It’s been over thirty years since the last white male won the Olympic 100-meter sprint so the UK’s Channel 4 decided to make a documentary that argues black Americans and Caribbeans do well at the Olympics because they are descendants of slaves who were bred well.
The documentary titled “Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest,” follows four-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter Michael Johnson who says it is a fact that slavery has benefited descendants like himself. The documentary premiered in the UK Thursday night and the pitch to viewers takes cues from the Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s. PBS series “Finding Your Roots” that explores race, culture, and identity through genealogy.
Why is it that all the athletes that lined up for the men’s 100m final at the Beijing Olympics could trace their ancestry back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
In this landmark documentary, Olympian Michael Johnson embarks on a personal genealogical and scientific journey in a bid to understand if he and other world-class African American and Caribbean athletes are successful as a result of slavery.
Michael Johnson is a four-time Olympic gold medallist and the finest sprint athlete of his generation. In this remarkable authored film he discovers some disturbing truths about the lives of his enslaved ancestors.
From the mass murder of those on the slave ships to the nightmarish breeding programmes of the plantation owners, Johnson confronts this appalling history.
He speaks to leading voices in the world of sport and science to examine the link between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and genetic selection.
He investigates the role slavery may have played in altering the genomes of their descendants. He speaks to experts whose research has led them to conclude this has contributed to the success of African American and Caribbean sprinters.
“All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations,” Johnson told British newspaper the Daily Mail after he learned a DNA test confirmed he is of West African descent. “Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me — I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”
‘It’s a fact that hasn’t been discussed openly before. It’s a taboo subject in the States but it is what it is. Why shouldn’t we discuss it?’ Johnson is quoted saying in the Daily Mail.
The real fact is discussions and the study of the “black superior athletic gene” are nothing new.
In 1988 an embarrassed CBS fired Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder after the sports commentator said blacks were “bred” to be better athletes than whites.
“During the slave period, the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he could have a big black kid — that’s where it all started,” Snyder said in a television interview.
John Thomas Didymus, a journalist based in Nigeria, also points out that years earlier an African-American social scientists argued the theory was offensive because it encourages ‘black brawn vs. white brains’ stereotyping. “Most sociologists think that Americans and Caribbeans of West African descent excel in sports because circumstances of economic, social and cultural disadvantage predisposes them to take up sport as the most accessible avenue to self-fulfillment,” Didymus wrote on Digitaljournal.com.
Black American sociologist Harry Edwards debunked the notion of the “black superior athletic gene” in 1971: “The myth of the black male’s racially determined, inherent physical and athletic superiority over the white male, rivals the myth of black sexual superiority in antiquity.”
“The argument about the existence of an ‘athletic gene’ has a long sordid history. It is grounded in white supremacist ideology rather than science and fact,” David Leonard, professor of Ethnic Studies at Washington State University and author of the recently published “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness,” told Colorlines.com.
“In attributing athletic success to an “athletic gene,” in attributing excellence in certain sports, Michael Johnson and others obscure the dedication and hard work required to become a world-class athlete - the blood, sweat, and tears get washed away in an instant,” Leonard went on to say. “These baseless arguments, which in a way celebrates white supremacy and the history of slavery, further erases the social, cultural, and institutional context all of which play an important role in not only producing the next great sprinters but also the next great equestrian stars.”