A few days ago, the (London) Daily Mail published an article that began:

Olympic legend Michael Johnson says a ‘superior athletic gene’ in the descendants of West African slaves means black American and Caribbean sprinters will command the sport at the London Games.

The Olympic gold medallist and BBC commentator said: ‘Over the last few years, athletes of Afro- Caribbean and Afro-American descent have dominated athletics finals.

‘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?’

If you’re American, you will probably be puzzled by (the American) Johnson’s comment that certain people “have dominated athletics finals.” In the U.S., athletics is an all-purpose term, pretty much a fancier and more formal version of sports (sport to you). In the U.K., however, athletics is used as Johnson was quoted as using it: to refer to track, that is, running, events.

I said that Johnson was “quoted as” saying athletics. I bet that he did not actually say it, but rather that the Daily Mail–not known for its journalistic scruples–doctored the quote to make it understandable to readers. Anyone think otherwise?

14 thoughts on ““Athletics”

  1. I haven’t been able to find any independent citations of Mr Johnson using the phrase “athletics finals”, but the process of searching has left me queasy. (Suffice it to say the kinds of people likely to tag onto a Daily Mail article where a black man says he thinks black people are genetically predisposed to running are not the kinds of people I’m particularly interested in knowing better.)

  2. If he really is a BBC Commentator on sports, there’s a pretty good chance he’s smart enough to edit for a British audience himself. Smarter Americans do it all the time (ie, Jay Leno talking about petrol).

  3. Three points from a British reader:
    1 While you are right about the differences between UK/US use of `athletic(s)’, Michael Johnson was specifically referring to sprinters, i.e. the narrow British meaning rather than the broader American one.
    2 British newspapers originally reported that the story would `not create a ripple’ in the US as the story is too controversial.
    3 US media have picked up the story but most misquote the Daily Mail and refer to an `athlectic gene’, which seems to alter Johnson’s original point by broadening it from running to all sport(s).

    1. Thanks, Richard. I definitely understood that Johnson was referring to the narrow British meaning. However, I thought “athletics” referred to all running events, not just sprinting.

      On point 3, you have a typo, so I’m not exactly sure of your point. In the Daily Mail, he is quoted as referring to “a superior athletic gene.” This is accurately quoted in USA Today, which is where I first saw the quote. So are you saying that Johnson actually referred to “an athletics gene” (referring to sprinting) as opposed to “an athletic gene” (referring to general physical attributes and ability)?

  4. To clarify, the British use of ‘athletics’ refers to track and field events, like the javelin, shot put, long jump, etc., and not just running.

  5. And the world authority for track and field is the International Association of Athletics Federations.

  6. So I suspect this isn’t a simple US/UK divide, and that Johnson wasn’t using a Britishism. There seems to be an international use of athletics to mean track and field, and as a world champion Johnson is probably as familiar and comfortable with the narrow international use as with the broader American one.

  7. As a little update, Johnson was commentating on the BBC during the Olympics and was consistently using British phraseology. I assume he had been coached on British English before the games (or simply had enough experience abroad at international competition that he knew what to say to be understood).

  8. One oddity in this regard is the use of the phrase “Athletic Union” at a number of British universities (but by no means all) to mean a federation of sports clubs. This may be pretension or it could reflect a much older usage of the term that’s otherwise died out in the UK whilst carrying on in the US.

  9. Michael Johnson has been a regular commentator/pundit on BBC athletics coverage for several years, so even if he has not been specifically coached, there’s no doubt he’ll be very familiar with the British vernacular.

  10. In British English, I would suggest that there are subtle differences in use between:
    a) the noun “athletics” – track and field type sports, as in the World Athletics Championships,
    b) the adjective “athletic” – someone who is good at sports of all sorts, or at least chooses to keep fit even if not to specifically participate in an organised sport, and
    c) the noun “athlete” – someone who participates regularly in sport of most or any sort, with some implication of doing so at a reasonable skill level. Our media continues to talk a lot about our Olympic and Paralympic Athletes meaning all participants not just the track and field ones.

    And although I would absolutely agree that the Daily Mail is not a reliable source, Michael Johnson is certainly a well-respected commentator here and I am sure that he understands the subtleties of British English use.

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