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This Exists: Athletic Success Determined By…Belly Button Placement?


There’s always been a nature vs. nurture debate regarding individuals’ athletic success: is it more due to hard work or natural ability (or – gasp! – a combination of both)? Especially prevalent is the question: are black people somehow hard-wired to do better in sports?

Well, a study led by Duke professor Andre Bejan looked into two of the most oft-cited examples of the argument – whites’ relative dominance in swimming vs. blacks’ dominance in running. (Yes, like so many debates, this one often turns into a black/white issue.) What they found was that natural gifts do make quite a difference – but maybe not how you’d expect.

The study’s findings (published in the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics, more proof that there is a scholarly journal for every conceivable subject) were based on the centers of gravity found in West African runners’ vs. European swimmers’ bodies – or, in other words, where their belly buttons are. The runners had higher centers of gravity (i.e. longer legs), while the swimmers’ were lower (i.e. longer torsos).

This matters because, for the runners, longer legs = longer strides. For swimmers, it’s about, as Bejan put it, “surfing the wave created by the swimmer.” Longer torso = longer wave. Remember the talk about Michael Phelps’ ideal swimming body type? That was a big part of it.

One thing the researchers made clear was that they weren’t interested in athletes’ race, but geographical origin. (Bezan, who is white, co-authored the study with Howard University’s Edward Jones, who is black.)

Transcending race: a noble goal, but perhaps a naive one, since as we know, everything can be a race issue if someone wants it to be. Still, the study’s findings are intriguing – even if they just confirm what many have long suspected, it’s nice to have hard evidence backing the argument that human biology – of all races – does indeed affect athletic performance.

H/T Roger Ebert

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