The sprinting prowess of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean people in general and Jamaicans in particular is legendary and is demanding of serious scientific enquiry and research.
It cannot be coincidence that over the years the fastest men and women in the world were born in Jamaica. Herb McKinley, Arthur Wint, Donald Quarrie, Linford Christie, Donovan Bailey, Ben Johnson, Bert Cameron, Michael Frater, Asafa Powell, Merlene Ottey, Sherone Simpson, Veronica Campbell, Deon Hemmings, Bridgette Foster-Hylton and Sanya Richards come readily to mind.
Neither is it a coincidence that in the 2005 World Championships 100-metre men's final, three of the eight finalists were Jamaicans - Michael Frater, Dwight Thomas, and Asafa Powell, while Kim Collins, the defending champion, was from St. Kitts and Nevis, while three others were African-Americans, the latter representing a country over 100 times the population of Jamaica.
Notable Caribbean sprinters include Kim Collins, Hasley Crawford, Ato Bolden and Darrel Brown from Trinidad and Tobago, Obadele Thompson from Barbados, while the sprinting prowess of the Bahamian women is well known. The great black (and beautiful) French female sprinters Marie-Jose Perec and Christine Arron are both from the Caribbean French Island, Guadeloupe, while Bruny Surin a great black Canadian sprinter was born in Haiti.
While it is clear that good sport administration, excellent coaching, proper nutrition and adequate funding and facilities are vital to achieving athletic greatness, in the absence of raw athletic sprinting ability this will not occur.
I wish to propose a hypothesis that addresses not only the aspect of Jamaica's raw athletic talent, but also encompasses an explanation of seemingly diverse phenomena as our high incidence of prostate cancer (one study found it to be by far the highest in the world at 304 / 100,000 men / year), our high crime rate (murder capital of the world status earlier this year), our high road traffic accident and fatality rate, and our alleged high levels of promiscuity.
What do these seemingly disparate phenomena, characteristic of Jamaican life, have in common? On close examination these phenomena are manifestations of high levels of aggressiveness and drive, high libidos, highly efficient muscles from persons of lean body mass and black ethnicity. On closer scrutiny all of these phenomena are either related to high circulating levels of testosterone or alternatively to high levels of responsiveness of testosterone receptors to circulating testosterone.
It has already been shown that the testosterone receptors of blacks are different genetically to those of whites and this difference confers increased responsiveness to testosterone. I propose that Jamaicans of primarily African descent have even greater testosterone responsiveness than blacks anywhere else.
The middle passage
But why should this be? I believe the answer to this lies in the slave ship routes within the Caribbean and the New World.
First, let us assume that all Africans who survived the trek from the African interior to the West African coast and subsequently the middle passage would have been more or less subject to the same inhumane conditions which would have produced a severe selection pressure that enabled only the fittest slaves to survive the journey.
My hypothesis is that for each incremental increase in the journey travelled, once the slave ships entered the Caribbean, there was a corresponding selection pressure which ensured that only the fittest of the fit slaves survived and furthermore the traits which enabled survival were somehow dependent on high levels of responsiveness to testosterone.
Characteristics such as aggression, determination, drive, strong bones, lean body mass, high surface area to body mass ratio, highly efficient and responsive muscles were probably all important for survival and are testosterone-dependent.
Since Jamaica was one of the last stops to be made by the slave ships it ensured that only the most resilient and fittest of slaves were alive to disembark in Jamaica.
This hypothesis is supported by a number of observations. African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean people are represented far more frequently in sprinting events than persons from Africa. Even more interesting is that as one goes westward within the Caribbean, sprinting prowess becomes more prevalent and reaches its peak by the time Jamaica and Bahamas are reached.
This hypothesis in no way minimises the important contributions of good sport administration, excellent coaching and proper nutrition but rather looks at one aspect of the puzzle in attempting to explain the raw athletic talent that seems to be disproportionately high in Jamaicans.
Dr. William Aiken is the head of Urology at the University Hospital of the West Indies and president of the Jamaica Urological Society; email: email@example.com.