Could the world-beating sprinting prowess of Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt really be down to his West African ancestors’ horrific ordeals at the hands of British slave traders and plantation owners?
Jamaican athletes have certainly made a speciality of dominating sprint races in recent years. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, they won the men and women’s 100m finals, the men and women’s 200m finals—and the men won the 4 x 100m relay. Quite something for an island with a population smaller than Wales.
That supremacy is likely to be reinforced at the London Olympics, thanks perhaps to a new pretender, Yohan Blake, who trounced Bolt, his training partner, in the 200m final at the Jamaican Olympic trials in Kingston last week. Bolt, meanwhile, still holds the world 100m sprint record, with a breathtaking time of 9.58 seconds.
Clearly, such dominance cannot be gained without gruelling training regimes, specialised diets and expert coaching. But U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, who is of West African descent, now believes that athletes like him have another weapon in their armoury: a unique genetic inheritance.
In a TV documentary, Johnson argues that 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.
Such talk is controversial, alarmingly redolent as it is of the racial-superiority theories propounded by Nazi scientists in the Thirties and used to justify the genocide of millions of people deemed ‘genetically inferior’.
Johnson, however, is unabashed: ‘It is a taboo subject in the States, but it is what it is,’ he says. ‘Why shouldn’t we discuss it?’
Usain Bolt holds similar beliefs. The sprinter was born in Trelawny Parish, a Jamaican area that was formerly the site of several slave plantations.
Asked about his record-breaking 100m performance in 2009, he said: ‘It’s a background from slavery. The guys back in the day were so strong from physical work . . . the genes are really strong.’
The controversial theory supporting these claims goes back to 2003, when Australian scientists discovered that a gene called ACTN3 has variants which may give performance advantage to the muscles of elite athletes.
In effect, it can give sprinters a boost because 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.
The theory speculates that this gene has been concentrated in these athletes because their ancestors journeyed from captivity in West Africa to slavery in the Caribbean under brutal conditions.
Only the toughest survived. During one such voyage in 1732, more than 95 per cent of slaves perished—170 were herded on to the ship and only six got off alive.
Cruelty on board those ships could compound the effects of disease, insanitary conditions and overcrowding. One notorious case involved the British-owned slave-ship Zong, which lost its bearings while bound for Jamaica in 1782.
After three months, 60 of the 440 slaves on board had already died. Captain Luke Collingwood’s human cargo was perishing and his hopes of profit were being replaced by fears of bankruptcy.
So he decided to pull an insurance scam, and ordered his crew to throw 132 of the weaker slaves overboard to drown.
He told insurers that he had been forced to do it because of dwindling water supplies.
The captain would have succeeded, but for the whistleblowing conscience of the chief mate, James Kelsal, who revealed that there were still 420 gallons of water on board when they had docked at Black River Port in Jamaica a month later.
The ship’s owners were taken to court in London—for insurance fraud rather than murder. No officers or crew were charged over the deliberate killings.
Clearly, those few slaves who survived the crossings were made of extremely tough stuff. For them to survive long enough subsequently to have children involved them being resilient enough to withstand life in slavery on plantations.
Towards the end of the 1700s, another factor came into play: selective breeding.
In this period, the price of imported slaves to Jamaica was rising rapidly, and there was increasing talk of abolishing the barbarous practice of slave-shipping.
Plantation owners began to believe that their most economical answer was to raise their own slaves. They went about it with characteristic inhumanity, breeding the toughest slaves for strength and treating their charges as though they were breeding cattle.
One Jamaican plantation inventory from 1790 listed 408 slaves by occupation, such as cooks, watchmen and field workers. But the largest group listed 62 women who were ‘kept for breeding’. These were called ‘breeding wenches’ or ‘belly women’.
Where possible, parents were selected for their strength.
Around the same time, a white Jamaican sugar plantation owner’s wife, A. C. Carmichael, wrote a pamphlet on breeding one’s own slaves. It recommended separating babies early from their mothers, so freeing the women for menial labour while their children were raised by women too old to work on the fields.
The children were to be integrated into the workforce virtually as soon as they could walk—to do any light tasks around the plantation they were thought capable of performing. Such conditions would, understandably, work in favour of a physically stronger population.
It has led Jamaican scientists to propound the theory that Caribbean sprinters are athletically special because those tough enough to survive these awful rigours must have had genes which made them unusually resilient.
William Aiken, a Jamaican sports doctor, believes the fact that Jamaicans excel at sprinting is a legacy of being descended from the ‘fittest of the fit slaves’.
But can it all come down to something as basic as a variation of one gene—ACTN3?
While many commentators are happy to suggest it does, one of the scientists involved in originally discovering this gene’s powers is far more sceptical.
Daniel MacArthur, a researcher at the Institute for Neuromuscular Research at Sydney University, was part of the team that found how the ACTN3 gene helps stimulate the muscle cells which are needed for generating rapid, forceful contraction in activities such as sprinting.
His studies show that the ‘sprint’ version of ACTN3 is, indeed, more common in Jamaicans—98 per cent of black Jamaicans have at least one copy, compared with 82 per cent in individuals of European ancestry. Yet he believes it plays only a ‘pretty small’ role in Jamaican sprinters’ success.
In the journal Genetic Future, he writes: ‘It is almost certainly true that Usain Bolt carries at least one “sprint” variant of the ACTN3 gene, but then so do I (along with around five billion other humans worldwide). But that doesn’t mean you’ll see me in the 100m final in London. Unfortunately for me, it takes a lot more than one lucky gene to create an Olympian.’
For success at the Olympic games, MacArthur believes there are going to be many other factors—cultural, social and economic—also at play. Indeed, Jamaican experts believe in this ‘combination’ theory of success.
For example, Dr Errol Morrison, an endocrinologist and the president of Jamaica’s University of Technology, says that diet may play a crucial role—particularly the staples of salt fish, yams and bananas which are rich in protein, carbohydrate and vital sources of energy.
Dr Morrison says 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, he says.
But there is surely something else at play, too—the national will to win.
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.
The same has happened with Team GB concentrating on cycling, and its remarkable subsequent success with stars such as Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. So while the ACTN3 gene may play some contributory role in the wider recipe for Jamaican success, would anyone seriously suggest there is a single British gene for riding bicycles quickly?
Instead, we are only at the beginning of scientifically beginning to unravel the complex tapestry of factors which give Jamaican athletes the capability of beating the best of 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.