With the Summer Olympics starting a month from now in Athens, it might be fun to look at some of the more enduring patterns in this global pageant of nationalism and human biodiversity. For the casual fan who can't remember the names of individual athletes, it's always enjoyable to check in to see if old trends are still operative.*
Practically every boy on Earth tries sprinting. Fast runners bubble up through local competitions and finally, every four years, the 64 fastest sprinters in the world wind up at the Olympics to compete in the men's 100-meter dash.
Three rounds later, only eight are left to race in the Finals.
Remarkably, in each of the last five Olympics—1984 through 2000—every finalist, 40 in all, has been of West African descent.
That streak may end in Athens. One reason: a non-black, Patrick Johnson of Australia, has finally broken the ten-second barrier in the 100 meters. (African-origin runners have done it 267 times.) Interestingly, Johnson is half-Irish—and half-Australian Aborigine.
Another reason: 2004 could be more wide open, even confused, because doping crackdowns may remove top contenders like world record holder Tim Montgomery. If the authorities look serious about catching cheaters with post-event urine tests, expect to see athletes suddenly withdrawing before their starting times due to mysterious ailments. That could open the door to a non-black—this year.
A third reason: a Japanese sprinter just might break through into the finals. Three made the semifinals over the last two Olympics. The best time recorded by a Japanese sprinter is an impressive 10.00, same as the top mark ever for an all-white runner.
On the other hand, the Japanese are the worst underachievers of all the large, rich, sports-crazy nations. Curiously, they did significantly better in the Olympics medal tallies back in the 1964-1984 era.
One obvious problem for the Japanese: they are probably the shortest and smallest of all the industrialized peoples. But they no longer do well even in men's gymnastics, a small man's sport that they used to dominate. In recent years, the string of disappointing performances by Japanese athletes has seemed to feed on itself, with the Japanese media focusing excruciating pressure on each new contender. The poor athletes seem overwhelmed at the prospect of disappointing the entire nation and thus freeze up.
The Japanese, who are among the most emotionally sensitive of all people, have gotten themselves into a psychological rut. Eventually, a string of victories will occur, which should get the monkey off the national back, and they'll snap out of this long sporting slump.
Japan, however, is America, Kenya, the old Soviet Union, and the New York Yankees rolled into one compared to India. In 2000, a billion Indians managed to capture just one medal, a lowly bronze in the new (and, may I say, ridiculously steroid-vulnerable) sport of women's weightlifting. And one bronze is all they won in 1996, too.
Will India's growing middle class follow the rest of the world into sports madness? Or will they remain uninterested in just about all games except cricket.
Overall, however, there's not much evidence that steroid use can change the balance of racial power in men's sprinting. Women are different. Doped-to-the-eyeballs East German frauleins dominated women's sprinting in the 1970s and into the 1980s—until the late Florence-Griffith Joyner and certain other American black women got on the juice too.
In contrast, white men from East Germany were never competitive with African American men no matter how much their coaches tried to turn them into fuel-injected funny cars.
And if the new steroid tests are effective, then you can expect the "gender gap"—how much better men are than women in timed or measured events like running—to widen.
Why? Basically for the same reason. With the exception of, say, rhythmic gymnastics, sports are basically a test of testosterone. Since women on average only produce 1/10th as much of the manly molecule as men do, they get a much bigger bang for their buck from artificial male hormones. So, when everybody has to cut back on steroids, women are weakened more.
Similarly, the marginal advantage steroids offer men is much less.
I showed back in 1997 in National Review that, contrary to all expectations, the gender gap in running had expanded between the 1988 Olympics, when doping was rampant, and the cleaner 1996 Olympics. The same might happen again in 2004.
Of course, nobody on television would dare mention such a heretical thought, so you'll just have to try to notice which sex is setting more records.
No doubt, the media will try to launch another of one of the funnier American fads: those periodic whoop-tee-doos where we all swell up with national pride over an American women's team winning gold in some sport played by the women of practically no other county on Earth, except maybe Norway. Think back to the ecstasy over women's softball in 1996, women's ice hockey in 1998, or, most famously, the first Women's World Cup of soccer in 1999.
We'd beaten the world! When cynics pointed out that the world didn't much care about women's soccer, well, that just made us even prouder of how liberated our women are, compared to those poor, oppressed women of Paris, Milan, and London, whose consciousnesses haven't been raised enough to want to trade in their Gucci high heels for soccer spikes.
Who knows which sport it will be this time—maybe the new entrant of women's wrestling?
Unfortunately, after each frenzy of patriotic feminist chauvinism, our poor women athletes come home and set up a domestic pro league that rapidly loses the interest of almost everybody except lesbians and the kind of guy fan who'll watch anything on ESPN2.
That's because, to be frank, even the best women aren't anywhere near as good at sports as the best men. So what's the point in watching them unless they are kicking evil foreign butt?
Everybody knows by now that the greatest source of male distance runners in the world are the East African highlands, especially Kenya and Ethiopia. Recently, anthropologist Cynthia M. Beall discovered that Ethiopians have evolved a unique biochemical adaptation to living at high altitude, different from the traits that evolved in the other very high altitude tribes: Tibetans, such as the famous Sherpa mountain climbers, and the barrel-chested Indians of the Andes.
Although the famous running tribe of Kenya, the Kalenjin, has been studied in detail, less has been reported about the second hotbed of distance running greatness: Northwest Africa. Perhaps the top runners of Morocco and Algeria are descended from Atlas Mountains highlanders.
Or is there some other cause? Morocco's star miler Hicham El-Gerrouj, for example, was born at sea level. Sports physiologists should investigate.
Will the U.S. men's basketball team blow the gold medal? If the U.S. does lose, especially if it gets beat by some pocket-sized country like the perennial medal contenders Lithuania, Croatia, and Serbia, it ought to inspire some serious thinking. What has gone wrong with American basketball culture since it peaked with the famous Dream Team that crushed everyone at the 1992 Olympics? Why can't American basketball stars play together as cooperatively as they once did?
Perhaps diversity would be good for American basketball. Or would that be the wrong kind of diversity?
By the way, one reason these Baltic and Balkan basketball teams do so well is that the natives tend to be somewhat taller than Americans.
Is there any country in the world more patriotic when it comes to sports than South Korea? Granted, El Salvador invaded Honduras in 1969 to avenge a soccer defeat. It sounds funny, but it wasn't to the thousands killed. Still, in my limited experience, the South Koreans are in a class by themselves. (Although God only knows what the North Koreans are like.)
My introduction to South Korean sports fans was at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. At a slate of sixteen early round boxing matches at the Sports Arena, I sat behind about 150 Koreans, including three Buddhist monks in saffron robes.
Through the first twelve bouts, they all sat impassively. The Koreans showed zero interest in boxing pour le sport. Even the most gallant display by a non-Korean boxer failed to inspire them to utter a peep of approval.
Finally, the one Korean boxer of the afternoon was introduced. The fans exploded into an utter frenzy of flag-waving. The Buddhist monks jumped up and down and screamed. The mob howled its head off through the entire 45 seconds it took the Korean lad to get knocked cold.
After their boy was hauled off on a stretcher and the next fight was about to start, the Koreans arose as one and silently filed out.
At this point, there is still concern that some of the facilities in Athens won't be finished on time. Of course, if the Greeks liked to organize themselves in a straight-forward fashion and get things done with a minimum of complications, then they wouldn't be Byzantine, now would they?
It's worth keeping in mind, though, that Olympics with bad buzz going in have often worked out beautifully—for example, Los Angeles in 1984 and Salt Lake City in 2002. In contrast, Atlanta in 1996, which everybody thought was a slamdunk, turned out to be a bit of an airball due both to the humid heat and to the operational ineptitude caused by the organizers' "commitment to diversity."
In any case, even if Athens proves to be hot, noisy, smoggy, and stressed-out, don't forget that the other 95 percent of Greece is wonderfully different.