In January of 1988, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was fired by CBS for racism after he made the following infamous comment to an NBC affiliate, station WRC-TV:
The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way — because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trading, the owner — the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.
[I remember, as a kid at the time, thinking it was odd no one was offended by the nickname, “The Greek” — especially as it, and even “Jimmy,” likely came from the general (lazy) inability to pronounce the man’s real name, Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos.]
I won’t deny there were more tactful ways to communicate realities of racism (it was, in fact, a breeding program; let’s not deny the horrors), but it seems “Jimmy” was also onto something… Something biological. Something which sounds even less, well, probable.
In a study published last year in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics, Professor Andre Bejan of Duke University, Professor Edward Jones of Howard University in Washington, and Duke graduate Jordan Charles, found that there’s a biological physical trait at the center of athletic performance:
The navel is the centre of gravity of the body, and given two runners or swimmers of the same height, one African origin and one European origin, “what matters is not total height but the position of the belly-button, or centre of gravity,” says study lead author Professor Andre Bejan of Duke University.
“It so happens that in the architecture of the human body of West African-origin runners, the centre of gravity is significantly higher than in runners of European origin,” which puts them at an advantage in sprints on the track, he says.
The researchers charted and analysed nearly 100 years of records in men’s and women’s sprinting and 100-metres freestyle swimming for the study.
Individuals of West African-origin have longer legs than European-origin athletes, which means their belly-buttons are three centimetres higher, says Bejan.
That means the West-African athletes have a ‘hidden height’ that is 3% greater than Europeans, which gives them a significant speed advantage on the track.
“Locomotion is essentially a continual process of falling forward, and mass that falls from a higher altitude, falls faster,” says Bejan.
The science, physics, of belly-buttons gets weirder…
In the pool, meanwhile, Europeans have the advantage because they have longer torsos, making their belly-buttons lower in the general scheme of body architecture.
“Swimming is the art of surfing the wave created by the swimmer,” says Bejan.
“The swimmer who makes the bigger wave is the faster swimmer, and a longer torso makes a bigger wave. Europeans have a 3% longer torso than West Africans, which gives them a 1.5% speed advantage in the pool,” he says.
Asians have the same long torsos as Europeans, giving them the same potential to be record-breakers in the pool.
But they often lose out to Europeans because Asians are typically shorter, says Bejan.
Many scientists have avoided studying why Africans make better sprinters and Europeans better swimmers because of what the study calls the “obvious” race angle.
While the study “focused on the athletes’ geographic origins and biology, not race, which the authors of the study call a ‘social construct,'” it seems Mr. Georgios wasn’t too far off the mark…
I should stop this now before I step into even deeper stereotypical waters.
But I can’t help but think that our hyper-sensitivity, our unwillingness to deal directly with racism in this country, leads not only to problems with firing the admittedly-tactless messenger (be it Jimmy The Greek or some angry comments to this blogger), but in any sort of rational discussion…
In even hearing this sort of news…