Seventy-six years after Jesse Owens deflated the myth of Aryan supremacy by dominating the 1936 Summer Olympics, Michael Johnson (pictured), a once-prominent player on the world stage, is again highlighting a purported link between ethnicity and athletic performance.
When it comes to explaining the success of African-American and Afro-Caribbean sprinters, 4-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter Johnson is unafraid to acknowledge what he believes is the obvious explanation: “a superior athletic gene” that benefits descendants of slaves.
“It’s a taboo subject in the States,” says Johnson. “But it is what it is. Why shouldn’t we discuss it?” The 44-year-old Johnson, who is tied with fellow African-American Carl Lewis for the most gold medals won by any runner in history, underwent a DNA test for the upcoming documentary “Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest.” The results of the test identified his West African lineage.
Johnson’s inference that his ancestry provides some competitive advantage is not entirely without traction in the scientific community.
Some scientists conjecture that the harsh living conditions of American and Caribbean slaves ensured that only the strongest among them survived and bore children, in effect imbuing their descendents with the kind of fortitude that may lend itself to transcendent athletic ability.
“All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination,” says Johnson, “ but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations.”
The most-celebrated testament to the veracity of Johnson’s claim in the 2012 London Games is defending 100m Champion Usain Bolt. Four years ago, all eight of the 100m finalists were reportedly descended from slaves, including three Jamaicans, two African Americans, one born on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, and two from Trinidad and Tobago.