Thursday, October 15, 2009


This new book argues that the best athletes in human history are long since dead. Australian aboriginals, Peter McAllister argues, could easily beat Usain Bolt's 9.58 world record for 100 metres, and not just one of them, but many. Aboriginal men were also photographed thrashing the world record for the long jump just a century ago in an initiation ritual. The bit about Neanderthal women beating Arnold Schwarzenegger at arm wrestling I can believe, because Neanderthals were big and strong, which we are not.

McAllister has an interesting image of the past, one that I would call ridiculous if he presumably didn't have a degree in this sort of thing and I had only a second-year class on Greek history to my name. He says that Athenian "oarsmen" were far superior to modern oarsmen, to the extent that you'll find any oarsmen today, which may be true, though you'll also find that the Athenians of yore were malnourished, tiny and were happy to live to be 40 years old.

Finding superior rowers or sprinters in these populations is surprising. If a lifetime of general physical labour combined with sub-standard nutrition was enough to whip ordinary people into sub-10 shape for 100 metres, elite athletes would go live on farms or whatever it was that the vaunted Aborigines were doing, instead of dedicating themselves to constant training over periods of years.

There are still, presumably, small groups of people that live as they did before the Industrial Revolution, which McAllister blames for our current weakness. Clearly, if the Amish or the fine people of Papua New Guinea ever made it to the Olympics, they would run the medal table. World records in athletics go back into the 1800s, and the world record for the mile in the 1850s was a whopping 4:28, which would turn heads today if you are a teenage girl. Now, it's entirely possible that this ancient world record reflects European bias, since the very people who kept records probably also set them as well, ignoring Aborigines who were probably running them in 2:45 or so, a minute faster than the modern world record of 3:43.

Still, what makes McAllister's arguments implausible is that they're built on speculative evidence. His idea that Aborigines are faster than Usain Bolt comes from analyzing 20,000-year-old footprints. The article attributes to McAllister the idea that "modern men are genetically much the same. If they really wanted to, they could emulate these feats with some lifelong gruelling effort." Modern humans already are putting in the effort: we call it professional sports. Money, fame and a lifetime of training can't persuade high jumpers to clear 2.50 metres, but McAllister holds that living a life of inconvenience but no special training would get hordes of us to clear that height.

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