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Michael Johnson says slave descendants make better athletes

Social IssuesRene LynchBBC

Four-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter Michael Johnson has been quoted as saying he believes slave descendants make superior athletes -- and that such a controversial topic shouldn't be avoided but discussed openly as the world begins to turn its attention to the London Olympics.

"All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it's impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn't left an imprint through the generations," he is quoted as saying in an article in the British newspaper the Daily Mail. "Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me -- I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us."

Johnson could not be reached for comment Thursday to elaborate on his comments or their potential repercussions.

It's unclear what the remarks might mean for Johnson's career as a BBC commentator or for his reputation. A similar comment, made in 1988 by CBS sport commentator Jimmy Snyder, known as Jimmy the Greek, led to his firing and public disgrace.

Ever since then, the suggestion that African Americans might be naturally superior athletes in part because they were bred to produce stronger offspring during slavery -- or because only the fittest survived such an ordeal -- has been considered so controversial, it's been all but ignored.

Perhaps that's why it's taken so long for Johnson's comments -- the Daily Mail article ran June 30 -- to make a splash in the United States.

Five days later, it's causing an uproar here. So is Johnson's prediction that a "superior athletic gene" means that slave descendants -- essentially, black American and Caribbean sprinters -- will dominate this summer at the Olympic Games.

"It's a fact that hasn't been discussed openly before. It's a taboo subject in the States but it is what it is. Why shouldn't we discuss it?" Johnson is quoted as saying.

Johnson, 44, finds himself speaking about such issues after he underwent DNA testing that confirmed he is of West African descent, all part of a new documentary, "Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest."

The Texas-born Johnson is a living legend in track and field. In addition to his four Olympic gold medals, the now-retired athlete won eight world championship gold medals and still holds world records in several events, including the 400 meters. 

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