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Gary Younge
White on black

As a mammoth summer of sport comes to a crescendo with the Olympics, two certainties come with it. The first is that black athletes will shower themselves in glory and medals in the track events. The other is that in the minds and myths of many their success will further establish a relationship between race and sporting prowess.

Anecdotally the statistics are compelling. All the men's world running records from the 100 metres to the marathon are held by black people. No white man has ever run 100 metres in under 10 seconds - more than 200 black men have. All the finalists for the men's 100 metres in Sydney will be black.

Logic suggests this cannot be reduced to mere coincidence. But the search for an explanation would be laudable if some of the conclusions weren't so laughable. For prime among them is that black people are naturally better at sport. Their success, it is argued, is based not on conditions in the world into which they were born but what they were born into the world with.

Black people, they say, have "less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs", "smaller chest cavities", "a higher centre of gravity", "a longer arm span", "faster patellar tendon reflex", "greater body density", higher levels of plasma testosterone" and a "higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles". So there you go. Let us forget for a minute the glaring inconsistencies. The absence of black women from the equation; the history of race-mixing that makes race science a nonsense; that west African athletes, who are presumably of a similar racial make-up to their distant African-American cousins, do not excel at athletics; or that black athletic excellence does not extend to the likes of archery or rowing. Never mind all that. Black athletes do well because it is in their genes. On your marks. Get set. Go. I'll race you to the bell curve.

Those who hoped that Joe Louis felled such theories in 1938 when he knocked out the Nazi poster boy Max Schmeling are in for a shock. Racial determinism is back in vogue. Earlier this year the home secretary, Jack Straw, debated with Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, which claims that black people have, on average, an IQ 15 points lower than white people. Then came the book by Jon Entine, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. Next week the BBC will discuss it in The Faster Race.

The very title of Entine's book tells a story. Its passive-agressive tone locates it in the era of the backlash - part of a continuum that stretches from Newt Gingrich's Contract with America to the outbursts of the newly blond and now single Billy on Ally McBeal. This is the voice and the strategy of the Angry, White Male who must first claim victim-hood and then assert bravery in challenging a fictitious "liberal establishment" before peddling his prejudices.

For claiming that black athletes dominate sports is anything but "a taboo". It is a racist orthodoxy that fits hand-in-glove with that other long-established orthodoxy, that black people are stupid. Backing Entine's claim on television will be Professor Philippe Rushton, who believes that black people's brains are smaller than those of other races, leaving them less intelligent but more highly sexed and agressive. Rushton is reported to have paid 150 participants - 50 black, 50 white, 50 Asian - to answer questions on penis size. His conclusion? "It's a trade-off: more brain or more penis. You can't have everything."

A trade-off indeed. For if success is genetic, then why not failure too? "White men can't jump" is only a hop and a skip away from "Black men can't think, read, write or behave". In this field Entine is not a daring pioneer but the butt-end of a lineage stretching back centuries. In 1884 the Encyclopedia Britannica stated: "No full-blooded negro has ever been distinguished as a man of science, a poet or an artist, and the fundamental equality claimed for him by ignorant philanthropists is belied by the whole history of the race throughout the historic period."

Black people are not the sole targets of this broadside. When Jews were prominent in American basketball during the 20s and 30s the sports editor of the New York Daily News explained that "the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness".

But black people are on the frontline. For there are the equally compelling statistics in the schools, jails and dole queues of the west that tell another story. Black people fall foul not simply of the law of the land but the law of probabilities in everything from employment to the criminal justice system. In the words of Jesse Jackson: "We do well at sport because the playing field is even and the rules are public. But when blacks are kicking up the field and people start making up the rules... that's when the problems start."

"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" asked the late Trinidadian intellectual, CLR James. He, more than anyone, understood that sport is not a purely meritocratic endeavour but an integral part of a nation or region's cultural, political and economic makeup. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Caribbean, where basketball and football are fast overtaking cricket among the young. Two days before the West Indies were humiliated at Headingly, Trinidad and Tobago thrashed Panama at football 6-0. Yesterday's "natural" cricketers are today's "natural" footballers. The switch is not in their genes but in their society.

Moreover, sport is a multi-million pound business for some and a career choice for others. People take the chances that come their way. If discrimination denies them opportunity in one place and offers it to them elsewhere, they will take it. It is not middle-class African-Americans with the chance to become lawyers, doctors and administrators who are rushing to the starting line or the boxing ring but the poor with few other options.

Does this deny any connection between the physiology of black athletes and their sporting achievements? Not entirely, although given all the other far more plausible explanations, I doubt the motives of those who are desperate to establish it. Whatever impact race may have on black people's sporting ability is negligible in comparison to the impact that racism has on their daily lives. So feel free to make the case and I will feel free to be insulted. When the stopping, searching, jailing, bailing, executing, excluding, unemploying and underpaying are over - then, and only then, will I listen to talk of "tendons", "arm spans" and "plasma".

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