h&f 0035 Whither the speed gene? Are Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, & Jamaican Cohort all Speed Freaks With Mutant Fast-Twitch Make-up?

The Most Tiring Part... Silly Questions.

Usain Bolt with Jochen Zeitz, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Puma during August 23, 2008 Press Conference. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen (CHINA)


COACH OF ASAFA POWELL, STEPHEN FRANCIS: ‘It’s not explainable how they do what they do. It doesn’t mean he’s cheating, he’s just using what he has. Usain ran 19.9 aged 17, when he was a skinny kid. Look at him now, 19.3 is not that surprising.’  ‘I can’t stop people doubting,’ said Francis. ‘People always have a way of belittling or trying to explain things they can’t understand by saying, “Yeah, Usain Bolt, he’s cheating, he’s not real.” But in the world people come along who are exceptional. You have Einstein, you have Isaac Newton, you have Beethoven – you have Usain Bolt.’


[Hang on.  We’ve got to go to the woodshed on this one.  Or, you can stop reading here with this summary: Speculation on Jamaican success owing to speed genes is based on woefully short science.]

Coach Francis’ perspective not only dispatches the insidious innuendo but also the pseudo-science that brings us to the most unfortunate part of high achievement for Kenyan marathoners, African-American athletes in general, and now, Jamaican sprinters.  People are asking about the “secret” to Jamaican speed – not secret in an “I can learn from them” way, but rather in a mystical and skeptical way.

In doing this we leave wholly behind the most storied cliches of the day: wisdom of teams, wisdom of crowds, working smarter not harder, etc.  All of these are evident in the Jamaican way of training, but they can’t possibly apply to the Jamaican team in the minds of many.  I was amazed to find some US track commentators marveling that Jamaican runners do a majority of their strength and endurance work running on grass, thus mitigating the impact on the joints.  We’re behind in the simple things, blinded by arrogance of technology.

There are a few who see the folly.  Here, for example, in the popular running interest site Letsrun.com: “Letsrun.com isn’t a forum where persons discuss track and field and have open discussions, it is a forum where persons (Americans) mostly come up with conspiracy theories about any athlete or country that has dominated that isn’t from America.”

It is no coincidence that our most intelligent and humble thought leaders are the ones who can face certain problems or conundrums and with no fear say, “I don’t know.”

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Richard Feynman speaks as part of Rogers Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Credit: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Consider Richard Feynman, the preeminent American physicist and the man who unveiled to Congress and the world the cause behind the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: “We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified—how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.” This perspective would prevent the lazy arrogance of stopping the journey to declare knowledge out of even hard won but unproven hypotheses.

However, trained reporters, interested laymen, expert bystanders purport to know why Usain wins, their knowledge besting both scientists and learned coaches.  One reporter notes that “the gene pool in Jamaica is predisposed to producing powerful, explosive athletes.”  Taking a scientific method to such a broad statement would take a bit of time and work, work that has not yet been done.

On Yahoo message boards, the laymen take this bit and run mad with it, the following being examples of the question/answer interplay – NOTE that these are actual answers, not jokes:

Q: What kind of drug is Usain Bolt using that is still undetectable? Seriously, he’s so damn fast.

A: You know there are some greyhound and other racing-dog breeds where the DNA goes too far and the poor dogs wind up with too much muscle? … It could just be an amino acid his body makes that most people don’t *make* a lot of, like taurine or something.  Point is, he just may have been born a genetic freak in terms of fast-twitch muscle speed.  Hope this helps. ^_^

Q: Given Usain Bolt is Jamaican of West African descent, what is the potiential of West African sprinters? Jamaica has a population of 3 million descended mainly from West African slaves whereas West Africa has a population of tens of millions.

A: Africans tend to be better distance runners. Probably because they grow up running everywhere as a means of transportation.

A: I would say a lot of potential, but not likely to happen. I don’t think Jamaica has a lot of ties to its African past. In fact, one of the upper mgmnt in our company is Jamaican and I asked him one time (already knowing the answer) if most of Jamaicans were the descendants of West Africans and he said they were not. I found that surprising.  Also, most African countries don’t seem to have the finances or organization to field world class athletes. But maybe….you never know.

And get ready for this title. (Again, offered seriously): “Jamaican Me Speedy:  Why are Jamaicans so good at sprinting?”

Now, I am a layman, too.  But the only conclusion I’m offering is that their science is short.

Speaking of that… what do scientists say? (see cricket – below)

[cue lone cricket chirping]

...cue lone cricket chirping

Yes there are plenty of fast-twitch hypotheses, but a scientist must, by rules of the trade, stop short with all these the fast-twitch conclusions, realizing that we have a causality problem.  Even the stronger hypotheses have trouble connecting that single factor to normalized elite performance for a group of people.  In short, it has not been proven that any preponderance of fast-twitch muscles is a deciding factor even in sprint victories.

I’m glad that Usain Bolt keeps his cool in the face of this kind of speculation: “I worked hard all year for this. It may have looked easy, but it was hard,” Bolt said. “Us Jamaicans, we’re very proud. We work hard for what we want and we want to be on top. If you guys would just come to Jamaica once and see how hard we train, you’d be surprised. We have some serious coaches down there. They push us to be the best we can be.”

I’m not arguing on technicalities.  If, indeed, there were some gene that could prove a deciding factor in my performance, I’d be no more ashamed of that than the color of my hair or the shape of my lips.  In this case, however, the speculation goes well beyond the evidence and fits all too conveniently in predispositions for seeing others in a lesser light.

Besides, I wouldn’t be so proud to explain away Jamaican progress as a natural and foregone conclusion …from an intra-species evolutionary standpoint.  I mean, fast-twitch offers some pretty good survival advantages, something we have to think of if we want to say they’re gifted from way way back.  Further, let’s be cynical and say that you are here today lacking fast-twitch fibres but having survived on excess smarts.  Now, wouldn’t you feel a bit insecure about those smarts upon discovering that you share mental ability with a dufus who just survived on fast-twitch abilty.  The proof: Jamaicans have a pretty accomplished diaspora, competing very well with other groups.

What is most interesting as far as patterns go is how we will, by reflex, jump to a search for secrets when viewing the achievements of others while attributing genius and industriousness to our own.  Now, that’s a very human thing to do.  No supergene required.  But it’s not quite excusable.


~ by ericjhenderson on August 24, 2008.

One Response to “h&f 0035 Whither the speed gene? Are Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, & Jamaican Cohort all Speed Freaks With Mutant Fast-Twitch Make-up?”

  1. […] exceptionnels. Vous avez Einstein, Isaac Newton, Beethoven et vous avez Usain Bolt », soutient Stephen Francis, le coach d’Asafa […]

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