Watching the Winter Olympics at Sochi is a wonderful way of seeing the important role that culture and environment play in athletic achievement. I often refer to the Winter Games as the White Olympics — not because of all the snow and ice, but the overwhelming preponderance of white athletes who dominate the events.
Looking at the results one might conclude that Europeans are genetically engineered to be superior in Nordic sports. But science teaches us that there are no significant differences in athletic or intellectual ability based on skin color, ethnicity or geography. All humans are descendants of people who originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago.
They made their way to Europe about 40,000 years ago and to the Americas between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago.
Regardless of color or ethnicity, humans have common DNA, the building block of all life. We are 99.8 percent identical in our genetic makeup. We look different because our ancestors moved across the planet and stopped in different locations. Separated from other groups by mountains, rivers and oceans, occasional mutations occurred that helped them adapt to their environment — for example, skin color lightened in cold climates to allow the absorption of sunlight and vitamin D, and darkened in hot climates to protect against overexposure to the sun's rays.
These changes did not alter our basic genetic structure. We can exchange blood, tissue, bones and organs because we are all human — homo sapiens — thinking man. But sometimes we become preoccupied with racist stereotypical depictions of one another, trapped by myths that separate and divide us. While it may be convenient to assume that some ethnic groups have a genetic edge in skiing, running and jumping, science does not support such conclusions.
In his recent summary of the effects of genes on athletic performance, The Sports Gene, writer David Epstein was careful to note the confluence of social and cultural factors that enter into the formula for athletic success. Researchers at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College have been able to predict the medal outcome of Olympics with 95 percent accuracy by factoring in a country's population and per capita gross domestic product. The best predictor of a nation's Olympic performance is GDP because it reflects investments made in recruitment and training athletes. Host countries win an additional 1.8 percent of the medals beyond that predicted by GDP because of their mobilization of resources.
Just as false stereotypes about the genetic athletic superiority of certain groups must be avoided, so too must we guard against pernicious assumptions about the intellectual superiority and inferiority of other groups.
The primary determinants of success on the athletic field as well as in the classroom are motivation and opportunity — how hard are we willing to work to achieve success and what kinds of obstacles must we overcome to fully participate in society. When we stop trying to rationalize our successes and failures based on genetic makeup, we can focus on the real barriers that impede our progress as a species.
H. Roy Kaplan is the former executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay. His latest book, "Conflict and Change in a Multicultural World," will be published in April. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.