Track Data: The Last Post! (I Promise ... I Think)
August 26, 2008, 07:10 PM
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Before everybody gets completely bored with track again for the next 3 years and 11.5 months, I'm putting out in public my Excel spreadsheet listing the 200 fastest times ever for the ten main lengths with the race of each runner denoted. This database provided the basis for the graphs in last night's VDARE column on running and the Olympics.

I put in some hours looking up photos of runners on Google Images, so the racial identifications are pretty accurate, but I invite anybody interested to put corrections in the comments here. Generally speaking, there are fewer ambiguous cases than you'd expect: African-American 100 meter men, for example, tend to be very black. Perhaps the most ambiguous cases came right where my theory predicts — with the 1980s Brazilian 800m man Joaquin Cruz (I'm guessing he's half white and half black) and with the 1970s Cuban champion at 400m and 800m Alberto Juantorena (I put him down as all white, but I could be wrong).

Most of the top runners representing Persian Gulf states are hired Kenyans or Moroccans (although Saudi Arabia has one native born runner make the list).

I did the same analysis back in 1997, although just for the 100 at each length. You can download it from this page. Not too much has changed over 11 years. Mostly the patterns have intensified as the Kenyans and other Africans have become even more dominant.

One thing that caught my eye in 1997 was that the domination of the 400m by men of West African descent seemed unnaturally excessive. In 1997, there was too steep a falloff in West African black domination from 400m, where West African blacks were then overwhelming, to 800m, where blacks were merely competitive. The subsequent emergence of a white Texan, Jeremy Wariner, who won gold in 2004 and silver in 2008 (and ran a very fast anchor leg on the Olympic record setting mile relay team), as one of the greatest 400m men ever suggests that my skepticism in 1997 was correct: American whites were being kept out of some degree of 400m success due to stereotypes that weren't quite as valid as they had appeared.

I think what was going on with the 400m was this: the 400m has traditionally been an event dominated by Americans. The U.S. has won the gold medal in 19 of the 26 Olympics, and over half the total medals. (The U.S. swept the men's 400m in Beijing.) I'm not sure why this is. The mile relay (4x400 meters) was traditionally the final event at American high school and college track meets, so perhaps Americans put more emphasis on it. Or perhaps the typical admixture of black and white genes found in African-Americans is about right for the 400m.

In any case, the event remained integrated at the U.S. Olympic team level up through 1964 when a 30-year-old white math teacher from LA named Michael Larrabee won the 400m in Tokyo. In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, however, the U.S. swept the 400m with three blacks running amazing times (two of them under 44 seconds). Lee Evans set a world record that lasted until the mid-1980s, and the 4x400 relay mark wasn't even equaled until 1988.

In reality, the many famous Mexico City records (such as Bob Beamon's 29'-2" long jump and Jimmy Hines's 9.95 100m) weren't as great as they seemed in the 1970s: less air resistance at 7300 feet altitude met faster times at events shorter than, say, 1500 meters. But 1968 set a cultural template in the U.S.: the 400m was a black event.

After all, people reasoned, it's a sprint, so it's black. Actually, it's a "long sprint," four times the distance of the 100m, just as the 800m is a short middle distance event, but people like to put things in boxes, so Americans saw the 400 as a black sprint while they saw the 800 as Dave Wottle's mostly white event. The reality is a quantitative continuum, but people don't like to think numerically, they like to think in terms of Platonic essences. Similarly, when Jeremy Wariner won the gold in the 400m in 2004, lots of pundits announced that that "shattered the stereotype" that whites can't sprint.

Meanwhile, other countries that didn't put as much emphasis on the 400m continued to have a moderate amount of success with white 400m men, whether they were an all-white country like Australia (whose Darren Clark finished 4th in the 400 in 1984 and 1988) or even if they had black 100m sprinters, such as Cuba with Juantorena and Britain with Roger Black and Iwan Thomas in more recent years.

So, it wasn't surprising when Wariner emerged (and, to a lesser extent Andrew Rock, who finished sixth in the 2004 Olympics and second to Wariner at the 2005 world championships). I suspect that the U.S., with its abundance of African-American 400m talent, overlooked a few really good 400m white runners in the decades between Larrabee and Wariner. Rock, for example, who won a relay gold medal in 2004, had had to walk on at a Div. III school because no college in America would give him a track scholarship, in contrast to all the West Indian 400m runners who got scholarships at American colleges. Probably, some good white 400m runners were channeled into being mediocre 800m runners, and others quit track and went and did something else.

Of course, a superstar like Wariner got a scholarship, so don't exaggerate the impact of prejudice — the impact is mostly on the marginal who probably wouldn't have amounted to all that much in any case. Wariner is much like the fellow whose look and affect he emulates, white rapper Eminem. To be accepted in a black dominated field, a white guy has to be better than the blacks.

Conversely, there is probably a black guy out there struggling to make the mile relay team who could be a terrific 1500m man if anybody could wrap his head around that. On the other hand, though, society usually makes a huge effort to drag blacks into anything perceived as too white, while it's hard for anything prestigious in our society, such as the 400m Olympic team to be considered "too black."