Indigenous Australians make up approximately 2% of the population, though in some elite Australian sports they comprise a much higher proportion of competitors. Do they have some genetic advantage, or is there some other factor at play?
This over-representation of indigenous athletes in specific sports has led to many people supposing that they have some advantage, whether genetic, cultural or environmental. This is potentially a contentious issue, here we'll present some study results which indicate indigenous athletes have particular characteristics, which hopefully can lead this largely ignored area of scientific research towards more discussion and further research.
As an example, in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games there were several high profile Australian indigenous athletes in track & field events, such as Kathy Freeman (400m), Patrick Johnson (100m), Kyle Vander-Kuyp (110m hurdles) and Nova Peris-Kneebone (400m). Of particular interest is that these examples are all from speed events.
In another high profile Australian sport, AFL football, there is also an over representation of Aboriginal players compared to the general population. Just some of the Indigenous Australian stars of the game include Polly Farmer, Nicky Winmar, Michael Long, and Adam Goodes, just to name a few.
In the Northern Territory, where there is a 28.5% indigenous population, there are approximately 50% indigenous players in the local football league. At the national level, there were 46 indigenous players on senior AFL lists in 2000, representing 7% of players, well above the national 2% population average.
To many Australians there is a stereotype associated with Aboriginal athletes. Such players are said to be lithe or agile, fast, and skillful. This is also considered to be an ‘instinctive’ or ‘natural’ ability, even ‘magical’ as some may put it.
“The classic Aboriginal footballer ... is lithe, fast and skilful” C Walker (Inside Sport, 1992)
“... seem to contain a little magic foreign to the rest of us” (Herald Sun, 2000)
The notion of dark-skinned people having superior speed may in part be a consequence of the international dominance of black West Africans in the speed and power sports, who genetically have no great similarities to indigenous Australians beyond skin colour.
The perceptions of different abilities for indigenous athletes compared to non-indigenous Australians require investigation, to see if there is any scientific basis to the physical aspects of the stereotype. No scientific research on the physiological attributes of indigenous Australians has been found. The research that has been conducted in this area, by Hallinan et al. (1991), has focused more on sociological factors and discrimination, showing differences in playing positions and opportunity for indigenous players.
A study was conducted using athlete data from the Northern Territory of Sport (Wood et al. 2000), comparing the size and performance characteristics of indigenous and non-indigenous AFL players on their scholarship program between 1997 and 2000.
The fitness test measurements that were taken included age, height, mass, skinfold total, vertical jump, and also in an AFL specific vertical jump test off a single leg with a 5-stride run-up, 40m sprint with timing gates to measure splits at 10, 20 and 40 meters, and the beep test to measure aerobic fitness.
Analysis of the player data found the indigenous players were significantly shorter, on average by 4cm. They also tended to be lighter, though not significantly, possibly as a result of them tending to have a higher skinfold level. There was no difference in leg power, as indicated by both vertical jump tests. As for running speed, the indigenous players were significantly faster over 10, 20 and 40 meters, most of the speed difference was over the first 10 meters. Aerobically, there was no difference between the groups, with both achieving close to level 11 on the beep test.
Regional & Positional Affects
In Australia, to be considered indigenous, you do not have to prove any particular level of indigenous ancestry. Therefore, this indigenous group may include a wide range of genetic mixes. The indigenous population from the regional areas of the NT, the communities, are culturally different than those from the Darwin area, and are also generally more likely to be full-blooded or close to full-blooded Aboriginals. The players from outside of the Darwin area were generally less athletic. They tended to be lighter, have lower skinfold levels, slower 10m sprint times and lower aerobic fitness.
The fitness differences of the indigenous players may be a consequence of a bias based on a greater representation of players from certain playing positions. There were more indigenous players along the centre-line, while there were more non-indigenous players playing along the half-lines. In the positions generally requiring taller players, the ruck and full forward and full back positions, there were slightly greater numbers of non-indigenous players, though the sample size was small.
In the paper by Hallinan, they found a similar pattern in the rucks and end field positions. They concluded that the positional segregation is an indicator of discrimination, though it may also just be the case of the players being placed in positions better suited to their physical size and physiological attributes. For example, the centre-line positions, which had a higher proportion of indigenous players, is a position in which height is not as important and where speed is an advantage.
These fitness test results support the public perception that indigenous AFL players are faster. Other aspects of the stereotype, skill and agility, were not measured. However, it could reasonably be seen that the smaller and lighter indigenous players may require greater agility and skill levels to compete on an equal level with their generally larger non-indigenous opponents.
Although it was found that the indigenous players from the NTIS squad were shorter and faster, this does not necessarily apply to other groups of indigenous athletes or the population in general.
This preliminary study highlights the need for further research on the physiological and skill levels of indigenous athletes. More detailed physiological, biological and genetic studies are warranted to investigate this important area of research, though there are ethical and cultural difficulties hindering this.
- Wood, R.J., Marsden, J.F. and Finn, J.P., Comparison of size and performance characteristics of indigenous and non-indigenous Australian Football League players at the Northern Territory Institute of Sport, Proceedings of the 2000 Pre-Olympic Congress: Sports medicine and Physical Education International Congress on Sport Science, 2000.
- Walker, C, Native Ability: there’s something in the way they move; something special about Aboriginal footballers, Inside Sport (Sydney, Aust.), 1(85), Aug 1992, p58-65.
- Hallinan, C. 1991 Aborigines and Positional Segregation in Australian Rugby League, Int. Rev. for Soc. of Sport 26(2), p69-81.
- Fitness Components for AFL
- Profile of Polly Farmer, AFL legend and Indigenous Australian
- Fitness for Australian Football
- AFL Player Anthropometry
- AFL combine tests
- AFL Polls