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Michael Johnson says slave trade made us faster

BY CANDIESE LEVERIDGE Online reporter leveridgec@jamaocaobserver.com

Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 2:57 PM    

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RECENTLY suggestions have been made that the horrific ordeals West African slaves endured while being transported to and living in the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica, may have contributed to the world-beating prowess of Jamaican athletes.

According to a Dailymail.co.uk story, the achievements of Jamaican athletes such as Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake could be attributed to the strength of their West African ancestors and their ability to endure abuse at the hands of British slave traders and plantation owners.

And in a recent television documentary, retired American sprinter Michael Johnson, who is of West African decent stated that athletes like him have an advantage when it came to sprints — a unique genetic inheritance.

"Descendants of slaves from West Africa — all Afro-Caribbean people owe their presence in the Caribbean to slavery dating from the 16th century — have a superior athletic gene. And it’s this that will put black Caribbean sprinters on the podium top spots at the London Games,” argued Johnson.

The controversial theory of the "superior athletic gene" goes back to 2003, when Australian scientists discovered that a gene named ACTN3 has variants, which may give performance advantage to the muscles of elite athletes.

They contended that in short it gives extra power to muscle cells that are required for fast, forceful actions. Studies show that this ‘sprint’ version of the ACTN3 gene is more common in Jamaicans, for example, and others of West African descent, than in people of European ancestry.

In contradicting these findings, a researcher from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, named only as "Daniel",  raised several points on his blog – www.gentic-future.com – to refute Johnson's statements. 

Daniel said for instance, that there are no West African athletes who have excelled to the level of western athletes. He argued that if this gene was in fact responsible for the athletes' prowess, then West Africans now, should be on the same level, if not better than western athletes.

He maintains that while the gene does exist, the speed and strength of black sprinters has nothing to do with slavery and ancestry. He said whether or not the slaves were brought here, the gene would exist.

"If ACTN3 homozygote number was the sole determining factor…Kenya should have around 12 times as many sprinting medals as Jamaica. This clearly isn't the case," he said.

The DailyMail article goes full circle with a reasonable explanation for our athletes' successes.

"Jamaican youngsters grow up on a diet that is so beneficial they might as well take a daily dose of steroids. And such nutrition may well boost any genetic advantage that Jamaican athletes are born with," the article says.

In the end, they came to the conclusion that the national will to win may be the driving force behind our athlete's successes.

"The short-term explanation for Jamaica’s success is that the country took the decision to pour its resources in recent years into getting better at its most winnable events. And in its case, these events are the sprints. Instead, we are only at the start of scientifically unravelling the complex tapestry of factors, which give Jamaican athletes the capability of beating the rest of the world at sprinting. Some of these factors will undoubtedly be due to powerful elements in Jamaica’s modern culture, such as diet and a deep sporting passion — but also, somewhere in a wide variety of genes, there will be the bigger story of a cruel past".

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