A MELROSE-based DNA research project has confirmed it carried out the tests on Olympic legend, Michael Johnson, for a controversial documentary which claims the reason most successful sprinters are black is because they are the descendants of slaves.
Being broadcast tonight on Channel 4, Survival of the Fastest was written by Johnson, who also presents it.
And TheSouthern can reveal it was Borders author, historian and broadcaster Alistair Moffat’s Britain’s DNA research project, which operates from a small office in Melrose, that carried out the genetic testing used for the programme.
Johnson takes as his starting point a single question – why is it that all the athletes who lined up for the men’s 100m final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, could trace their ancestry back to the transatlantic slave trade?
Viewers will watch as Johnson goes on a personal genealogical and scientific journey to try to discover whether he and other world-class African-American and Caribbean athletes are successful on the running track as a result of slavery.
The four-time Olympic gold medallist and the greatest sprinter of his generation, Johnson discovers some shocking truths about the lives of his enslaved ancestors.
Thousands died in terrible conditions aboard the ships transporting them to their new lives of misery in the West Indies and America, while many more suffered horrendous brutality in the so-called “seasoning camps”, where they were beaten, tortured and raped to make them more pliable as workers on plantations.
Johnson interviews leading sport and science experts to examine whether there is a link between the transatlantic slave trade and genetic selection.
He also examines research that concludes this altering of genetic make-up has contributed to the success of African-American and Caribbean sprinters.
Johnson goes further, believing this “superior athletic gene” inherited by the descendants of slaves will mean they will again dominate the sprint finals at this summer’s London Olympics.
The last athlete who was not of African descent who won the event, was Allan Wells, who took gold in 1980 at the Moscow games.
Johnson explains: “It’s a fact that hasn’t been discussed openly before. It’s a taboo subject in the States, but it is what it is. Why shouldn’t we discuss it?”
Speaking to TheSouthern this week, Mr Moffat explained the part Britain’s DNA played in the making of the documentary.
“The production company behind the making of the programme came to us and asked if we would do all the DNA testing needed, as part of the programme,” he said.
“What we needed to do was test Michael’s DNA. We ended up having to chase him round the globe before he finally managed to do the spit test which I think he did while in San Francisco airport, of all places.”
The Britain’s DNA project has tested several thousand people across the UK since being set up last year by Mr Moffat – who lives near Selkirk and is the rector of St Andrews University – and Edinburgh University’s Dr Jim Wilson.
Using new technology, the scientists involved are able to pinpoint a participant’s DNA marker, from which they can track their history and lineage.
Mr Moffat explained: “Michael’s YDNA line from his father is from the Niger-Congo lineage which is most common in Cameroon, as well as across the rest of West Africa.
“His mum’s line is Takruri, which is also West African – so yes, absolutely, Michael is descended from slaves.”
Mr Moffat says being involved with the Michael Johnson project has been a fascinating experience.
“In The Survival of the Fastest, Michael argues that it was the appalling inhumanity of the slave trade that created a very rapid process of natural selection,” Mr Moffat said.
“The weak were either not bought by the slavers or died in the terrible conditions of the slave ships. Only the fit and fast survived.
“And so, in a small office up a close in Melrose, next to Martin Baird the butcher, we worked on Michael’s DNA – one of the fastest human beings alive – and told him two stories he had never heard before.”