What Made Arkansas’ Record-Setting 2012 Track Team So Unique

Record-setter Marek Niit in action. Courtesty: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I recently talked to a former Razorback  about pioneering Olympian Christophe Lemaitre and how elite white sprinters are viewed in the track world at large. Cedric Vaughn, now the track coach at Arkansas Baptist College, knows his sport very well. When he was in Fayetteville, he ran the 200 meter and the 4X400m and 4X100m relays while teaming with the likes of Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon. To this day, Vaughn keeps in touch with both Olympians and sometimes stays at their Fayetteville homes when he visits his alma mater.

Vaughn, also a trainer at D1 Sports Training, first emphasized training plays a large part in a sprinter’s success. Still, the genetic component is undeniable. And, on the whole, people with West African ancestry tend to have more body features better suited for sprinting, he added. “I really believe African-Americans are built more athletically” for running, citing studies which confirmed blacks tend to have more efficient fast-twitch muscles. Moreover, the French journalist Phillippe Leclaire recently released a book on the subject bringing up another factor – ACTN3, the so-called ‘sprint gene.”

The ACTN3 was discovered for the first time by a team of Australian researchers in 2003. It is a gene present in all humans in two forms, either the RR form which helps speed, or the RX form which aids endurance.

“Since its discovery, a lot of research has shown that the RR form of the gene gives those who hold it explosive muscle power when the body is put under a certain amount of physical stress, so it’s a natural predisposition for sprinters,” Leclaire explained.

“If you had a weak form of ACTN 3, it would be impossible to match the great sprinters,” he said.

Leclaire concluded that the genes favourable for sprinting are more commonly found in those of West African origin.

There are exceptions, of course, which explains how French sprinter Lemaitre has been able to compete in the same class as the likes of Bolt and fellow Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake.

Jeremy Wariner, former 400m champion, may be the best recent American example of such an exception. In the early 2000s, Wariner was a track star at Baylor who visited Fayetteville for a 2004 meet. Vaughn recalls he and his teammates seeing Wariner for the first time. “It was a big shock,” he recalled. “It was like ‘Dude, he’s really good. And he’s white.'”

To be clear, Wariner’s race didn’t cause any hangups or conflict. He was still popular with teammates and even opponents. In fact, it was usual for Wariner  to sit and mingle with opponents during meets (this is normal in the college track world for all athletes). Along these lines, Vaughn noted this year’s Razorbacks track team was extremely unusual because it included three Caucasians on its elite relay teams.

In the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships, Arkansas foursome of   Marek NiitAkheem GauntlettBen Skidmore and Neil Braddy won

Fort Smith native Neil Braddy also feels at home on the straightaway. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

the program’s first title in the 4×400-meter relay event. They combined for a time of 3:04.92, helping the UA finish #2 overall.

A couple months later, at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championships , Caleb Cross took Skidmore’s place and the foursome clocked the fourth-fastest 4X100m  in school history. With a  winning time of 39.23, the UA got its first conference title in the event on its way to a 13th SEC Triple Crown.  Arkansas’ 196 points at these championships is the second-highest team score in school history, trailing the 223-point tally of the 1994 team.

Cross, Gauntlett, Braddy and Niit finished a half a second slower in the NCAA championships, clocking a 39.73. Still, there Arkansas finished sixth overall in the event, its highest finish since the 1994 season when the quartet of Jimmy French, Vincent Henderson, Chris Phillips and Derrick Thompson posted a fifth-place finish.

I don’t know how often three Caucasians comprise an elite NCAA relay team, but Vaughn tells me it’s very rare in recent decades. “You ask any of the sprinters and they will tell you this is not the norm.” This was likely coincidence, not representative of some emerging trend. Vaughn added the UA’s ability to draw top sprinting talent from Europe makes a difference.  Razorback Marek Niit, who ran 100m and 200m at these London Olympics, is Estonian.

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