My complaint to the BBC – (Olympics 2012 – the timing of the race and eugenics item)

10 August 2012

I thought the eugenics item before the Usain Bolt race was inappropriate, crass, badly timed, and questionable it its message. Out of all of the sports in the Olympics where white people do well, the one that black people excel in, was analysed from a race perspective in the minutes before the race began. Families with young people all over Britain (and globally) were watching, and I have to question why the BBC editors felt that was an appropriate time to show such an item. As a full length documentary would have been fine, and given the suitable length to cover such a thorny topic. With so many young people watching television of African Caribbean heritage, to be shown an item which suggests their achievements were the result of slavery, and not their own achievements, was disturbing. Black children are having a really difficult time in education and motivations to excel in a challenging cultural environment, and for the BBC to send a dubious suggesting achievements are primarily nature not nurture, undermines those if us working hard to show black children that they are more than a product of slavery and Empire, and that they have their own self worth and agency. Breaking out of stereotypes for black people is hard. Now at school, fast black runners will be accused of being a product of slavery. One of the few open gates for black children has now become stigmatised. This has been an amazing Olympics for the BBC, but this issue is deeply troubling and disappointing.

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Sent to the BBC via their complaints page – 


I am not saying to discuss such a topic was racist in itself, but the timing and context to show such an item was inappropriate for such a sensitive issue, and as such it could encourage a crass form of racism and stigmatization as a result.  Also though bear in mind this comment on Twitter, which is also highly relevant:

Dean ‏ @Emperor_D9
This nature/nurture argument is pissing me off! When Black athletes win its down to their genes. When White athletes win its hard work! KMT!

15 thoughts on “My complaint to the BBC – (Olympics 2012 – the timing of the race and eugenics item)

  1. Shawn. Nice article. Had to comment here rather than Fb as well. I would argue that discussing this topic from this angle at that precise moment was indeed racist. Context is everything, as Dean Emperor notes in the tweet,
    I look forward to the BBC eugenics article about how white middle-class and upper-class people are genetically predisposed to rowing and equestrian events. Sport is a brilliant frame for studying ‘race’ and nation, as it simultaneously brings everyone together and sifts them into groups.

  2. From AT on Facebook.

    I thought – well I couldnt put it better than you did, Shawn. Quite disturbing….

  3. From VR on Facebook.

    Agree with you wholeheartedly Shawn. There’s a time and place for such discussions, this was not it.

  4. From SG on Facebook.

    Pop eugenics in a slot watched by tens of millions of people. What was the objective of this film. Michael Johnson managed to talk about environmental (or social) factors afterwards in the discussion, but the agenda had already set. People can’t win medals because they train so hard and develop an attitude that enables them to win in a highly competitive context: they must have a genetic edge, right? So even having ancestors who survived the Transatlantic slave experience gives some people an ‘unfair’ advantage. I’m certain to hear about this in my class next year.

  5. From DB on Facebook.

    I’ve got to admit it totally threw me, wasn’t expecting that!….. time for some answeres please!

  6. Well said. I would expect a public appology from BBC. The program directors at these television stations must have taken a special class in racism. NBC television here in the States aired a commercial of a monkey doing gymnastics or ballet after Gabby Douglas won her indivual gold medal.

  7. DN on Facebook

    Well put Shawn totally agree, the timing was bizarre IMO. I watched Michael Johnson’s documentary and it was very interesting and felt it gave the topic the time and effort it requires, not appropriate as a filler between events in a sports programme. Johnson from his research was clearly the only person who had a clue what he was talking about (this has been a theme through the Olympics think he is outstanding!). I have looked into this subject whan I was at Uni and basically like Johnson was saying there is no such thing as ‘natural talent’ you can have physical attributes that are clearly going to aid you in certain events ie if you are 6ft 6 you are going to be a better high jumper than a 5ft person but in the end of the day it all boils down to how hard you work, the coaching element etc. not your genes and bless Denise not the weather!

  8. It cannot be as simple as socioeconomics. Genes must play a part. Many wealthily countries with majority white populations consistently fail to produce good white sprinters, whereas Jamaica consistently produces the best sprinters with a tiny population and with few resources. The white-dominated sports, e.g. rowing, are not comparable, since they are not attempted by enough people of African origin for us to know how good they would be. Calling these discussions racist is avoiding the question of whether there is a fact to be explained (the domination of running events by black athletes) and whether genetics plays a part in such an explanation. Either it does or it does not, but one’s political position or dislike of discussing genetic trends makes no difference to the truth or falsity of such a claim. The only issue is whether it should be shown in the time slot it was, which hinges on its potential misinterpretation, not its actual claims.

  9. Hello David,

    If you read my complaint you’ll see I did not say it was racist to discuss this issue, the problem was in the inappropriate way it was handled, in a 5 minute slot in-between a high profile sporting event. The main issue is one of editorial bias. For example, Dressage is a sport that is predominantly done by white upper class practitioners, but the BBC did not do a similar 5 minute item on how the class system has affected that sport. Any of the sports can be open to analysis of why the winners are who they are when cultural patterns are noticed over a long period of time, so I was not saying the subject is not valid to discuss, because of course it is, but the way it was handled was wrong and offensive.



  10. Thank you Shawn, I feel that you articulate an important point of issue here. I feel this slot was totally inappropriately placed and potentially very damaging and under mining to young black peoples moral and status. I think this is a real example of how the media perpetuates and promotes racist thinking. Well said Dr Sobers

  11. The short doc should have mentioned the nuture side of the debate, but at least it didn’t deny it, and gladly it seemed to be clarified pretty well after by Johnson and Jackson in the studio after the doc.

    I thought the short doc suggested that there was a gene that scientists have found that seems to aid sprinting and people descended from slaves have more chance of having this due to surviving the terrible conditions of slavery, which makes sense. But as Colin Jackson said afterwards, although 97% of African athletes have this gene, 80% of Caucasian athletes do too.

    But the doc concluded by saying – “For now, we are no where near saying that child X will win one day because he or she has inherited the right cocktail of genes. For the moment we are as unpredictable and full of mystery as ever. As Darwin said, from so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved.”

    On that, I don’t think it is as bad as you suggest, as it seems to conclude they are far from certainty; there is a theory with some evidence to back it up. If it is true, then it cannot be denied, if you are descended from slaves you may be more likely to possess the gene or genes that make you fast than if you weren’t descended from slaves. It could also be seen to motivate and empower young black kids as it would suggest that they exist because of their superior genes and the brutality of slavery did not defeat their close ancestors.

  12. Hello Phil,

    My main gripe with the timing and how the item was handled, in a short 5 min film. It is too complex and sensitive an issue to be dealt with in such a crass way in an inappropriate time slot. I’m all for the debate of the content, but I feel the way the BBC handled this was irresponsible.

    All best,


  13. AF on Facebook

    Thank you for raising this Shawn. The insensitive handling of this topic risks undoing much of what we all tried to achieve in 2007.

  14. AD on Facebook

    Black people are declared super human as the result of white misadventure, it’s interesting. But slaves weren’t selected and bred for their strength alone, so I think there’s more to come with this line of thinking. Lest we forget that cream, for all it’s qualities, rises to the top.

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