Twitter: A Parliament Of Tits

I find myself making an effort these days to use Twitter. I never used to. Twitter used to be something I did so I didn’t have to do something else; work, take the bins out, confront terrifying existential angst, that sort of thing.

But the novelty has worn off, partly because so many people use it now. Watch sporting events and you’ll get the Twitter handles of presenters and commentators popping up on screen in much the same way that other unwelcome and unnecessary things pop up on screen. Red button alerts, adverts, Piers Morgan.

And not just in sport. Newsreaders ask us to follow or tweet them our news. Question Time wants us to hurl abuse at the goons on its panel. Things reached an absurd low recently when the Twitter handle of Batman massacre perp James Holmes was flashed up on screen whenever court reportings featured him on the news (that didn’t actually happen).

So, there are many more people on Twitter these days than there ever used to be. And Sartre tells us about other people. As Twitter’s usage has exploded, its IQ has imploded. Idiots like Chris Brown are routinely retweeted by thousands of people. A wife-beating, woman-hating, talent-free wankstain has a team of people bigging him up for any conceivable action – walking unaided, respiration, continence etc – ensuring that his every move is broadcast to millions of others who have no interest in him whatsoever.

Elsewhere a man who has been in a film has been cheated on by his wife, who is also in some films. Hence thousands of people who have never met them, and never will, firing invective at one another, and their respective idols, as a kind of surrogate poison dwarf.

My most recent experience of Twitter idiocy was a lot closer to home and on a rather smaller scale. In a moment both awkward and clumsy, a Scottish man known for running quickly and inventing lycra in the 80s made a reference to his skin colour in front of a man of a different skin colour.

I’m not quite sure what made Allan Wells, completely unprompted, observe that he was the last white guy to win the men’s 100m in the Olympics (back in 1980 in Moscow with no Americans around). It was a bit odd and understandably felt a little weird, especially with Johnson sitting alongside him.

But there are very good reasons why he might have introduced the topic, which is central to the modern paradigm of sprinting and athletics. Black men rule sprinting and have done since Wells’ victory 32 years ago. More and more research has come to light about the physiology of black athletes of certain origins that suggests an unusual biological quirk that concerns things like fast-twitch muscle reflexes and the like. Put simply, if you’re black and carry certain DNA you’re a lot more likely to be able to run fast than a little Scottish feller.

I thought it possible that Wells was referring to this – “It was very special,” he said; “You’re in a very select group,” replies Gaby Logan, which is surely the piont he was making; Michael Johnson doesn’t bat an eyelid – and was making his statement as a source of pride: I am biologically inferior to the best black sprinters, as are most white men, but I nicked that one.

Wells’ Olympic gold may also be seen as the last hurrah of an era of athletics where people became sprinters almost by accident. No widespread funding for athletics; no wide take-up of the sport in certain parts of the world; no modern training, facilities, dieticians or biokinetics.

Like with many things, TV brought fame, money and professionalism, for want of a better word. The game changed. The best physical specimens in the world were genuinely competing against one another after 1980. Look at Alan Wells, a quiet bloke from Edinburgh and then look at his successor as Olympic champion, Carl Lewis. The difference between them is symptomatic of the enormous change between athletics in the 70s and the 80s.

I find it not unreasonable that Wells may have been attempting to invoke this paradigm shift in the history of sprinting. Either way it was clearly not malicious, pointed or prejudicial. Did Twitter consider these inflections, these subtleties, these shades of grey and give Wells the benefit of the doubt? No, there was a deluge of sniffy, disapproving tweets, many of which essentially claimed that Wells was being racist.

Wells did not help himself when he later appeared to call a Chinese weightlifter ‘horrendous’, but it was again unclear what his intent was. On rewatching it it sounds like he’s claiming that receiving a massage from the weightlifter would be ‘horrendous’ – a reference to the fact that she is very strong, in all likelihood.

Yet the die was cast. Wells was not only making racial comments, he was a misogynist too! Complaints would be made; blowhards apologised to Johnson on behalf of Brits everywhere; the Twitter frenzy was upon us once again.

This is all rather boring and a little depressing. The faux outrage, the smug sniffiness and willingness to judge was insufferable. And worse, the other side defending Wells for his glorious ‘un-PC-ness’; revelling in what they took to be a blow for outspoken iconoclasts (translation: racists).

The whole affair made me question what I get out Twitter. But it made me feel sorry for Wells too; a man who, I suspect, would be mortified by the way his comment was taken by both sides. A man who – like sprinting when he was at his peak – is of a rather different time and may speak artlessly about race and more besides, but without any prejudice or intent whatsoever.

Hell may be other people, but Twitter is the dimensional aperture beaming it into our homes. And what a terrible vision it is. A cacophony of nothingess. A chasm of self-satisfied yawning. A parliament of tits.

  • northers

    I don’t agree with the “black men have a biological advantage” idea. The central fault of it lies with seeing black people as a single group, whose ‘blackness’ is their defining characteristic. Black blokes come in all shapes and sizes from many countries. The Olympics pole vault gold medal has only ever been won by white men but it would be obviously ridiculous to say “white men with a certain physiology have a natural advantage in the pole vault.”

    The reason for the success of black sprinters is surely more to do with nurture than nature. The winning black sprinters have been from the US, Canada, UK, Caribbean and a couple of European countries. And Frankie Fredericks. Talented young black athletes in those countries are encouraged to go into sprinting and to practice their craft. (They aren’t encouraged to pole vault – but, who knows, maybe they’d win if they were).

    Matthew Syed’s book, ‘Bounce’, nails the whole thing. In any field, whether sport, music, mathematics or wherever, kids with the right basic tools/natural talent are developed in those areas where a) it is culturally expected for them to succeed, b) where there are brilliant training programmes, c) where there are role models and recent examples of success. It is why so many Chinese win at table tennis and why Britain now has a generation of success in cycling. It’s got nothing to do with genetics.

    The “fast twitch muscles” argument was popular 20 years ago but is a bit discredited – no one’s ever made a convincing scientific case. Sporting success always involves hard work and practice (even if it’s ‘unconscious practice’ e.g. kid plays football in the street from dusk to dawn and becomes technically brilliant). The colour/genetics theory obscures the incredible work athletes Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis and even Bolt (who pretends he doesn’t train much – but that’s only relatively speaking) put in over many years to get to where they do. Success is about practice in terms of volume (the 10,000 hours theory) and quality (the right, specific, type of practice). Nothing more, nothing less.

    The fact many top black sprinters have a West African-Caribbean heritage in unavoidable, of course. Michael Johnson himself is interested in the theory that slavery might have something to do with it – that during slavery only the very strongest and fittest survived and the Caribbean is full of their descendants. This might well explain why it produces so many good athletes; because so many of its people have the right ‘tools’ to succeed. But every one of them who has succeeded, has done so through practice and through being culturally encouraged to go into certain sports.

    None of this means there was anything wrong with Alan Wells making his remark and that’s why Johnson didn’t bat an eyelid. And why Twitter is, as you say, awash with self-righteousness, mock outrage..and tits.

  • Robin Brown

    No, I don’t necessarily subscribe to one theory or another, but whether genetics, unnatural selection or culture are the reason, this is what I think Allan Wells was getting at – and thought it was uncharitable for people to suggest there was something more sinister or unreconstructed.

    The wider debate is an old one – and a tricky one to navigate. There are all sort of reasons why – biological determinism and a whole minefield of related controversies are generally to be avoided.

    Certainly practice, dedication, attitude and support are the vast proportion of an athlete’s success, and that cultural exposure means more are likely to go into certain disciplines, but I also wonder whether it’s become taboo to suggest that elements of certain racial make-ups mean people may have natural, if slight or infinitesimal, physical advantages over certain others.

    I don’t know either way whether the case or not but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the question.

  • andylycett

    Northers, not sure if you saw it but a worthwhile watch is Michael Johnson’s documentary which concluded quite strongly that it is a lot of nature rather than nurture. Fascinating look into how the strongest people of the slave trade survived the terrible conditions that got them from Africa to America, and the trouble causers of the “strong” characters were left in Jamaica en route.
    It was a superb programme.

  • TopCat

    A great article Robin, and very interesting response Northers. It’s certainly got my mind whizzing from a psychology perspective…

  • andylycett

    Sorry Northers, missed your last paragraph completely. Doh! Always read everything twice.

  • Stairs

    Very interesting and enjoyable read Browny. I completely agree on Twitter. Although I obviously think he’s a bellend, I’d be inclined to cite our dear Prime Minister by saying that too many tweets definitely seem, these days, to make a twat. I mean just look at Aidan Burley.

    I haven’t seen the Michael Johnson documentary but I tend to agree with Northers that it’s probably more about nurture than nature. Runners like Christophe Lemaitre (and now perhaps Adam Gemili?) have shown that it IS possible for white men to be exceptionally good sprinters, and of course he’s right that black men come in all different shapes and sizes just like white men or men of any colour. I think it’s got to the point where black kids are much more likely to take up sprinting than white kids because they want to follow in their heroes’ footsteps. And let’s face it, if you’re brought up in a society where you’re from an all-too-often devalued and stigmatised group, you’re going to grasp with both hands anything that people from your ethnic group have excelled in. I don’t think there’s any doubt that kids are more likely to look up to and be inspired by people from the same or similar ethnic and socio-economic background, just the same way as lanky, morose, lower middle class white men like me tend to admire Jarvis Cocker more than we admire Li’l Wayne.

    Another point, which perhaps Northers was trying to touch on, is that it’s more to do with quality of training facilities, coaching, funding etc in an athlete’s home country than it is to do with race, i.e. if black men make the best sprinters, why haven’t there been any Nigerian, Senegalese or Liberian 100m champions? Because their facilities are probably shit. And perhaps if more white or Asian sprinters took up the sport in the UK, USA, France etc they might be able to benefit from the excellent facilities too and become Olympic champions themselves.

    However, it may of course be the case that, while it’s not impossible for white or Asian men to be excellent sprinters, there are still a larger number of black men who are biologically predisposed to becoming world class sprinters than there are men of other races. I don’t know.

    People often make the same point (in reverse) about swimming. Northers, as a man who’s read a lot more books about sport than I ever will if I live to 150, I’d be interested to hear your view on the often-stated “fact” that black men don’t make good swimmers because their muscle density is too high. Or do you think that’s just a case of cultural disposition as well? (i.e. there are currently no world class black swimmers so black kids won’t be inspired to take up the sport)

  • Robin Brown

    Again, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But I wouldn’t rule out the genetics reasoning totally either.

    The training aspect is what I was getting at with reference to the ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ eras (if you will) of sprinting. I suspect the chances were (as they probably are not with rowing, equestrian and certain other Olympic sports) that if you grow up in certain geographical, demographical and – let’s face it – income areas you’re a lot more likely to have access to decent training facilities and a culture that encourage your exploits. TV brought more exposure to athletics to people who may not have had access to it previously – and the cash that came it brought more training facilities, trainers and more. The era of the Allan Wells’ was gone.

    But I don’t think you can safely put this sort of thing down to either / or answers. I don’t agree that you can say that black men are not well represented in swimming (or whites in sprinting) solely because of culture, just I wouldn’t agree that it’s solely down to physical make-up. I suspect the former is far more important but I’d keep an open mind on the latter.

  • northers

    I think it’s well worth keeping an open mind about everything – and it shouldn’t be taboo to have this debate or examine these issues, which is why it’s great to do so here and among friends with well-considered opinions.

    I’d just repeat that it’s strange to talk about “genetics” and “black people” – as if all black people were the same. Nobody does the same with “white people.”

    In terms of swimming, it’s quite obviously a niche sport popular in a much smaller number of countries (and sections of society, after all you have to be from somewhere affluent enough to have year-round access to a good heated swimming pool) so there isn’t nearly the same country-by-country representation, let alone representation along ethnic lines. But we are starting to see black, mixed race and South Asian swimmers emerge and a couple of these did very well at these Olympics. I suspect as more black, middle class kids in the US, Europe, South Africa and Australasia are encouraged to get in the pool we’ll see more black swimming champions emerge.

    In these Olympics we’ve seen black rowers and black cyclists win medals. It’s all about participation numbers, practice and being culturally encouraged to take up certain sports.

    Badminton/table tennis – come on, would anyone say that because all the champions in these sports are from China or South East Asia then “the Chinese” have a “natural advantage”?!

    Stairs makes a brilliant point about the absence (apart from Fredericks) of West African sprinting champions – it’s to do with facilities, coaching and encouragement, surely.

    And Browny is right about Wells. He wasn’t making a point with any kind of subtext, just that the era in which he won his medal has now gone. Even his story goes back to environment and training though. He grew up in Edinburgh at a time when Edinburgh had one of the few professional sprint scenes in the UK. There was a famous race called the Powderhall Sprint, run at New Year from the time of Queen Victoria, which had (then) outstanding prize money. Wells’ wife, Margot, was herself a champion sprinter who became a coach. She was a famously fierce lady who scared the shit out of everyone (including Allan it seemed) and she trained him mercilessly and with huge ambition. At the time, Browny says, athletics wasn’t nearly so structured and ‘professionalised’ (at least not outside Eastern Europe, the US and Cuba) – so Wells had a huge advantage on many competitors.

    It’s also tacitly acknowledged he was on drugs – but then again pretty much everyone was.

    I still love him nonetheless and can’t believe a Scotsman was once a 100m champion – but then again, we’ve done pretty well at these Olympics so, who knows, maybe one day it’ll happen again…

    ps, Andy – I didn’t see the documentary, I was at the Euros, but I read about it and would love to watch it sometime. Michael Johnson is The Don of pundits, for me.

  • Robin Brown

    No you wouldn’t – and couldn’t – say that Oriental sportspeople are naturally better at ping pong or badders (though the Koreans absolutely ruled it when I was an up-and-coming cock-whacker) but sprinting is a bit different isn’t it. It’s purely about how fast you can make your body go. Bolt is interesting to ponder. We all know he trains hard but this is a guy who blitzes fields full of people who would be the top sprinter in the field in another era. He is – in the truest sense of the word – extraordinary.

    I’m not really willing to go any further down this route, however, it strikes me as a horribly reductive topic. And I don’t necessarily believe any if it – I’m advocating for Beelzebub and – in any bit above where I refer to black or White athletes I’m attempting to paraphrase what I thought Wells was saying. The crazy Scottish loon.

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