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1968 Olympic Gold Medalist Lee Evans makes a point during Thursday's roundtable discussion with professor Tehama Lopez-Bunyasi in the background

Photographer: Jonathan Adams

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The panelists included (L-R): Mariana Dantas, Anthony Frampton, Tehama Lopez-Bunyasi and Lee Evans

Photographer: Jonathan Adams

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Moderator Mariana Dantas (center) talks during the conference while conference co-coordinator Gerard Akindes (left) and Anthony Frampton (right) listen closely

Photographer: Jonathan Adams

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Olympian Lee Evans joins panel to discuss black athlete success

Panel part of annual Sports in Africa and the Global South Conference


Genetics, the slave trade and African colonization were a few of the topics addressed during a Thursday, April 11, roundtable discussion during the 10th annual Sports in Africa and the Global South Conference.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans was one of three panelists asked to discuss former Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson's "Survival of the Fastest" documentary. The controversial documentary credits much of the success of black athletes to an elite genetics pool that is a byproduct of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Johnson's documentary claims that since only the strongest slaves survived the travels of the slave trade. During the Atlantic Ocean crossings, which Johnson claims had a mortality rate of between 50 and 96 percent, only the slaves with higher testosterone, thicker skin and more advanced muscles could survive the beatings, low-oxygen levels and inhumane treatment. He suggests that these resilient and determined slaves eventually were used to breed more slaves and are now the ancestors of some of the greatest athletes in the world.

Panel moderator Mariana Dantas, a History and Latin American Studies professor at Ohio University, immediately shot down Johnson's theory by stating that his Atlantic crossings mortality rates are too high and there is no evidence that there was ever systematic breeding of slaves in the United States. She said she was disappointed that Johnson felt like he needed to explain why black athletes are so successful other than hard work and determination.

Throughout the discussion, Evans gave several reasons why he didn't agree with Johnson's theory.

"I chose track and field as my sport, but my siblings didn't become great sprinters despite having the same genetics," Evans said.

Evans also said that according to Johnson's theory, we would be able to pick out the darkest black athletes and they would be the fastest and most athletic because they are probably the most closely related to African slaves.

Evans said he believes that blacks as well as other races of people tend to excel in sports that they love and work hard to be good at. He discussed his time living in Kenya coaching track athletes. He told the audience that for the Kenyans, running long distances is a way of life and is a result of years of dedicated training and hard work.

"We (blacks) tend to like playing basketball, but not so much volleyball," Evans said. "That is why we are successful in basketball. We work hard at being good at it."

His point was that both sports involve jumping and running, but blacks don't have the same interest in volleyball compared to basketball. He said hard work is the key and that he was successful because felt like he trained harder than anyone else.

Political Science professor Tehama Lopez-Bunyasi said she doesn't research sports or biology, but she had been an athlete while growing up and also realizes that many people still embrace the stereotype that being black makes someone a great athlete. She added that since this stereotype has some positive elements, it may lead people to embrace it because it means that blacks gained something positive from slavery.

Panelist Anthony Frampton from Bowling Green State University said Johnson's theory is a double-edged sword because it rebukes the longstanding idea that white people are physically and mentally superior to black people, while also playing into the hands of racists who believe there are major differences between blacks and whites and that race does matter.

Despite agreeing with the other panelists that Johnson's theory is questionable, Frampton warned that we all must have an open mind to it because there is research that has proven that certain people have unique genetic advantages in some areas.

"Research has shown that East Africans have more oxygen producing enzymes that lead to greater endurance," Frampton said. "Science is usually wrong when it is applied to race, but we must enter the debate and do our research because both sides have made good points."

The three-day Sports in Africa and the Global South Conference concluded with several more panel discussions and roundtables as well as a keynote address on Friday by Martha Saavedra of the University of California-Berkeley.