Christophe Lemaitre: Pretty Fly for a White Guy

France's Christophe Lemaitre became the first white man to run the 100 meters in under 10 seconds when he clocked 9.98 on Friday. Untold blacks have done it since 1968.

“France’s Christophe Lemaitre became the first white man to run the 100 meters in under 10 seconds when he clocked 9.98 on Friday, ” Reuters reports.

Matt Yglesias gets off what I presume is some snark:  “This is already making me uncomfortable. Are we going to administer some kind of genetic test to Lemaitre to check him for African genetic material? Does the one drop rule apply in these situations?”

Since there is no official record keeping of sporting statistics by race and thus no need for verification regimes, I take the story as a mere interesting footnote.

What is remarkable, however, is just how slow whites are in sprint events. Lemaitre’s time is a full four-tenths of a second off Usain Bolt’s world record.  American Jim Hines first broke the 10 second barrier 42 years ago — more than two decades before Lemaitre was born — and with a faster time than Lemaitre’s recent achievement.

I should note, too, that no such racial barriers exist in long distance running.  If one looks at the world record progression for the marathon, for instance, we see that the early winners were (presumably white) Europeans.   But Son Kitei of Japan held the record as early as 1935.  This was followed by a 17 year period of domination by Asians and then a very diverse group of record holders — Europeans, Russians, Americans, Aussies, Latin Americans — over the years.  Africans have come to dominate over the last dozen years but the history of the event makes one think others will still have a chance.

Photo: Daylife

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I wonder just how fast Steve Jobs is in the 100 metre dash? I know which I would rather be good at.

  2. sam says:

    @JJ

    “I should note, too, that no such racial barriers exist in long distance running.”

    But there may be a sexual barrier as women seem to be better at ultramarathons than men: Do women have an ultra-advantage? – ultra-marathons and Could women outrun men in ultramarathon races?. Which is all pretty interesting given that I can remember when the women weren’t allowed to run in the Boston Marathon.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @sam:

    It’s an interesting issue. Certainly, women seem superior at distance swimming, owing to increased buoyancy. I’d be surprised if women surpassed men at some point in running, but then humans just aren’t built for running 100 miles or more at a clip.

  4. sam says:

    You would or wouldn’t be surprised?

  5. James Joyner says:

    I would, simply since we haven’t found a distance yet where it happens. All we know is that the differences seem to narrow over longer distance, presumably as slow-twitch muscles replace fast-twist as the drivers. But I don’t know what about female physiology would be more advantageous at, say, 100 miles that would overcome men’s seeming advantages in height and muscle mass.

  6. John says:

    I’m not really sure what to make of this article, or the comments. Is this conjecture that different races have the natural ability to perform certain tasks better than other races? It strikes me as quite silly altogether.

    If short distance sprints mattered to a certain race, country, or group they would in turn be quite good at that task.

  7. James Joyner says:

    If short distance sprints mattered to a certain race, country, or group they would in turn be quite good at that task.

    Your evidence that white people stopped carrying about sprints circa 1930 is . . . . ?

    While it’s waned here, the Europeans remain enthusiastic fans of track and field. And yet not one of them has cracked the 10 second barrier until now? Despite it having been done hundreds (thousands?) of times over the past 42 years by blacks? Something aside from interest is going on here.

  8. Drew says:

    Heh, but can Christophe float?

  9. just me says:

    Well I think science shows that certain musculature, body types, wing spans etc can be an advantage in certain sports that make them most likely to perform well, so I suspect that there is probably something that allows for the better performance at elite levels by African Americans in sprint events.

    I don’t think there is anything horribly racist in wondering why there is the performance difference, and actually think figuring out why is interesting.

  10. tom p says:

    ***I don’t think there is anything horribly racist in wondering why there is the performance difference, and actually think figuring out why is interesting.***

    Could it be horribly “anti-racist” to think that the difference is environmental? (you know, no micky D’s, no KFC, no Taco Hell, no ice cream, no bacon, no corn syrup, etc)

  11. John says:

    James, the article proves it is doable so what are we really debating? When you talk about specialty skills such as running a fast 100m or running an ultra marathon you begin to talk about sports specific training.

    I can think of unlimited examples where a certain race or culture appears to dominate because of “natural” ability but when we see that sport or skill advance in other parts of the world, suddenly there is an explosion of elite performances coming from all over the globe.

    – Yao Ming is the first of a wave of basketball players coming from the heretofore basketball-poor nation of China.
    – Shawnee Davis is a very successful black athlete in a 99.9% white sport
    – Ichiro is not only a baseball hitting fool but possesses speed and athleticism we rarely associate with his countrymen.

    White guys can’t jump…except when it comes to volleyball. Black guys don’t make good quarterbacks because the position is too cerebral…Donovan McNabb.

    The entire diatribe reads like reports of pre-Jack Johnson boxing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Johnson_(boxer)

    I’m not naive enough to believe that there is not a genetic difference on some macro level but the difference is much smaller than you’ve made it out to be. A much more plausible explanation lies at the feet of interest. And to underscore that point I reposition your question – name one single athletic endeavor that is represented solely by one race due to God-given genetic characteristics.

  12. James Joyner says:

    I’m not naive enough to believe that there is not a genetic difference on some macro level but the difference is much smaller than you’ve made it out to be.

    I’m not making the difference out to be mostly genetic. Indeed, the fact that no what man had heretofore achieved a sprint milestone that has been simply routine at the world class level for several decades surprised the hell out of me. I knew blacks dominated sprints, of course, but didn’t realize it was THAT profound.

    Also, white Russian and Central European women seem to do fine in sprints. Their male peers? Not so much.

    I actually haven’t the foggiest idea what the answer is. I doubt it’s any one factor.

    Ind

  13. rodney dill says:

    This article at least implies that is is a genetic difference.

    I don’t think there is anything horribly racist in wondering why there is the performance difference, and actually think figuring out why is interesting.

    I don’t think there is anything racist at all in trying to explain the performance difference.
    Yet, If you applied the same analysis to ‘intelligence’ you’d probably be accused of racism by someone.

    Just as there are physical traits may allow blacks, asians, or whites to slightly edge the other groups out in competition, there are intelligence traits that would allow one group to slightly edge the other groups out in mental matters. It would surprise me if the difference was great enough to matter in real world application.

  14. rodney dill says:
  15. John says:

    While the issue seems settled I did think of a great example after my last post that might illustrate my point more concisely and with a better physical specialty metric.

    I recently read an article that touched on the upper levels of human potential in light of Usain Bolt’s accomplishments. As it turns out, humans have the potential to run much faster than Bolt. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=5349284

    One natural talent specific activity (which is really what we’re discussing here) where we have established 100% of human potential is hurling a baseball. The upper limits of potential for the human body to consistently throw a baseball sized object top out at roughly 100 mph. How do we know this? Historically those who top that number repeatedly fall victim to injury as physics and physiology collide. See Joel Zumaya most recently.

    In reviewing a non-comprehensive list (although for this purpose, certainly a large enough sample size) of pitchers to top out over 100mph in the last 36 years we see only 2 African-Americans among a list of over 45 pitchers to achieve that feet in a game. Should we conclude that there is a special physical talent that is unique to Caucasians and Latinos? Or that 100.5mph is an untouchable milestone for African-Americans?

    I respect the discussion we’re having here, but the principles, at least in my mind, are non-transferable.

  16. John says:
  17. Wayne says:

    Re “But there may be a sexual barrier as women seem to be better at ultramarathons than men”

    You may want to check the actual times and records for those. Male records and top performers still have significantly quicker times compared to females even in ultramarathons. Remember to be wary at looking at creative stats. They can be manipulated to imply something that is not true.

    As for racial advantages in any area, it will probably be a long time before we know because it is to PC controversial to be examined or properly discussed.

  18. Wayne says:

    Sorry once again for my grammar and spelling.