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Genes, Athletic Performance and the Possibility of an Elite Tamil Athlete in Professional Sports
I’m hopeful that one of our Tamil athletes will make it to the professional level. But we just don’t want to see them make it, for that goal devalues the potential of our Tamil athletes. We want to see them become elite athletes and when that day comes, the seeds will be planted to inspire a generation.
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If an African-American male athlete has a 1 in 6,000 chance of playing in the NBA, then a Tamil male athlete has a 1 in 100,000 shot.

The concept of race and athletic performance has been a controversial topic, especially after CBS Sports commentator Jimmy Snyder said in a televised interview,  African-Americans are better athletes than whites because they have been “bred to be that way”, and that “the only thing left for the whites is a couple of coaching jobs”. While his remarks may be considered offensive, there is some truth in it. 


There is equal truth in the notion that African-Americans are better athletes than Tamils. This is not merely a derogatory perpetuation of stereotypes, for if it is then it hijacks my integrity with a meaningless reason to write this article. It’s rather a claim predicated on general research that reveals biological, anatomical and genetic differences between African-Americans and Tamils. 

The research shows that African-American children tend to have denser bones, narrower hips, bigger thighs, lower percentages of body fat, and longer legs. Basketball, football and track and field rely heavily on these genetic characteristics to determine success.You don’t need to be an expert to realize that on average, an African-American athlete can jump higher than a Tamil athlete. Or that on average, an African-American athlete is faster than a Tamil athlete.

Consider basketball star Kawhi Leonard – his hands measure 11.25 inches from thumb to pinkie when fully stretched, 52 percent wider than the average man`s hands. He holds a ball like a tennis ball, giving him the ability to gain more control on both ends of the floor. And so it’s with reason why we see African-American players in the NBA finishing at the top in scoring and rebounding, African-American players breaking short and long-distance running records in the Olympics, and African-American players usually finishing at the top in home runs and RBIs in MLB.What does this mean for Tamils aspiring to become professional athletes?

We know that like in any other field, there can’t be a univariate analysis to determine elite performance because it makes the analysis deceptive. Rather, if we do a multivariate analysis, it would show that training, environment and so on are critical variables that oscillate non-black athletes from average to great. Think of Larry Bird, one of the greatest NBA shooters who made it a priority to improve his shooting with an insane practice schedule. I’m sure that if Tamils are determined to make sacrifices and train like Larry Bird, we can debunk the premise that genes are a better indicator of athletic performance than training. 

David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, thinks otherwise. Epstein asserts that just like no two people respond to a drug the same way because of differences in their genes, we find the same in sports – no two people respond to the same training regimen the same way.

Imagine the following scenario. Arun, an 8 year old Tamil child, shows a remarkable aptitude for basketball. His parents, however, aren’t athletes nor do they know anything about the game. With the help of their friend, Satheesh, they slowly start to realize that Arun has the preconditions to become a great basketball player: commitment, work ethic, skill and passion. His parents hire elite coaches and trainers to model the training schedule of Lebron James.

Arun is now 16 years old. His sheer dominance among his peers has captured the eyes of scouts from West Virginia. Excited for this opportunity, Arun moves to the US to begin a new life at Huntington Prep School. However, after 10 games into the season the disappointment from his fans is akin to how Toronto fans cringed after seeing Anthony Bennett play in the NBA. Arun can’t match up with the other players in the league – their advantages in anatomical structure, physical characteristics, skillset and endurance level make Arun look like a chowder-head.

One of the many reasons why Arun may have a difficult time competing with top prospects in a reputable school goes back to what David Epstien found in his research. Though this Tamil kid who was privileged followed a similar training schedule to Lebron James, it would be premature to say that he would become an elite athlete solely because of his training. The way his body reacted to this intense level training can’t be considered tantamount to that of Lebron James. Arun’s body and Lebron James’ body respond differently to the same training, and it’s for this reason why we see a preponderance of elite Black athletes compared to any other race.

This shouldn’t discourage Tamils aspiring to become professional athletes, however. The Tamil community has been patiently waiting to see one of their children play at an elite level in professional sports. We are slowly starting to see parents put their children in hyper specialization training, a type of training that’s usually defined as limiting participation to a single sport on a year-round basis – as was the case with Arun in the above scenario.

You may take it as a provocation, but I think this approach does more harm than good. There is no evidence to show that intense training and specialization before puberty leads to achieve elite status. Research shows that hyper specialization has some risks, such as higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and quitting sports at a young age.

My advice would be to get your child involved in different types of sports because this will provide them with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promote motivation. It makes sense to wait and see which sports they show most potential in (with consultation from the coach) before engaging in hyper specialization. This is best practice for world-class athletes. Steve Nash, for example, played many sports when he was young. He was committed to playing professional soccer but he started playing basketball at the age of 13 and took off from there.

Even with early diversification, the research on biological, anatomical and genetic characteristics critical for success in sports (particularly in basketball, football, track and field) produces a narrative that works against the Tamil community. If all we ever believed in was scientific research, then living a life of hope erodes into fear and doubt. Fear and doubt is not what Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin, Ichiro Suzuki and Christophe Lemaitre (all athletes possessing superior genetic traits) subscribed to.

I’m hopeful that one of our Tamil athletes will make it to the professional level. But we just don’t want to see them make it, for that goal devalues the potential of our Tamil athletes. We want to see them become elite athletes and when that day comes, the seeds will be planted to inspire a generation.

Original story published on 

Created By
Vinu Selvaratnam
Sports Researcher @ UWaterloo
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