The myth of natural talent

The myth of natural talent
Photo: London Annie

Once again, the myth of natural talent rears its ugly head. This pernicious myth suggests that Black athletes are better at sport that White athletes, and also that White athletes have to be cleverer and more hard-working than Black athletes to succeed in sport.

The myth situates the successes of as due to innate ability, downplaying the focus and hard work they have done, while simultaneously situating the successes of White athletes in the opposite way, celebrating their ‘unlikely’ achievements.

This myth, though always present, frequently emerges at great sporting competitions. Here it has been bandied about in the context of the great success of the Jamaicans and African Americans in the athletics competition. The myth says of course they won, they are Black; Blacks always win. It conveniently ignores White success, or situates it as an aberration.

It is a myth. There is no evidence that Black athletes are better at sport than White athletes. Geneticists have long known that there is greater genetic variation within so-called racial groups than between them. Indeed, race itself is a social construction: there is no genetic basis for race.

Think about the category “Black”. It includes people of African, South Asian, Pacific Islander, Aboriginal and mixed backgrounds, and who is included varies depending on where it is being discussed.

Likewise, the category “White” may include people from the Middle East and Southern Europe, or it may not, depending on where you are. There are light-skinned people who are considered Black, and there are dark-skinned people who are considered White.

There may be genetic differences that are associated with better sports performances, but these do not fall along racial lines.

The athletes themselves buy into the myth, and it arguably affects their performance. If a White athlete thinks they can’t beat the Black athletes, then they have lost before they even compete.

On the other side, Black athletes don’t want to lose to White athletes because they aren’t supposed to be as good, so the Black athletes race extra hard. There is nothing genetic here, but the mind games can have an impact.

The is pernicious because it gives the impression that Black athletes are not students of their game, and are not suited to thinking strategically, to providing leadership on the field, or in coaching positions after they finish playing.

It should be challenged whenever it is raised.

Explore further

Newly recognized feature of athlete's heart found to be more prevalent in black male athletes

This story is published courtesy of the The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).

Citation: The myth of natural talent (2012, August 15) retrieved 19 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 15, 2012
bullcrock, if you look at east-african long distance runners, they have genetic slim calves, a very long achilles tendon wich acts as a spring to return energy efficient and there is less lower leg weight to carry around. This doesn't take away from the fact that they train very hard and often, but they are born with this talent. West Africans are more geared for short sprints as they have genetic enzyme to regenerate ATP more efficient and on average have higher testosterone levels wich shows especially in the shoulders as thats where the most androgen receptors are. Naturally this does'nt include all blacks, but as a bodybuilder i can assure that i have to put in twice the work to cap my delts while many blacks can get round delts from just throwing baskertballs around, on the other hand, some of them have a particular hard time to grow the calves, i know a huge guy that does calve raises with 600 lbs for 20 reps and his calves still small due to high insertion point.

Aug 15, 2012
it's no myth for running.
on average africans have longer leg to body ratios-----and SPECIFICALLY the africans that win competitions tend to have very long legs.

the longer your legs to your body, the faster and more efficiently you can run.

at least, that is part of the reason.

Aug 16, 2012
If we accept the text then we must conclude that black athletes are more successful in athletics because they train harder, which is an even bigger myth. If all athletes train just as hard and have the same opportunities (facilities, funding, coaching) and one particular racial group does better then it must be genetic.

It is true that there is more genetic variation within groups than between them, but it is also true that some genetic variations are found almost exclusively or predominantly in one group and not another. Predisposition to tolerate dairy products varies between races that have a long tradition of farming cows (>90%) and those that don't (<15%), sickle cell anaemia is prevalent in those peoples that have traditionally lived near malaria carrying mosquitoes and black males have the densest bones and so the biggest muscle mass on average with white men and black women around equal second and white women, who suffer osteoporosis late in life come last.

Aug 16, 2012
I like it when the author says that there is no such thing as black and white races and that the difference is impossible to find (because there is greater genetic variation within so-called racial groups than between them), and than uses words black and white all over the article. it is a bit hypocritical.

Aug 16, 2012
Indeed, race itself is a social construction: there is no genetic basis for race.


When's the last time two white people had a black baby and the paternity test said the white guy was really the father?!

"No Genetic basis for race"?!?

I've never heard of such foolishness from an alleged scientist.

There are far more genetic differences between Caucasians and Africans than just "color".

Look at jaw and skull shapes, nose width, lip thickness, hip and thigh structure especially in women, and even more so in obese women as women of African descent tend to put more on the butt, while women of Caucasian lineage who are obese tend to be half and half butt and gut.

There's also very, very few blacks with blonde or red hair, and if you find one he/she probably has at least one recent European ancestor.

Seriously, "no genetic basis for race," is just a complete lie, and anyone who gives it a few minutes thought can see that.

Aug 16, 2012
The article would be more convincing if

1) The article writer (Karen Farquharson) could actually take the time to spell words correctly and use proper grammar, and

2) Actually try to address the body of peer-reviewed research that contradicts the premise of the article. Just as a minor example, the rs1815739 mutation of the ACTN3 gene expresses itself most prominently in people of African descent, and has been suggested as part of an explanation for why statistically fast-twitch muscle proportions are generally lower in whites and Asians.

3) It didn't end with the terse warning, "It should be challenged whenever it is raised." While it's always healthy to challenge any idea, especially controversial ones, this statement makes it sound like the idea of racial genetic differences should simply be shunned, rather than investigated. This is a blatantly unscientific piece of advice.

Aug 20, 2012

Usually, I expect the myth of natural talent used as an explanation for male superiority in math and engineering. Sometimes the myth of natural talent is used to explain white dominance in business success and income acquisition or SAT scores.

The reader comments seem very similar to me for each of these other examples of natural talent myth discussions. Maybe the relevant variable in making the choice to comment on articles dismissing natural talent is specifically not racial or gender bias. Can we conclude there is an independent trait that determines whether someone chooses to get involved in this kind of discussion? perhaps there's a specific socio-economic status or correlation with a particular set of beliefs that predisposes someone to comment on these topics?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more