spectrum from the sprints up to the marathon (including the middle distance races), however their dominance stops at the 400m races. Moreover, if you have inherited this so-called superior athletic gene, one would expect some of your siblings who were featured in your documentary to also exhibit these traits In addition, while you acknowledge successes of Black Americans and Jamaican’s in various athletic events, you fail to state that the success of the Caribbean athletes has been a recent phenomenon. Since the commencement of the modern Olympics in 1896, Jamaica has won thirteen Olympic gold medals in athletics out of which, six was won in the 2008 Olympic games in China. If as you say that the superior athletic gene accounts for Jamaica’s success in athletics, then one would expect Jamaica to have achieved a higher level of Olympic athletics gold medals over a longer timeframe.

In the final analysis, the success of Black people in athletics is more likely to be as a result of hardwork, determination, and environmental factors in addition to a level playing field rather than the existence of a superior gene. Besides analyzing your documentary intellectually or logically, it also falls short morally. By using the term ‘ superior athletic gene’ and referring to slaves who survived as having a ‘ genetically cleaner gene’, your documentary suggests a hierarchy of races and people.

Martin Luther King once said,

“ We must never substitute a doctrine of Black supremacy for White supremacy. For the doctrine of Black supremacy is as dangerous as White supremacy .”

Your suggestion that your inheritance as a slave descendant gives you a superior gene is unfortunate. Just because a group of people dominate a particular aspect of a sport does not and should note denote the superiority of one race over the other. We all know that Black people dominate the sprints, Asian people dominate cricket and White people dominate swimming, golf and tennis, however, this should not suggest that one race possesses a superior sporting gene. Afterall, how do you explain the success of Tiger Woods in golf, Serena and Venus Williams in Tennis, Marita Koch, Jarmila Kratochvílová, Sebastian Cole and Christophe Lemaitre in athletics, and the West Indies in cricket if it is not due to hardwork, determination, and environmental factors?

Brother Johnson, you must realize that superior genes and inferior genes are antithetical concepts. So when you advocate that one race has superior genes, you are at the same time suggesting that another race has inferior genes. While you may think that you are helping the Black race by promoting the notion that Blacks have a superior athletic gene relative to other races, on the contrary, your documentary is actually harmful to the Black race.

As a Black man, I have often observed that when a Black person excels in a particular area of endeavour, it is rarely accepted at face value. People always try to find an explanation for this success besides hardwork, determination and perseverance. Very often these successes are attributed to genetics, poverty or raw talent or power. For instance, Serena and Venus Williams, one of the greatest tennis players in a generation are one of the least respected, least appreciated and least regarded multiple grand slam champions. Inspite of their hardwork, tenacity and intellect, most people attribute their successes to their power. While failing to acknowledge their all round play, analysts focus mainly on their serves. In attributing success of the Kenyan runners in the middle to long distance races, many people say that athletics offers Kenyans a way out of poverty. This same excuse is also used where say an African or Asian leaves her country, comes over the West, excels in school and in her career. With the success of Black athletes, many people refuse to accept that this success could be due to hardwork, environmental factors or determination; hence the quest by scientist to come up with a scientific explanation for the success. On the contrary, the success of White people in sports like swimming, cycling, discus,shot put and tennis is hardly subject to such rigorous scientific examination. In addition, it also provides ammunition to bigots and racists to propagate their racist theories that Black people excel in sports because they are closer to animals in terms of their genetic and physical anatomy.

Finally, throughout time, sportsmen and women have come and retired, however a select few seem to leave their footprint on the sands of time. I will like to draw your attention to two great sportsmen that have stood the test of time. These two sportsmen like you are Americans and they are Black. Tommie Smith like you is a former 200m athlete who represented the USA at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. After winning the 200m event, Tommie Smith used the award ceremony as a platform to protest against the injustice melted upon African Americans, by wearing a Black glove and raising his fist while on the podium. The second sports personality is Muhammad Ali, the three-time former heavyweight champion. Ali was an outspoken critic of the injustice melted on Black Americans. He refused to go to Vietnam to fight against the Vietnamese people even though it cost him his title, sponsorship and he faced the risk of imprisonment. After almost fifty years since these two sportsmen made a stand against injustice for their people, their names have been etched.

Brother Johnson, I hope you will consider what legacy you would like to leave fifty years from now. Do you want to be regarded as one of the world’s finest athletes who used his platform to lift his brothers and sisters from the shackles of injustice or would you want to be regarded as one of the world’s finest athletes who used his platform to reinforce negative stereotypes that inflicted his brothers and sisters.

History is watching.

Your brother, Ahmed Sule