'It was one of the interesting things people were talking about. So I explored it in the book," says Neil Duncanson. What book? His multi-biographical book about 100m sprinters, The Fastest Men on Earth. Head to the final chapter, and there's this: a question raising all sorts of connotations. "Is it now a cast iron fact, at least at the elite level, that white men can't sprint?
Well is it, I ask Duncanson, a sprint enthusiast by night, by day a television executive? "I am not an anthropologist, and I am not trying to construct any theories of my own," he says. "But there are a lot of theories out there. And the fact is that the last white guy in an Olympic final was Allan Wells in 1980."
What about Christophe Lemaitre, the Frenchman who last year became the first white guy to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m? Doesn't he prove the futility of hard and fast pronouncements. "Well he is just one guy. If there were a few more like him, perhaps we would have to think again." And anyway, he says, there is little or no danger of Lemaitre winning in 2012. He'll do well to make the final. The book is unequivocal about that. "It's hard," it says, "to imagine a white sprinter climbing on top of the 100m Olympic podium again."
It was a thrill ride for the author. He spent time with his track heroes, among them Usain Bolt, a one-off fuelled by freakish brilliance, bonhomie and chicken nuggets.
And what's the thinking on the racial angle? Duncanson says one interesting theory is that reached in 1999 by scholar and journalist Jon Entine. It's not that all black athletes sprint faster, Entine said. It's a subset with origins in west Africa. And a key difference, according to this theory is the muscles. "We are all geared by slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibres," Duncanson explains. "The theory is that these athletes have a preponderance of fast-twitch muscles. I see it as an interesting debate, but not particularly controversial."
But of course, sport aside, it is controversial. If muscles are genetically different, what of other genetic differences? There's a Pandora's box, on and off the track. Thank God for Bolt. At least there, you know it's the chicken nuggets.