Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest review
In Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, Michael Johnson embarks on a fascinating personal journey to try and discover what enabled him to become the fastest man in the world, and achieve world records in the 200m and 400m. He continues to hold the record for the fastest 400m in history.
In the documentary, he makes a controversial link between slavery and speed. ”Is there a clue in our history that would explain our athletic ability?” he asks.
Michael Johnson is a very charismatic host, and it is easy to follow him on his journey as he explores his own family history. He always knew he was descended from slavery, and now looks to unravel the full story. In so doing, he asks if this story enable him to become one of the fastest people on earth.
Johnson admits that it is a potentially dangerous question to ask, as it links athletic ability with some sort of forced, unnatural selection. During the horrific period of slavery, only the strongest would survive en route from Africa to the Caribbean. In some cases, ‘strong’ women and ‘strong’ men would be forced by the slave masters to reproduce in order to produce strong children.
In Jamaica, 90% of its people are descended from slaves. Jamaica was the last stop for the slave ships, and was, as Johnson describes, “the dumping ground for the most troublesome slaves.”
Johnson asks whether other factors played a part in Jamaican sprinting success. One teenager suggests it is yams and bananas. Another says it is their determination to prove themselves to the world. Dr Herb Elliot, doctor to the Jamaican sprinting team, says it is because they simply want to win.
But Johnson believes there is more to it than this, and that slavery played a big factor in determining the athletic genes of slave descendants. Indeed, Johnson finds that these genes are not always positive, and descendants from slaves are more likely to suffer from prostate cancer and diabetes.
Another aspect Johnson explores is the advantage of a diverse gene pool. Slaves were forced into groups of people across Africa who would otherwise never have met and reproduced, and it mixed together an incredibly diverse range of genes, with a large pool of potential talent. As Johnson himself discovers how many of his genes are descended from Africa, he remarks that he’s ”hopeful that what I’ve discovered and been able to present will provoke some thought.”
Through an intriguing combination of science and history, Johnson has unlocked a very controversial, and yet seemingly logical argument about a link between sprinting and slavery. “It’s undeniable in my opinion that there has been some effect of slavery on the athletic ability of slaves,” he says. Indeed, in Beijing 2008, every man in the 100m final was a descendant of the slave trade.
Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest is an excellent documentary, and can be viewed on 4oD.