Monday, August 25, 2008

The tenuous link between slavery and speed

Had someone like Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder floated the theory that slavery is, in part, responsible for Jamaican supremacy at sprinting, he would have been laughed and then booted out of the building.

Not so for Herb Elliott, Jamaica's Olympic team doctor. Some people are actually willing to concede the point.

More than 20 years later, it comes back to this. Doesn't it always?

“They say that our aggression, our toughness, came out of our slave situation,” said Elliott, who is black. The team doctor said he subscribes to the view “considering that Jamaica had more slavery rebellion than any country in the world.”

“It’s not a question of genetic pool, but we have that,” he added. “It’s a cultural thing, too, that we want to achieve.”

I'm more willing to accept arguments that have a cultural component than ones that focus on the natural athletic superiority of black people. Certainly, Jamaica seems to have fostered a culture where sprinters are accorded the same respect and celebrity that Americans reserve for football and basketball players. A history of slavery, however, is not unique to the black peoples of the world.

BALCO founder Victor Conte has a more plausible explanation: Jamaica and other Caribbean countries are more inclined to protect their drug cheats rather than to root them out.

Without concrete proof, I'm not willing to tarnish the gold won by Jamaica's sprinters. But Elliott did his team and himself no favors with the controversial theory linking slavery to speed and his very weak defense of the Jamaican drug testing program:

Peppered by questions about Jamaican’s drug testing program, Elliott responded with a litany of assertions: the Jamaicans have spent about $930,000 on a government-sponsored drug testing program; he personally tested every Jamaican athlete that competed in the country’s Olympic trials; and sanctions against Julien Dunkley, a 32-year-old Jamaican sprinter, indicates the country is serious about drug testing.

... “We know that our athletes have trained hard, that the country would not tolerate any kind of cheating because we are a moral, Christian country."

It's important to remember that two Jamaican natives and former Olympic men's 100-meter champions, Ben Johnson and Linford Christie, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their careers - Johnson notably right after his win in Seoul.

Maybe Elliott is ignorant of history. Perhaps willfully so. And maybe we are, too.

Twenty years after Jimmy The Greek ended his career with an offhand theory about the superiority of black athletes, here we go again. What goes the saying about those ignorant of history ...


Zen said...

UNFAIR. Neither Ben nor Linford were representing Jamiace when they were caught cheating. If I remember correctly.

blackink said...

Johnson represented Canada and Christie ran for Great Britain.

Point is, as natives of a "moral, Christian country," cheating wasn't outside the realm of possiblity for Johnson or Christie. That was a terrible explanation from Elliott, and to me, only arouses more suspicion.

What's more, I have my doubts about almost all elite level Olympic athletes - I don't think Michael Phelps should escape serious scrutiny. But I'm even more dubious of those who come from countries with extremely weak drug-testing programs.

Conte hasn't been wrong on these sorts of things often.

I'm not saying that I'm right, or even that Conte is dead-on, but there's nothing wrong with a little cynicism.