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If you watched the last Olympics like me you probably also observed that most medallists in running events were black. Why is that? I discussed this with university grad friends and researchers and we only came up with hypotheses but nobody had an actual explanation. Is it cultural, genetic, other reasons or nobody really know?

Update:

Sprint and distance running requiring different attributes for being the best, let separate this question in two parts: 1) Sprint (i.e. 100m) and 2) Distance running (@Forest already provided a great answer for this).

Note: I know this question can potentially bring disrespectful answers/comments, but I'm hopeful that this site and its members can answer this interesting question. Otherwise, I'll simply erase my question.

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    $\begingroup$ Related post: Athletes: nature vs. nurture? $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Sep 2 '16 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ Matthew Syed covers this in his book "Bounce", which I highly recommend. In summary: Many of the fastest runners are not only black, but also Kenyan, and not only Kenyan but from a specific village in Kenya. This village has a training track at a high altitude, and also the entire village hero-worships all fast runners, which encourages people to really give it their all from a young age. Your question is more general, but I imagine there are many effects like this in many communities of people (Syed also points out that all the top UK Table Tennis players are from one neighbourhood) $\endgroup$ – Sixhobbits Sep 2 '16 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ I wanted to know why 0 swimmers were black. My darker friend said he'd ask at the next meeting of black folk, but he hasn't gotten back to me yet. $\endgroup$ – Chloe Sep 3 '16 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Chloe uh, a black American won gold in swimming. $\endgroup$ – BruceWayne Sep 3 '16 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ The title of this question isn't asking the same thing as the body of the question. "The fastest runners tend to be black" is not the same as "Black people tend to be fast runners". $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Sep 3 '16 at 22:29
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It's an interesting question and one that has been asked before. NPR did a story in 2013 on this topic, but their question was a bit more focused than just "why are so many black people good runners?"

The observation that led to their story wasn't just that black people in general were over-represented among long-distance running medalists, but that Kenyans in particular were over-represented. Digging deeper, the story's investigators found that the best runners in Kenya also tended to come from the same tribal group: the Kalenjin.

I'm not going to repeat all the details in that story (which I encourage you to read), but the working answer that the investigators came up with is that there are both genetic traits and certain cultural practices that contribute to this tribe's success on the track. Unfortunately, from the point of view of someone who wants a concise answer, it is very difficult to separate and quantify the exact contributions that each genetic and cultural modification makes to the runners' successes.

Pubmed also has a number of peer-reviewed papers detailing the Kalenjin running phenomenon, but I could only find two with free full-access and neither had the promising title of "Analysis of the Kenyan distance-running phenomenon," for which you have to pay. Insert annoyed frowning face here.

I did a quick search of some Kenyan gold medalist runners in the 2016 Olympics and sure enough, several (though certainly not all) are Kalenjin. I'm less sure about the Ethiopian runners, since most research that I found online seems to focus on the Kenyans, but I'd feel safe hypothesizing that something similar can explain their dominance at the podium.

So, the short answer to your question is that it's not just "black people" who dominate the world of competitive long-distance running, but that very specific subsets of people (who, as it turns out, are black) do display a competitive advantage and that both genetics and culture account for much of this advantage.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer, I did listen at the Radio Lab podcast (radiolab.org/story/runners) about this story few years ago and this is actually what sparkled my interest. It answers the long distance running, however my question is more related to the sprints (i.e. 100m). In Rio, male and female medallists were black but none of them were from Africa (Males = 1st Jam, 2nd USA, 3rd Can; Females = 1st Jam, 2nd USA, 3rd Jam). Maybe we'll need more studies about Jamaican sprinters? $\endgroup$ – Mud Warrior Sep 3 '16 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MudWarrior Gotcha - I didn't look into the sprinters. At a passing glance, I don't see a trend similar to the Kalenjin/distance runner effect. Would have to do a bit of research to even see what hypotheses to look into. Eeeenteresting...(mad scientist laugh) $\endgroup$ – Forest Sep 3 '16 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ @gaborous Thanks! I try to keep things classy and on-point. Partly, it comes with the terrain. I'm a science journalist, which demands some tact when reporting certain topics. :-) $\endgroup$ – Forest Sep 3 '16 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ @MudWarrior - Jamaica is not necessarily a meaningful factor - the genetic lines that affect things likely far predate the arrival of ancestors of those runners to Jamaica within last 500 years, and you can't know if the specific winners actually did ultimately descend from Kalenjin ancestry just by where they are born in 21st century. $\endgroup$ – DVK Sep 4 '16 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Forest I found a source for the paper you mentioned: researchgate.net/publication/… $\endgroup$ – Koga Sep 4 '16 at 2:56
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Take a look at Will Grover's answer here, I will cite the genetic diveristy explantion here, I think that sounds the most logical:

Genetic Diversity
This is my favorite answer, and the one that makes the most sense to me: Africans are more genetically diverse than other groups; in fact, they find that the further you are from Africa, generally the less genetically diverse you are. So you would expect to see some groups who are faster than others, or slower, stronger, smaller etc. Massive Genetic Study Supports "Out of Africa" Theory. There is a great Fresh Air podcast that describes this as well (thank you Jay Hobson for providing the link!) Talent Or Skill?: Homing In On The Elusive 'Sports Gene'

Because of more genetic diversity you will have more "choice" when it comes to natural selection. Maybe because those people were there first they were exposed to threats which required more strength or speed. So maybe that's the cause— I'm just guessing.

Update

I Found another interesting theory: African people have most of the time another type of muscle fiber(Type II) instead of Type I. Appeareantly Type II is more reddisch --> more hemoglobin --> more oxygen --> more endurance. take a look at this article.

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    $\begingroup$ Good suggestion @Rick Beeloo. I also found another hypothesis (see my answer below). $\endgroup$ – Mud Warrior Sep 2 '16 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ How does the genetic diversity of Western black people (say Jamaicans) compare to that of Western whites (e.g. Americans)... Black populations outside of Africa often come from recently bottlenecked populations $\endgroup$ – rg255 Sep 2 '16 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ Also your answer is mainly just text lifted from elsewhere with a guess pinned to the end of it, so it's a downvote from me as I don't think it's a good quality answer (if you improve it I am happy to make it an upvote) $\endgroup$ – rg255 Sep 2 '16 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Every answer is based on text elsewhere no one knows everything at birth right? But I understand your critic. @rg255 $\endgroup$ – KingBoomie Sep 3 '16 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ Although if we overgeneralize, the genetic diversity argument may be true, it is so bland that in any other case, we would not accept it. Problem with genetic diversity is that most of it is in neutral alleles. When speaking about particular trait, this answer is just not sufficient. One group with higher genetic diversity could have low diversity in particular trait, while other group with smaller overall genetic diversity could be highly diverse. It depends on particular evolutionary pressures. $\endgroup$ – Colombo Sep 4 '16 at 21:06
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I also found this hypothesis from a scientific paper which suggests that asian and white people have a lower center of gravity than black people. See the general explanation:

Blacks tend to have longer limbs with smaller circumferences, meaning that their centers of gravity are higher compared to whites of the same height," said Adrian Bejan, Jones' co-author, an engineering professor at Duke University. "Asians and whites tend to have longer torsos, so their centers of gravity are lower."

Update:

Here's an excerpt from the abstract that explains this idea:

The world records in running tend to be set by black athletes and in swimming by white athletes. We show that this phenomenon is predictable from physics. Locomotion is a ‘falling-forward’ cycle, in which body mass falls forward and then rises again. Mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster, down and forward. In running, the altitude (L1) is set by the position of the center of mass above the ground. In swimming, the altitude is set by the upper body rising above the water, and it is proportional to H – L1, where H is the height of the athlete. The anthropometric literature shows that the center of mass in blacks is 3 percent higher above the ground than in whites. This means that blacks hold a 1.5 percent speed advantage in running, and whites hold a 1.5 percent speed advantage in swimming. Among athletes of the same height Asians are even more favored than whites in swimming but they are not setting records because they are not as tall.

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    $\begingroup$ That link (and the link therein) don't actually provide any evidence that center of gravity affects running speed, or why it would. The hyperlink that should point to an article about center of gravity height and foot speed actually links to an article about joint stress and running shoes. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Sep 2 '16 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @Matt I didn't clicked the links while reading it. It's fixed now, I've added the actual study link and it's even open access! $\endgroup$ – Mud Warrior Sep 2 '16 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ I thought it was generally accepted that the reason fast people run fast is because of a greater proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres. Why this appears to be more common in black people I do not know - maybe Rick Beeloo's answer is correct?? Any suggestion that it's to do with body geometry is heading down a very murky path in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Mr_Thyroid Sep 2 '16 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Also note that, up until Bolt's success, it was generally accepted that a sprinter shouldn't be too tall - tall athletes cannot accelerate out of the blocks as quickly and, in the 200m, cannot run the bend as successfully. Most top sprinters are around 6ft (Johan Blake 5'11", Justin Gatlin 6'1"), Bolt at 6'5" is several inches taller than almost all of his competitors. $\endgroup$ – Mr_Thyroid Sep 2 '16 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Mr_Thyroid Thanks for your input, it's not my intention to head down a murky path. I only wanted to point a published study from (what seems to me) a well-known and respectable scientist. I didn't hear about the fast-twitch muscle fibres yet, if you have time, can you make it an actual answer (including references)? This could be a quite useful input to this discussion. $\endgroup$ – Mud Warrior Sep 3 '16 at 0:43
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Scientists say it is because coloured people have higher centre of gravity in comparison to their white counterpart.

Using law of locomotion,researchers found that black sprinters have 0.15 seconds advantage over their white rivals due to higher centre of gravity,meaning they fall to the ground more quickly between each stride.

Conversely, having a lower than average centre of gravity helps white swimmers as their speed is determined by height they can get above the water

Source:Physics Spectrum Magazine edition April,2016, Arihant publication Page number:45

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protected by Chris Sep 2 '16 at 19:44

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