April 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm #12481
After the pair of podium sweeps at Boston, the question has presented itself again. The Atlantic had an article by Max Fisher on the topic that lead to a prompt reply by Alex Hutchinson at Runner's World's Sweat Science blog for using some very questionable “facts”.
The gist of the story by Fisher is that we can't discount the role genetics plays in Kenyan dominance. Hutchinson agrees but points out that Fisher found some very disputable “facts” to back this argument up. I have to agree. Sweden's famed national track team? Hmm, I don't recall the “Swift Swedes” like I do the “Flying Finns”. I'm drawing a complete blank on those great running legends who hailed from Sweden. Kalenjin boys on 3 months training beating track superstar Thomas Nolan? I don't recognize that name among track superstars from around 2000 and it appears the fastest of those Kenyan boys ran 16:16. That's impressive but it means even I was faster than them in 2000 and I wasn't even a local superstar, much less an international superstar.
So what does make the Kenyans and, to a lesser extent, Ethiopians and other East Africans dominant in distance running? Well, in that question lies the problem in answering it. Too many people are stuck looking for a single “what”. Those who insist it's genetic are looking for a single “fast” gene. Those who believe it's societal want to look at nothing beyond kids running to school barefoot. Those who believe it's environmental want to look at nothing other than the elevation of the Rift Valley.
It seems rare for anyone to say what I see as the obvious: what if the answer is all of the above? What if they have some genetic traits, such as long slender legs, relatively small torso, maybe even genetic components we can't see like more elastic tendons or some optimal balance between different muscle fiber types, as well as hundreds if not thousands of other possible variations? What if they also have societal advantages, such as walking/running-centric society, less time spent in front of screens and more outside being active, again as well as hundreds if not thousands of other possible variations? What if, in addition to those things, they also have some environmental advantages, such as living their whole lives at elevation, living in less developed/polluted areas and various other factors? What if, in addition to all of those things, they have more motivation to take up running and train very hard because runners there can retire from running rich after winning a single race and because runners are treated as heroes, much like football players or musicians or actors in this country?
What if all of those things combined to make them dominant in distance running? I have trouble believing any of those single variables in a vacuum could produce the sheer dominance we see today. However, combine all of those advantages as well as the many possible advantages I haven't mentioned and I can see why they are dominant.
The problem in this discussion isn't that there is no answer to why the Kenyans are dominant. It's that there are so many answers, all of which play a role, that many people refuse to grasp the full answer. They want simple answers. It's the genes. It's the long, skinny legs. It's the kids running to school barefoot. It's living in the Rift Valley. It's the hard training. They won't accept the answer that's right in front of their faces: it's all of these things and much more. A few people accept this answer but they are drowned out by those looking for a simple, one variable answer.
April 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm #32389
How about another fact – they train incredibly hard. Not too mention that for most Kenyans, winning a couple of marathons means that they live wealthier than most of their compatriots for years on end.
April 19, 2012 at 6:08 pm #32390
Ed, I tried to cover that with this:
What if, in addition to all of those things, they have more motivation to take up running and train very hard because runners there can retire from running rich after winning a single race and because runners are treated as heroes, much like football players or musicians or actors in this country?
The fact is one could write a dictionary-sized book and still leave out factors. I think I listed most of the biggest, most obvious factors. Still, I left out dozens, if not hundreds, of factors. My point is that people only seem interested in trying to find that one key, which is a fool's errand. Even listing a half dozen factors doesn't cover the full spectrum of why they are as good as they are.
April 20, 2012 at 1:24 am #32391
I was reading the most recent Sports Illustrated and it said 16 Americans have broken 2:10 (4:58 pace) ever. Thirty-eight Kenyans did it in October.
April 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm #32392
Double, I saw that somewhere online. Also, almost 300 Kenyans have met the Olympic A standard while most countries are struggling to get 3 runners qualified. It's pure dominance. While Ethiopia is making a strong showing in 2012, in 2011, no nation was even close to Kenya. To expect that level of dominance to come from a single variable with the thousands of variables involved in all of our lives, in my opinion, is the height of naivete.
April 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm #32393
This country is obsessed with the idea of a silver bullet. It has to be just one thing that is the key to:
Attracting the opposite sex
a lasting marriage
and on and on and on
Most Americans have given up on the idea that it takes hard work to achieve that which is important to us.
April 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm #32394
Not just this country. It seems like most of those looking for a single key to Kenyan dominance in distance running come from Europe. Look at where the studies are coming from.
The thing to remember: it's not just hard work. That's the whole point. It is no one single thing, even hard work. If it were just hard work, do we really believe the Kenyans would be this dominant? Ryan Hall is the only American working as hard as them? There are no Europeans working as hard as them?
April 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm #32395
Like with any story of lasting, genuine success, it is the result of a heaping helping of both nature and nurture, a confluence of several factors resulting in a proverbial perfect storm. Why is (American) football or baseball a flop in the UK and Europe? Not for a lack of an appropriate talent pool, it is a sport that simply does not fit well into the culture there. Why is soccer, despite decades of youth (club, high school, college) development, still so poor on the top/pro level in the US? A similar story. India is just as impoverished and surely has a distributed talent pool that could rival Ethiopia's or Kenya's and yet no good (world elite level) distance runners have emerged.
May 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm #32396
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