I suppose that the question should be turned around to "Why is it extremely rare to see black people competing in professional swimming?" because it is the absence of this phenotype while watching the Olympics that caused me to ask this question.


  1. why are there very few black people competing at world class level swimming?

While I'm here I may as well ask the question:

  1. Why are black people faster sprinters than white people when it comes to world class level?

And of course I want biological reasons.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would you downvote this? $\endgroup$
    – ODP
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ It will get downvoted because it's perceived as racist to highlight or suggest biological differences between races (I'm not saying I agree with the downvotes). The answer to your question is no, there's no biological basis, the explanation is most likely cultural. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ +1 agree with @Richard Smith, strongly disagree with the downvoters. There is nothing racist in this question, although it has to do more with anthropology than with biology. It would be like downvoting a question asking why Asian people get drunk easily because it is racist. In any case, when you downvote a question you should leave an explanation so that the question can be improved. 6 downvotes and no explanation so far. $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 6:26
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, I was sure that we had the question on Skeptics but I can’t find it now. Since the black/white divide isn’t a meaningful biological distinction (i.e. it is not correlated with genetic background – which, incidentally, is also why I cringe whenever I hear “race” applied to this, because it’s just wrong) the real reason is almost certainly cultural, not biological. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ +1 the question is not racist, but I suggest to edit the question and replace 'race' with 'phenotype'. I'm sure there is a good cultural explanation, but this does not rule out genetic basis: Asian people get drunk easily because of the DNA. Looking forward for a GWAS study of olympic players: it will be very interesting! $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 19:56

2 Answers 2


It's not biological, it's simply an education issue, and googling would give you:

Just under 70% of African-American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. Low ability merely meant they were able to splash around in the shallow end. A further 12% said they could swim but had "taught themselves".


Unlike the UK, where learning to swim is enshrined in the national curriculum except in Scotland, the ultimate responsibility in the US often lies with parents.

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    $\begingroup$ if you look at kenyan runners they have a similar acculturation to running - nearly every child there tries. on the upper end of the sport, there are genetic advantages i'm sure, but the more kids who try the sport, the more exceptional athletes will be found. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Oct 30, 2012 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ @shigeta: +1 for acculturation $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @rwst Good evidence is seen for this in the pool also - Chinese athletes are now starting to be more competitive in swimming than they used to be thanks to more training. Also it would be great to see some of the endurance athletes from developing countries, like the superb Kenyan distance runners, try cycling from a young age but the cost of the sport is generally prohibitive to those in developing countries, hence it is dominated by Europeans (and increasingly North Americans -excl. Lance now.) whereas running is free! $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ Really interesting Radiolab podcast episode about Kenyan runners here: radiolab.org/story/runners High probability of trying the sport + cultural pain tolerance + high altitude + genetics (e.g. thin ankles) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ While its true that training is important, black people do have a higher body density compared to caucasians. It is of course possible to train any type of human to swim at world-class level, but people saying that "floating just a little less well doesn't change anything" have a very dim idea of swimming technique. It's just the same as saying "being 1.5m tall will absolutely not decrease your chance to enter the NBA". $\endgroup$
    – Raoul
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 0:17

I've recently seen this video: Juan Enriquez: Will our kids be a different species?, in which the speaker discusses differences between humans currently inhabiting the planet. At one point in the video,he does touch on the olympics and mention that a lot of the Olympic powerlifters have a certain gene expression.

Power lifting is quite different from swimming, but from the top of my head, I can recall that people from east Africa excel at running. So the difference may be genetic, at least on some level.

The idea of differences between races is very "not politically correct", and as the speaker suggests, we still live int he world that remembers the Holocaust.

  • $\begingroup$ The presence of absence of any genetic effect would be completely overwhelmed by the disproportionate makeup of the pool(haha) of young swimmers. It's not impossible, but it's definitely negligible in the present day. $\endgroup$
    – Resonating
    Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 19:36

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