Michael Johnson should stick to running
Before every Olympics someone feels the need to explore the link between slavery and athleticism. I’m not normally drawn to comment because it’s a conversation I have little time for but this time I am driven to contribute. On this occasion, the link has been “celebrated” by one of my sporting idols, Michael Johnson.
Unwrapping his own slave ancestry, Johnson nodded his big head through interviews with archivists, genealogists and historians in Survival of the Fastest (Channel 4, Wednesday 4 July). It could not have made me more sick.
I congratulate Johnson on bring a history to mainstream television that is forgotten by everyone, even black people. There is no memorial or recompense to anchor the realities of the slave trade in the minds of millions dispersed across the globe or in the memories of those living in modern privilege because of it. The accounts of horrific Atlantic journeys towards a lifetime of barbaric treatment were undiluted. The Atlantic will always be lined with the bodies of Africans. It choked me and hit my soul hard.
Johnson’s personal story was gratifying to watch. It is seldom recognised that the seizure of freedom stole other things too – many Americans can trace their families back for centuries. African-Americans can go back as far as the plantation. Then the line stops dead. Watching Johnson affix eyes on a sepia print of his Great, Great, Great, Great Grandmother was a joy to watch as it must have been a joy to him. We can get a great understanding of ourselves from our past.
What we can’t do, is equate their suffering with our success.
His argument was two-fold. Firstly, the Atlantic crossing was so disgusting, repulsive and rank that only the strongest would survive the nauseating, suffocating conditions. Secondly, whilst on the plantations in America and the Caribbean, slave owners ruthlessly bred their belongings like cattle, selecting the biggest and strongest black men to behave as studs for their ‘donkeys’. Thus, enabling the best to breed and the weakest to die out. These two forces of ‘unnatural selection’ combined to enable a super special, (but completely made-up) ‘athletic gene’ to become more prevalent in black peoples than in whites.
Michael Johnson was driven to this conclusion because the line-up of 100m finals in all world class sporting events is dominated by black American and black Caribbean athletes. Since his documentary was loaded with sycophantic worship of Johnson and therefore his crazy ideas, here are some questions and facts that should kill this debate once and for all.
Firstly, apart from Craig Pickering, Great British sprinting talent of the past 20 years has been of African or Caribbean descent. But I use the word ‘talent’ loosely. They haven’t been very good. (If only they had thrown the scrawny looking Jamaicans off the Windrush). If there is any truth in this theory, why does it only apply to two parts of the world?
Africans were transported to Brazil, the French Caribbean and there are huge established black populations in France, Belgium, Cuba. Why does no sprinting talent come from these places?
If we have an athletic gene, surely we would be good at all sports. Where are the great black cyclists, weight lifters, javelin throwers, shot putters, swimmers, rowers? Or does our gene only work when we’re asked to run in a straight line?
What about African athletic success that is not linked to slave ancestry? East Africans dominate distance running. Yet the debate about inherent ability is always rubbished by the experts. They dominate for one reason; the Gladwellian 10,000 hours needed to become an expert at anything is more than fulfilled by these athletes. Running to an Ethiopian is like an Oystercard to a Londoner.
We have to be very careful about the way we depict slave owners as our ‘breeders’ because it depicts us as ‘bred’. It’s revealed in the documentary his Great, Great, Great, Great Grandmother had 9 surviving children. Slave societies were more complex than discussed in this film.
We have to be very careful in the way we manage this debate, especially as black people. By giving some credit for black dominance to genetics, we consciously attribute white accomplishment to good old fashioned hard work, allowing our achievements to be dismissed. We are absolving white people of their penance for the slave trade and thanking them for making us a physically superior race; looking for advantages where there are none and never will be.
Concentrating on the physical legacy of the slave trade and ignoring the mental scars that hang over all post-colonial societies is dangerous. I could easily argue that Michael Johnson’s eagerness to pursue such an argument is exactly the mind-set to be expected from slave descendent with an Armenian wife. It supports the traditional white racism that portrayed black people as physical and part human, part primate for centuries and continues to this day (see below). It is even more galling he concentrates on our dominance in tactically, the simplest of disciplines, implying incapability of applying these skills in sports that require more thought.
This is where his documentary failed. No counter arguments, no exploration of white dominated power sports and no real understanding of the complexity human genetics. People who are born strong, don’t necessarily have strong children. Race took precedence over science in this programme.
I think, given the practices of white people in slave owning countries, it’s logical to attribute black athletic success to their evil. But, with thought, it genuinely becomes a smaller and smaller aspect. Black children told to kick footballs instead of reading books, the high athletic achievers who train vociferously and without respite and the fallen slaves, who survived man’s biggest injustice so people like Michael Johnson could be free, have all been done a disservice by this documentary and this very idea.