Posted on August 24, 2004

Olympic 400-Meter Favorite Breaking Racial Stereotypes In Sprints

Bob Baum, AP,, Sunday, Aug. 22

Jeremy Wariner is fast — and white.

If the 20-year-old Baylor University junior wins the 400-meter gold as expected Monday night, he would be the first white American man to win a sprint medal since Mike Larabee’s 400 gold in 1964.

All of which means nothing to Wariner, who has no interest perpetuating the idea that he is some oddity in a realm dominated by black athletes.

“Your ability is what makes you — not what race, ethnicity, gender, whatever,” Wariner said. “It’s your ability and how you use it.”

White runners from other countries have won Olympic medals. Soviet Valery Borzov was a medalist in 1968 and 1972. And Wariner pointed out Kostas Kenteris of Greece, the 200-meter champion in Sydney and world champion a year later. Kenteris, however, withdrew from the Athens Games amid widespread doping speculation.

On Saturday night, Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus became the first white athlete to win the women’s 100 since Lyudmila Kondratyeva of the Soviet Union in 1980, an Olympics the United States boycotted. However, such great white sprinters as Heike Dreschler of Germany and Irina Privalova of Russia have medaled in recent Olympics.

White American Kevin Little won the world indoor 200-meter title in 1997, igniting the same comments about race that Wariner’s success has generated.

But for years, the 100, 200 and 400 have been dominated by runners of African descent. No white sprinter has ever run under 10 seconds in the 100; only two of the 30 Olympic sprint gold medals have been won by white athletes since the boycott of 1980.

The lack of white sprinters in America has nothing to do with genetics, said Wariner’s coach, Clyde Hart, who also coached Michael Johnson at Baylor.

“Everybody seems to think there is a genetic superiority,” Hart said. “I’m just saying that in my opinion that’s not true. The kids just aren’t out there competing. I think a lot of white youngsters are discouraged. Somebody is telling them it’s a black sport. It’s not. It’s a sport for anybody — black, white, red, Chinese.”

Otis Harris, Wariner’s U.S. teammate and a medal threat in the 400, believes diversity is a good thing for all sprinters.

“It’s definitely a good thing when you start to break down stereotypes on the African-American side, on the white side, or any side,” said Harris, who is black. “When you break down stereotypes, it’s the right thing to do.”

Since many black athletes come out of difficult economic situations, Hart said, they see sports as a way out — a way to succeed when other avenues are not open to them.

“A lot of the white athletes are privileged,” he said. “They have their automobiles. They don’t need to be trying to get a scholarship or making an international team to see the world.”

Wariner, who grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas, has no interest in leading a crusade for racial equality in sprints. He believes any athlete with natural talent and a will to get better can succeed, with the right coaching.

“Coach Hart knows what he’s doing,” Wariner said. “He taught Michael Johnson everything he knows. I’m getting the same treatment he did, so that helps a lot right there.”

There are at least three other top white quarter-milers in the United States. Andrew Rock, who won three NCAA Division III titles at Wisconsin-LaCrosse, is in the 1,600-meter relay pool in Athens. The University of Minnesota produced two top 400-meter runners — Mitch Potter and Andrew Steele.

“The year before last, I ran in the NCAAs and two white guys from Minnesota beat me,” Harris said. “Color, I have found, does not matter. When you line up, everybody is a threat.”

Wariner expects to add the 200 to his repertoire in the coming years. Meanwhile, Hart hopes the young runner inspires every aspiring athlete to work hard to achieve success, regardless of race.

“Jeremy certainly is not a freak of nature,” Hart said. “He’s just a kid who decided that his avenue of interest was going to be track and field.

“Jeremy is doing it for the pure love of track and field.”