Okot Nyormoi, editor

Tokyo OlympicEvery four years, the world is treated to a sport’s extravaganza–the summer Olympics. It is replete with scandals, drama, exhilaration, utter failure, disappointment, etc. The organizers, the country and city hosts, the athletes, the trainers, etc., are all in the mix at the Olympics. While the Olympics is marketed as an international sporting activity aimed at cultivating excellence, friendship, and respect, and to contribute to world peace, it is all that and more.

Organizationally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the host countries have largely done a commendable job. However, their reputation was ruined when it was discovered that gifts were being used to influence the selection of the hosting country and city. Even when Japan had campaigned on having “safe hands” (having no corruption) in hosting the 2020 Olympic, evidence indicates that the IOC is still bedeviled by bribery under the innocuous name of lobbying.

The pursuit of excellence has undoubtedly witnessed the limits of performance being constantly pushed farther and farther from whence the game started in ancient Greece about 3,000 years ago, and since the game was revived in its modern form on April 6, 1896, some 125 years ago. However, true to human form, the pursuit of excellence has also had its share of scandals. Some individuals and countries resort to doping. Consequently, many guilty athletes have been stripped of their medals and a few countries have been banned from the Olympic competition. Notable among these was Ben Johnson who broke the 10 sec barrier in 100 meters race in 1988. Currently, Russia is banned for concealing a massive state-sponsored doping program.

Olympic WinnersAmidst the friendly hugging, high fiving, and giving a hand to fallen fellow competitors, animosity between individuals or countries always lurks beneath the surface. Such animosity often arises from ideological differences. For example,  racial superiority was front and center when Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics to showcase his belief in Aryan supremacy, only to be embarrassed by Jesse Owens, a black American, who beat all his German competitors and won four gold medals. South Africa was banned due to its apartheid policies. There is a long list of behaviors unbecoming of the Olympic ideal which are too numerous to recount here, but always occur at the Olympics.

Besides scandals related to individual athletes, the Olympics is often used as a platform for struggles against ills in society: foreign occupation, racism, gender discrimination, etc. In 1968, Smith and Carlos raised their fists high in the air on the winners’ podium to protest racism in the USA. The Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation showed its ugly face when the Palestinian Black September organization murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Furthermore, there have been many boycotts and retaliatory boycotts by various countries to protest wars, racism, and foreign invasion. Sometimes, the violence is committed by deranged individuals as was the case at the 1986 Olympics in Atlanta. All these heinous crimes do not show the kind of friendship, respect, and world peace the Olympics is intended to cultivate.

On the question of excellence, obviously, the world distribution of winners of medals in the different sports is unequal. In the era of modern Olympics, Africans (Kenyans, Ethiopians and now Ugandans) have excelled spectacularly in long distance races and Africans in the Diaspora (Jamaicans, African Americans and Caribbeans) have won most of the sprint events in recent decades. Though race as a social construct is important because of its negative role in society, the concept is biologically meaningless. Yet, some people claim that the black race is inherently good at running whereas the white race is good in other sports like swimming, equestrians and sailing, and Asians are good at gymnastics, ping pong and diving, etc. By this, they imply that different races are genetically endowed with the ability to excel in specific sports.

A critical look reveals that the notion of a link between race and sport's performance is too simplistic and is patently inaccurate. For one thing, sport activities encompases complex human behaviors which involve multiple genes. Multiple studies show that there are more genetic differences within a population than between races. Besides, differences in environmental factors make it difficult to simplistically attribute a person's performance to his or her racial background. So far, nobody has identified or isolated a race-specific gene or genes for excelling in playing basketball, running 100 meters, playing table tennis, etc. Yet, genes are behind all the functions of the body.

It is one thing to inherit the genes for certain traits, but it is another thing for the inherited  genes to express themselves as expected. One needs the right environment for the inherited genes to prosper. At best, the inherited traits simply give one the potential to be great. At worst, someone who inherits “good genes” may be born during war, famine, natural disasters or in a dysfunctional family. In such environments, one’s life may be irrevocably damaged or even lost. Even if one were born in a potentially ideal environment for excelling in sports, one needs to aspire to excel. One’s aspiration may be driven by the need to escape from bad life conditions or by the desire to emulate the success of a role model. How can one excel as an equestrian if one is born and raised in a place where there are no horses? How can one aspire to excel in physically and mentally challenging sports like boxing or the marathon if one is born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, which gives one unlimited option for living a good life without engaging in difficult sports?

Besides inheriting the potential to excel, and being in a nurturing environment, luck is another important element. A baby does not choose its mother and father, let alone which genes will come from the mother and father. Though the parents can choose their mates, they cannot control how genes sort and distribute themselves during egg and sperm formation, which then combine to form a baby. Similarly, a baby does not determine the environment (family, culture, geography, financial situation, etc.) in which he or she is born, whether she or he will survive potentially fatal childhood illnesses.

With regard to luck, some people are born with ambigious sex (intersex). Additionally, there are people who undergo gender transformation. Both groups present a challenge to the sport's community. Should they be allowed to compete in their preferred gender though they may have distinct advantages over their competitors who are distinctively male or female? A celebrated case involves Caster Semanya of South Africa. She won several medals until her sex and gender were questioned. She and similar athletes from Namibia, Rwanda, Burubdi, and Uganda were barred from competing in the Tokyo Olympic on account of their male hormone, testosterone, being too high above that expected of females. They have to undergo treatment to reduce the level of testosterone if they want to compete as women. So far, there is no clear solution to the problem. 

Though many people attribute success in the Olympics to race, there is no evidence to support it. While the explanations may vary for individual athletes or countries, they basically consist of a combination of three elements: luck, heredity, and environment. Anyone of any nationality who happens to be lucky enough to inherit the right set of traits and is in the right environment can excel in any sport. In other words, Olympic gold medalists do not automatically produce children who will become gold medalists. A whole lot of factors go into determining what sports one does and how well one can do in it to even qualify to compete at the Olympics, let alone win medals.