Usain Bolt at the 2012 London Olympics
Jean-François Toussaint

The athletic potential of a nation relies on several cultural, social, biological, genetic and environmental factors. These are hard to dissociate and their role only partly explain the current Jamaican hegemony.

First let me remind you that dignity, tolerance and respect are the best values and must serve here as guidelines. Exposing the correlations between the factors should not lead to any dubious interpretation - openly racist or even underhandedly discriminatory.

There is no such thing as a human race, there are just differences between individuals within the same species. These differences are progressive and appear and evolve gradually according to a set of laws.

There are also no such thing as a sprint gene, there are just a large amount of genes which continuously interfere with each other. While some genes code for muscle proteins, others determine cell energy production, fat metabolism or brain development. Evolution is continuously affecting these interactions.

On the subject of sprint runners, Jamaican athletes often refer to the singularity of their history. Like many of their contemporaries in the Caribbean region, Jamaicans are descended for the most part from men and women deported to the Caribbean islands from West Africa between the 17th and 19th centuries to work on plantations.

The athletes say they are the descendants of men and women who survived slavery and the fight for its abolition (which took place in 1834 in the British Empire) and the fight for independence (whose 50th birthday was cheerfully celebrated by Usain Bolt). This hypothesis must be taken into account.

As everywhere else in the world, history, culture and genetics cannot be separated from one another. History has a double influence on the human genome: one is temporal (the succession of generations) and the other one is spatial (geography and climate have a slow influence on each generation and the best-suited genes for local conditions pass on to the next generation).

The human (culture) or natural (altitude in particular) environments as well as diet have an impact on gene expression, and therefore affect the physical potential as well.

When history impacts genes

The Jamaican athletes’ history could have definitely helped the emergence and interaction of genes that favor speed. Through genetic testing, it has been shown that some genotypes, such as the ACTN3, are directly linked to athletic performance. Some genotypes are linked with stamina, others with strength and power.

Yet the influence of genetics over athletic performances remains unclear and must be approached very cautiously.

For example, Usain Bolt’s height (196cm) plays a key role in his outstanding velocity. Everybody stresses the size of both his stride and feet. Regarding body size, Bolt follows a logical progression initiated from Jesse Owens (178cm) to Carl Lewis (188cm).

Height is mostly hereditary: children with tall parents are very likely to be tall themselves. We know of more than 200 genes that are associated with height, yet they account for only 10 percent of ‘heritability.’ In other words, even when using the best DNA sequencing techniques, we don’t know what accounts for the other 90 percent of this highly transmissible phenomenon. Scientists know it has to do with genomics, but the answer to the puzzle is still inaccessible.

In a world with non-linear, multi-dimensional patterns, it is difficult to come up with proof of such a complex determinism; multiple causes and an infinite number of interactions come in play.

It is impossible to isolate a child’s genes to predict future athletic performances, but the myth of early detection based on genomic factors is still widespread.

A cultural identity

Jamaica’s success in sprint running also lies in the effort and investment the country deploys in this field. Sprint has a special place in Jamaica’s sporting identity. It is everywhere and remains highly valued at school. The popularity of sprint as well as the large amount of skilled coaches has led the emergence of young talents who are influenced by the outstanding performances of their fellow citizens at world-level competitions.

Recent economic growth in Jamaica has brought top-quality infrastructure to the country. Athletes now enjoy better training facilities, with optimal weather conditions.

For many years, Jamaican athletes had no choice but to choose the United States as a training ground, which did not always help them succeed. Some even went as far as giving up their citizenship. But the situation has changed. Usain Bolt trains at home under Jamaican coach Glen Mills’ guidance.

The only cloud in the sky is doping. One should not forget that a third of the athletes who made Jamaican sprinting team at the 2008 Olympics have already been sanctioned for at least one positive test.

Yohan Blake started his international career with a three-months ban after using a prohibited substance. Even Shelly-Ann Fraser, who has won two Olympic Gold medals, tested positive for drugs in 2010.

Behind each success lie many different factors. In this context, sport still achieves to create emotional experiences, whether in victory or defeat. Yet it must also stay fun.

As he is reaching the peak of his career, young Usain Bolt is perfectly aware of it.

* Jean-François Toussaint is the director of France's Biomedical and Epidemiological Institute of Sport (IRMES)

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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