In his infamous book “Taboo“, Jon Entine asks the reader to imagine an alien, unfamiliar with Earth, sent to observe sport on the planet. The alien, he says, would be struck by the dominance of black athletes in four sports: basketball, football, boxing and running.
It is a shaky start to a text which remains tremulous throughout. Scientific speculations cannot properly be investigated by considering the first impressions of a naive visitor.
But, even on its own terms, it is out of date just fifteen years after being published, after the Sydney Olympics. Professional heavyweight boxing is dominated by the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers (above). Despite the proliferation of belts, there were no American champions between 2007 and 2015 and only 3 of the 10 distinct champions were black.
There is a similar pattern in Olympic boxing. Two super heavyweight champions in the last five Games have been black British fighters but the other three have all been white.
In November, Wladimir Klitschko will face a new challenger, another Briton, Tyson Fury (below), who is one of an increasing number of boxers to have an Irish Traveller heritage.
Country or Race?
Entine makes two mistakes, both of which are all too common. Firstly, he attributes the dominance of a small number of countries to the dominance of a particular ethnic group.
What seemed to be an advantage for black boxers was more a reflection of the strength of the United States, while the apparent advantage of white boxers is the success of ex- communist states. Recent challengers have been Russian, Uzbek, Polish and Bulgarian.
Entine’s other examples suffer from a similar problem. Kenya remains just as powerful in distance running, and most Kenyans are black, but what will happen if Kenya loses its edge and, as with boxing, a different region becomes pre-eminent in the sport instead?
Not the End of History
Entine is aware of the currents of history. He describes how Jewish basketball players were once commonplace before fresh opportunities took them away from that arena.
But he seems to believe that the waters have calmed, perhaps permanently, that black people, unlike Jewish people, have never been pushed into sport through lack of choice. Or that they will never be overtaken by competitors from another country altogether.
This is his second mistake. Even a forty year dynasty of African American heavyweights was not enough to hold back the tide, the inevitable ebb and flow of patterns of success.
It is the lesson of Canute and it applies to the king of any sport. The moment he thinks that his reign is “natural”, that he has a divine right to rule, is the moment that he begins to lose his grip on power. And, as with boxing in the USA, the crown could so easily slip.
Next week: An events preview of the upcoming London Sports Writing Festival at Lord’s