« Serial Killers | Main | Race and IQ »



Yes. That's a huge population. You're going to get a good freak of nature or two.

(Oh boy, here comes that Sailer guy.)

Michael Terry

That's cool, if that's as far as this argument extends, but it doesn't sound like it. Don't you dare pretend there's a cultural explanation for, say, North American blacks dominating the sprint events. If you don't think there are genetic differences in sporting abilities among races[1], you haven't played much of the most popular North American sports.

When some folks in science allow taboos to muddle their thinking, it casts into doubt the entire enterprise of science, which I can't stand. Science has to be better than that!

Some anecdotal evidence is too persuasive to ignore. Contradict it at the expense of science's credibility.

Why do blacks dominate pro basketball? I hope you're not immediately trying to come up with a rationalization that makes it cultural. Professional athletes are at the top of the totem pole. Any white American would risk anything, just like any black American, to have all the money and women and celebrity he could dream of.

I'm sure there's an "economics" way to express it, but the point is that NBA stars exist at such a high level above most blacks and whites that there's very little difference in incentive between them.

Watch an NBA game. Are you telling me you can't detect a general difference between the grace and power of black versus white players? You don't think that difference might relate to how well they play certain sports?

As I say, when science[1] (and I am a huge lover of it) refuses to acknowledge blatant reality, and it's easy for dumb people to perceive it, dumb people will question it's validity. I see this ALL THE TIME. It's a very real, very practical problem.

[1] Yes, I know you mentioned countries, but I think you're being mealy-mouthed.

[2] Actually, I mean scientists. Science can't help it when it's used wrong.


And they reason they have a million schoolboys running 10-12 miles a day?

I guess it's just turtles all the way down.

Malcolm Gladwell

I think the reason they have a million schoolboys running 10-12 miles a day is the same as the reason Canada has a million schoolboys playing hockey four times a week. They like it.


It's not hockey. It's not even soccer. It's a feat most people would consider a punishing test of stamina at any age. Kids all over the world voluntarily participate in team sports. Kids all over the world do not spontaneously run half marathons for fun.

Explaining away an anomaly with another unexplained anomaly leaves us with exactly the same number of open questions.

Christopher Horn


I suspect the thought experiment is a bit of a tautology.

If the US had 50,000 runners training innumerable hours per week, at altitude, would we dominate distance running?

Of course.

And if the US had 50,000 Leopold Mozart's forcing their small children to endure innumerable hours practicing chords on the piano, we would no doubt usher in an unprecedented era of accomplishment in musical composition.

Andrew Fox

Tim Noakes, in his Lore of Running, has dealt with this. Unsurprisngly, it is complicated.


I think I've agreed with you, Malcolm, on almost all of your theories, but not with this one. Surely you're not discounting the genetic factor of higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibres?


@ Michael Terry:

If African Americans are the best pro-basketball players then how do you explain them getting beat by international (majority non-Black) teams?

I bet if you compared the pool of young Black sport hopefuls vs young White sport hopefuls you would get a similar Kenyan-vs-US ratio.

There are simply more young Blacks who are trying to "make it" in sports than there are young Whites.


Link to the Sports Illustrated article:



It seems to me that the purported genetic component of success in running is much more straightforward than any genetic component of success in, say, hockey.

For one thing, there are numerous ways to be successful in hockey (e.g., there are numerous positions with different skillsets), whereas success in long distance running pretty much comes in one flavor, namely 'run faster than the other runners.'


Who cares if the US becomes dominant in long distance running? Wouldn't the biggest positive to doing this experiment be that it might solve our childhood obesity problem in the US and promote life-long healthy activity and ultimately affect health care utlization...

Usa Magica

Is the same with Russia and chess, a matter of statistics.

Chess in Russian is not as import as 20 years ago but they have so many good players all over the country they still have World Class candidates year after year.

Aeroflot tournament in Moscow is probably the toughest Open in the World of chess and it is only because a lot of "non professional" chess players from Moscow play there. Professionals from all over the world are fighting with the "amateurs" from Moscow and suffering and losing quite often.


I want to expand on my point from earlier. There are successful hockey and baseball players of all sorts of body shapes and sizes, but you not in long distance running. Every successful long distance runner is relatively short and very skinny, and, as Denisines pointed out, the ratio of slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscles plays a big role in the ability to compete in sports like this.

Based on some rudimentary web-based 'reasearch', it also looks like the Kalenjin (a Nilotic ethnic group from western Kenya) dominate the running scene among Kenyans more generally. Of course, this could be due to genetics, cultural effects, or, as seems most likely to me, both.


I disagree. It is true that having a huge pool of talent to draw from is a valid explanation, but that does not mean it is the only one. Different races have different body types as norms, wouldn't it stand to reason that they might have different natural advantages in their variations?


I may as well add my 2 cents on this one. Slovenia has a little less than 2 million people, but we have 5 NBA players, except of one 4 are playing quite regularly . So it makes it 400,000 people per Nba player. I just wanted to share it with you


I'm surprised that none of the hypothesis mention peer-pressure.

Kenyans simply have a stronger peer pressure to run faster. An American school-kid who runs a 6-minute mile is the fastest kid in his class and has no incentive to work harder. If this same American kid lived in Kenya, he would feel pressured to work harder and would eventually become faster.

It's a matter of how good are the people you're competing against. The same phenomenon occurs with Dominicans in baseball and Brazilians in soccer.
Dozens of countries around the world have soccer as their main sport and kids exhaustively playing it every day. But why do Brazilian kids grow to be so much better?

I moved from Brazil to the US when I was 12 years old. I remember feeling like a super-star even when playing soccer against older kids and adults. Did I have more "ball hours"? No. Did I have superior genetics? No.

It's just that the people I played against in Brazil were so much better that I was involuntarily forced to improve my game to a higher competitive level.

I agree that both the genetic factor and the absolute number factor play a role in sports superiority. However, I see cultural phenomenon and peer pressure as stronger factors.


Growing up with a classical music background, I noticed that many of Julliard's best young musicians were Asian. Were Asians somehow inherently more musical, or was it that they were driven and encouraged by their families to practice incessantly?
I think it was the latter.
The Caucasian musicians who propelled themselves to almost olympic levels of musical endurance also became some of the best. Great genes don't hurt, but cultural expectation is everything.

Cap'n Transit

Nice to see you blogging again, Malcolm.

Salazar gave the reason that they do it, and you edited it out of the quote: "That's how they get to and from school." Clearly they don't have school buses, and their parents don't drop them off in minivans. They get bored walking to school, so they run.

This is confirmed by Tim Layden in a 2001 SI article:


"After many years of hearing that Kenyan children develop early aerobic capacity by running to school, I found this myth to be ... pretty much true. To be fair, I saw more small children walking than running, but I also saw dozens and dozens of slender boys and girls, wearing school uniforms, running lightly along the endless rural red-clay highways of western Kenya. They moved beautifully through thin air, as if running was a natural act, which it can be."

More importantly, they CAN run 5-6 miles each way to school because the roads are a lot safer there than here. If ten percent of the kids at every elementary school in the U.S. started running to school we'd have a bloodbath on our hands. On the other hand, if fifty percent of the kids started running to school, there might be safety in numbers.


Cap'n Transit

Also, the secondary-school age population of Kenya is apparently more than five million.


If Salazar's figure of a million schoolkids running is right, that's twenty percent of the school age population. If we're just talking about the 2.5 million schoolBOYS, that's forty percent.



In a team sport, talent is only part of the equation. Groups of mid-talent players who play together over time learn to use each player's strengths when it benefits the game play and can often beat a 'team of stars' who all want the ball all the time. We loose because we don't have a national team that stays together.

Basketball has also gone international and the world-wide pool of talent is now huge.

Lots of reasons we loose that have nothing to do with race based reasons.

I don't know enough about good research on slow/fast twitch fibers to know if there is or is not a difference.

FWIW, I think race is a crappy way to cluster people. We are all human and the use of visible markers to segregate people into 'races' is kind of stupid.

Arata Mitsumatsu

Hmmm, the never ending Genetic:Effort ratio discussion. You can always find scientific evidence for both.

I'd start at 30:70 (genetic:effort) as Ned Herrman suggested.

Even if you are born gifted with 30 and did nothing, you will obviously lose against someone who practiced 40 but was born with nothing.

I used to run 10miles per day in Junior high and made one of the top 6 in a national competition in Japan. Although not even close to an olympic level.

Obviously I may have made a 70 effort but was short on the 30 part from a global perspective.

1.Is it a number game? Yes
2.Is it a genetic thing? Yes
3.Does race have something to do with it? go back to 1

by the way slow/fast twitch fibers ratio changes with training.


I beg to differ,malcolm,though it's rare.

Number game?How about China?The nation with the largest population in the world.And take Soccer,which is about the most popular sports game in China.You can't possibly barge into a fourteen-year-old chinese teenager's home without spotting a soccer ball somewhere under his bed.It's a national craze.
and PLAY FOOTBALL first chance they got.

BUT STILL,Chinese soccer team has only entered the worldcup ONCE(by sheer luck,I'd note),and went home without a single goal scored.

And it's not like the INCENTIVE is not huge.In China making it into Chinese national soccer team(or maybe even just a provincial team) equals earning a wharton MBA degree and getting hired by a FORTUNE 500 company.The pay package is excellent,so are a lot of other privileges,not to mention being treated like a CELEBRITY(He may not play football very well,but he sure is best player we found so far).

Number game?Try Chinese Soccer!
(PS:As a quite remarkable contrast,Korea and Japna beat us a lot in football.You don't need me to tell you the population and size of the two countries,do you?)


In relation to Chinese Soccer, they simply haven't caught up yet in terms of skilled players raising the level of other players - that takes time.

I will say anecdotally that the level of competition that you are playing against and their expectations play a large part in what you can do and what you think you have to be able to do.

I grew up in FL playing basketball - it was an expectation in my school (area) that at 6' tall you could dunk if you played basketball - whether you were black or white. Guess what, every kid at or near that height spent a lot of time trying to do so.

If you were black, it was even more of an expectation, and other black kids gave you a hard time if you couldn't. So guess what you did, you figured out what exercises would help with jumping and did them. And you kept trying to jump higher.

I have friends from locations where this wasn't as big an issue and there was less pressure - and they could never dunk despite their size. It was all about expectation and constant effort. I won't say genetics don't play a part, but I think it has a lot more to do with effort and competition.


Malcolm, you have part of the answer to the long time debate but not all of it. I live in Canada now but grew up in Kenya. As such, I'm constantly asked by people here what it is that makes Kenyan distance runners that good.

I think it's a combination of a number of factors rather than just one. These include climate, altitude, "peer pressure" (as Pedro noted), diet, culture and, most importantly, economics.

My boss once asked me, "what's the difference between a rabbit and a fox?" Well, the fox is running for dinner and the rabbit is running for its life. Kenyan runners are running for their lives. Most if not all of the Kenyan runners that win marathons originally come from poor backgrounds. As such, running was their way out.

They were always running as kids be it running to school in the morning, running "cross-country" (a common cost effective after school activity in Kenya). Getting paid to do it later in life then becomes a no-brainer.

Also, as kids, they had runners like Kipchoge Keino and John Ngugi to look up to. These runners became "rich" by winning marathons. Winning a single marathon nets you $50,000 and in some cases Mercedes Benz as a bonus. That one win alone is enough for many Kenyan families to retire on. $50,000 can be invested in a farm or some other business that'll support the familiy.

Contrast that with an American or Japanese runner who's running for 'dinner'. They simply can't compete given their different motivations. Further, given the stiff competition there is to get on any Kenyan team, the Kenyan runner has no guarantee that'll they'll make the next team and, as such, this could be their only shot.

On the question of why so many NBA players are black, I'd imagine that being a function of "peer pressure". Being a good 'baller' is a sign of status amongst black kids. It sure was when I was growing up. It was never about how well you did in school. If anything, doing well in school just got your labelled a nerd. However, if you could 'throw it down on someone' or 'break someone's ankles', then you were the big man on campus.

Compare that with private schools, which are predominantly white, being good at sports gets you no where and you sure as hell don't want to be the dumb kid in the class.

Culture and economics. Rabbits and foxes. Nuff' said.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo


  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

    My great claim to fame is that I'm from the town where they invented the BlackBerry. My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions.

My Website


  • What the Dog Saw

    buy from amazon


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK

    Tipping Point

    buy from amazon

Recent Articles

Blog powered by Typepad