Michael Johnson: Survival Of The Fastest Documentary Controversy

Michael Johnson: Survival Of The Fastest Documentary Controversy

File this one under interesting…Michael Johnson, 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the 200m and 400m traces his roots to answer whether Olympic dominance by African American and Caribbean sprinters is a by product of Slavery. The documentary that explores this question was broadcast recently on Channel 4 in the UK.

 

I am a huge track and field fan, and an even bigger Olympics track and field fan. One of the best sports days of my life was watching Michael Johnson win his 200m and 400m gold medals in Atlanta. So I am actually quite intrigued by the premise of this film.

The doc can be viewed here if you can get it – http://www.channel4.com/programmes/michael-johnson-survival-of-the-fastest/4od.

I can’t wait to see this when it is available in the U.S. I will reserve my judgement of the film until then.

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Documentary Synopsis

In this landmark documentary, Olympian Michael Johnson embarks on a personal genealogical and scientific journey in a bid to understand if he and other world-class African American and Caribbean athletes are successful as a result of slavery. In this remarkable authored film he discovers some disturbing truths about the lives of his enslaved ancestors. From the mass murder of those on the slave ships to the nightmarish breeding programmes of the plantation owners, Johnson confronts this appalling history. He speaks to leading voices in the world of sport and science to examine the link between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and genetic selection. He investigates the role slavery may have played in altering the genomes of their descendants. He speaks to experts whose research has led them to conclude this has contributed to the success of African American and Caribbean sprinters.

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Documentary Review from the UK’s The Telegraph, written by Iain Hollingshead.

In the 2008 Olympics, every man in the 100 m final was a descendant of the slave trade. In Channel 4’s fascinating Survival of the Fastest, Michael Johnson, who won gold at 200 m and 400 m in the 1996 Olympics, set out to discover whether the brutality of slavery determined the genetic make-up of elite black athletes. This being television, it also took him on a personal journey into his own past, unearthing the remarkable story of his great-great-great aunt, born into slavery in 1851.

Johnson, a charming and intelligent narrator, presented compelling evidence that only the strongest survived the horrors of the slave trade. During the Atlantic crossings, which had a mortality rate of between 50 and 96 per cent, those with higher testosterone, thicker skin and better muscles were more likely to endure six months of beatings, low oxygen levels and lying in bodily fluids.

Genetic changes could easily have taken place within a lifetime under such extreme conditions, pointed out one of the many scientists he interviewed. Only the toughest slaves made it as far across as Jamaica, the last stop on the route from Africa. The tiny country won five gold medals at sprint events in the 2008 Olympics, whereas people born today in West Africa rarely succeed as sprinters.

The degrading selection process did not, of course, stop once the slaves had reached the Americas. The tallest and the strongest fetched the highest prices at auction. The hardiest were most likely to survive gruelling marches and the back-breaking years in the cotton fields. And the owners would force their favourites to breed, like cattle, to produce a new generation of strong slaves.

In an excellent – and thoroughly shaming – documentary, Johnson maintained just the right neutral tone, even providing one moment of glorious light relief. “The speed gene isn’t working right now,” he quipped, as he struggled to open a pack of swabs to take a DNA sample from his cheek.

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  1. August 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    This is my first extensive visit to the “museum”. The site is rich in content. What a delightful journey. I will definitely visit the museum frequently. Thank you for making the content available to the world.

  2. JL
    June 13, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    He (and others) is/are assuming that whoever can run fast actually takes up organized sprinting. TV is something; it is not everything. This is just another example of flawed and overstated statistics. There is merely SOME evidence to support racial or genetic argument. Who said that the fastest even run track? That’s an assumption or forgone conclusion. hyperbole.

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