Johnson said: "Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me – I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us."
reports he said: "Over the last few years, athletes of Afro- Caribbean and Afro-American descent have dominated athletics finals. It’s a fact that hasn’t been discussed openly before. It’s a taboo subject in the States, but it is what it is. Why shouldn’t we discuss it?"
According Johnson, "It is currently being researched to see how much of a factor being descended from slaves contributes to athletic ability."
Sports commentators before Johnson have noted the commanding presence of Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbean athletes at the Olympic games. Daily Mail
notes that all the eight 100m finalists at the last Olympics were athletes believed to be descendants of West Africans shipped to the "New World" as slaves. Three were Jamaicans, two were from Trinidad and Tobago and two were Afro-Americans. An athlete of Dutch Caribbean descent from the Island of Curacao represented the Netherlands.
asks: "Why is it that all the athletes that lined up for the men's 100m final at the Beijing Olympics (2008) could trace their ancestry back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade?"
Scientists who are favorably disposed to the argument say that, given the extreme conditions African slaves were subjected to, only the fittest survived. They argue that strong selective pressure for physical fitness that their slave ancestors were subjected to may explain the tendency of African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans to produce world-record-shattering athletes.
The reigning Olympic 100m champion Usain Bolt, for instance, was born in Trelawny Parish, Jamaica — an area that was the site of several slave plantations.
reports that Jamaica, the last stop of the slavery trail, was the toughest for the human cargo to the Americas. A trans-Atlantic voyage in 1732 ended with loss of 96 per cent of the slaves. According to historians, only six of the original 170 slaves that started the journey from the West African "slave coast" survived.
Dr Rachael Irving, a Jamaican geneticist, reportedly said: "There was not much oxygen on slave ships so they had to use whatever they had to survive." Herb Elliot, doctor to the Jamaican Olympic team said that only the most aggressive and fiercest slaves ended up in Jamaica.
According to Daily Mail
, Johnson had a DNA test done for a documentary titled "Michael Johnson: Survival Of The Fastest." The test confirmed he is of West African descent. He said: "All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations. Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me – I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us."
Johnson's theory has for long been a controversial subject in the US. The controversy about genetically determined sports superiority of African Americans dates back to Jesse Owens's
record-breaking performances at the 1935 Big Ten Track Championships which the Nazis had hoped would give opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of Aryan "Ubermensch."
A disappointed Hitler reportedly commented
about Owens's success: "People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive. Their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games."
However, many African American social scientists vehemently reject the theory that descendants of African slaves have "superior athletic genes." They argue that the theory is offensive because it encourages "black brawn vs. white brains" stereotyping. Most sociologists think that Americans and Caribbeans of West African descent excel in sports because circumstances of economic, social and cultural disadvantage predisposes them to take up sport as the most accessible avenue to self-fulfillment. Sociologists have also proposed similar social and cultural factors to explain the success of African-Americans in the entertainment industry, especially music.
African American sociologist Harry Edwards
, debunking the notion of "black superior athletic gene," wrote in 1971: "The myth of the black male's racially determined, inherent physical and athletic superiority over the white male, rivals the myth of black sexual superiority in antiquity."