At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Kenya shocked the running world when its top male runners won the 800, 1,500, 5,000 metres and the 3,000-metre steeplechase gold medals. The 2012 London Olympics are here, and Kenyan athletes are, again, doing what they know how to do best.
What is the secret of these East Africa running machines? What makes Kenyans so good that they beat the world? So far, science is yet to explain that ‘unique running gene’ in Kenyan athletes, but there have been numerous explanations still.
Just 26 years ago, all middle and long distance races at the international level were dominated by Europeans, who boasted 43 per cent of the top 25 best athletes in races ranging from 800 metres to marathons. Africans contributed only 27 per cent, of which 13 per cent were Kenyans.
That changed within a span of 17 years. By 2003, the proportion of Africans among the top 25 best athletes was more than 85 per cent, Kenyans accounting for a stunning 55 per cent, while Europeans were reduced to a paltry 12 per cent.
According to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the decline of Europeans from the top list is not as a result of running slower — they still run as fast — but Kenyans and Ethiopians now run faster, breaking records and setting new ones.
The turning point for Kenyans can be traced back to the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when a Kenyan hero, Kipchoge Keino, won a gold medal in 1,500 metres and a silver medal in the 5,000 metres race. Since then, Kenyans have continually dominated international distance running events. The continued success has led to opinions, myths, assumptions and theories, both scientific and non-scientific.
The mystery of Kenyan runners is further heightened by the statistic that 80 per cent of all international athletes come from one small ethnic group of just four million people, the Kalenjin, with the Nandi sub-tribe accounting for majority of the runners.
The success of black-skinned athletes, particularly Kenyans, Ethiopians and sprinters from West Africa and recently Jamaica, has fuelled the stereotype that probably athletics is a ‘Blacks’ thing. But this is quickly watered down by the fact that not all countries with a black-skinned population produce successful sprinters, marathoners or long distance athletes. The latter are essentially produced by two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia.
A mouth-watering statistic leaves no doubt that Kenya is a factory churning out world-class athletes. Out of the last 25 Boston Marathons, Kenyans have won 19 of them. This year Wilson Kipsang won the London marathon, ensuring that out of the last nine London marathons, eight have been won by Kenyans.
Incredibly, of the top 25 male record holders in 3,000 metres steeplechase, 19 are Kenyans, including the world record holder Stephen Cherono, who defected to Qatar and took up a new name Saif Saaeed Shaheen.
The fact that athletes who win these medals and set these records come from small tribes in a specific region in The Great Rift Valley means it is easy to conclude that they are endowed with ‘proper running genes’. But without strong scientific evidence, that remains a speculation, a myth.
Several studies have tried to explore this line of argument without coming near to singling out a gene that is the sole benefactor of Kenyan athletes. One speculation is that Kenyan and Ethiopian runners share a ‘unique running gene’ as a result of many years of isolation in the course of evolution. This possibility was assessed by studying the mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) which is inherited from the maternal parent and is used in evaluating how species or different populations are related in the course of evolution.
Surprisingly, the mtDNA of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes were different, although they all perform exemplary well in long distance races. This shows that the two regions in Kenya and Ethiopia that share successes in distance running have a different ancestral contribution to their gene pool. This finding, therefore, objects the idea that these athletes have maintained and developed the ‘ancient antelope chasing’ endurance as a result of millions of years of isolation from migration and mixing with other races.
In fact, the Ethiopian athletes have genes more similar to some Europeans’.
Although the studied athletes from Ethiopia did not show any differences in mtDNA genes, their Kenyan counterparts had a higher frequency of two categories of the gene, mtDNA LO and M haplogroups. Randall Wilber of United States Olympic Committee and Yannis Pitsiladisis of University of Glasgow, UK, say that perhaps these genes influence the level of athlete endurance, but they do not explain the outstanding performance of Kenyan athletes.
The assumption of an isolated gene pool is also discredited by the analysis of Y-chromosome distribution. Y-chromosome is the gene inherited from a paternal parent. The Ethiopian elite athletes have a different Y-chromosome distribution when compared to the general population and that of Arsi, which produces the largest proportion of athletes. It is either that the distinct Y-chromosome influences the endurance performance of Ethiopian athletes, or the population from which athletes come has a different Y-chromosome.
The second extensively studied gene is alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) gene. One variant of this gene is found in high frequency among Australian elite athletes, with another variant of the gene occurring in low frequency among sprint athletes and the other variant in high frequency among female endurance athletes. According to Dr Nan Yang of the Institute of Neuromuscular Research in Australia, who has studied these genes among East and West African athletes, there is no evidence of their association with the performance of Kenyan runners.
It seems the theory of gene, based on the studies that have already been carried out, somehow crumbles quite fast under strict scrutiny.
Although it cannot be dismissed entirely, probably future research with more advanced techniques will pick that elusive ‘proper athletic gene of Kalenjins’.
The failure of scientific studies to concretely link genes to the success of Kenyan Athletes has led to the notion that these athletes are successful because they live in high altitudes. Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes come from geographical areas of The Great Rift Valley that lie in high altitude of about 2,000 to 2,500 metres above sea level. Kalenjins contribute 80 per cent of the Kenyan elite athletes, while the Ethiopian runners come from the Arsi and Shewa tribal regions.
The advantage associated with high altitude is ‘living high’ and ‘training high’. At high altitudes there is low oxygen, making training at high intensity strenuous. But those who consistently train at high altitude find it relatively easy to compete effectively at low altitude where there is high pressure.
What surprises scientists is that the Kalenjins are able to train on a consistent basis at race speeds in high altitudes which lowlander athletes from Europe and America cannot replicate. It is thought that after living in these conditions for millions of years, Kalenjins got acclimatised.
However, living in high altitude as the main contributor for Kalenjins’ success can easily be shot down by arguing that people from other parts of the world who live in high altitudes — such as Colombia and Nepal — should also be good distance runners.
Living in high altitude and training consistently is associated with developing good oxygen transport and usage during an intensive exercise. This is technically called high maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max).
It is reported that Kenyan elite athletes developed high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of walking and running from an early age, which ultimately contributed to exceptional endurance-running at later stages in life.
Studies by Dr Vincent Onywera of Kenyatta University have alleged that Kenyan elite athletes (80 per cent) used to run exceptionally long distances of sometimes more than 10 kilometres to and from school. Similarly, it is asserted that 70 per cent of Ethiopian marathon runners ran average distances of between five and 20 kilometres as opposed to walking to and from school.
However, this claim that running at an early age contributes to maximal oxygen uptake is scientifically disapproved by the findings of two respected athletic researchers, Saltin in 1995 and Prommer in 2010, who observed that Kenyan, Scandinavian and German elite athletes have similar oxygen uptake whether measured at a high altitude of 2,100 metres or at the sea level.
The other thing that is also associated with success of Kenyan athletes is their physical structure. Kenyan athletes’ body type is described as ectomorphic somatype, which is considered to contain low fat, does not gain weight easily and is characterised by long, slender legs.
In contrast, the Ethiopian elite athletes have a body type described as mesomorphic somatype that is characterised by high muscle mass which can shed or gain weight easily. This body type is more similar to that of North Africans, some European and Asians.
Based on body type, Kenyan athletes have legs that are five per cent longer when compared to Scandinavian athletes. In addition, their calves are 12 per cent lighter. As a result of this, Kenyan runners have lighter limbs that require less energy to swing, granting them a biomechanical advantage. They are also more metabolically economical in race-pace running velocities. Probably this could be the special features that make Kenyan athletes ‘fly’.
But again, Ethiopian athletes have a different body type which is similar to that of some Europeans and they also perform exceptionally well.
Once a study is carried out on the biomechanical and metabolic efficiency of Ethiopian athletes, it will be possible to draw a concrete conclusion.
Could it be that diet offers Kenyan athletes an advantage? According to Dr Onywera, the Kalenjin diet is composed of 10 per cent protein, 13 per cent fat and 77 per cent carbohydrate. Ugali is the main source of carbohydrate and is prepared from maize flour. It is served with vegetables or meat stew.
Immediately after training sessions, Kenyan athletes enjoy a cup of tea, which serves as an ‘energy’ drink to replenish sugar stores in the body after training.
Both Ethiopian and Kenyan diets appear to be favourable for training and performance in middle and long distance events. But, according to Randall and Pitsiladisis, this diet is similar to that of European, American and Asian athletes. The researchers, therefore, dismiss diet as a factor.
According to Dr Onywera, processed food that is often branded ‘junk food’ is alien to Kenyan athletes, whereas most Europeans and Americans grow eating them. For example, Kalenjin breakfast is mainly uji, a porridge made from millet. European or American breakfast is made up of either breakfast cereals, sausage or a cup of yoghurt. When an American athlete is picking an ice cream, most likely a Kalenjin athlete is chewing sugar cane.
The difference in diets agree pretty well with the findings of a Danish researcher who noted that the body mass index (BMI) of Danish children was higher than that of Kalenjin children. The difference in eating habits could also be responsible for the differences in body types, but does not fully explain the success of Kenyan athletes.
The possible secret
After evaluating the factors thought to dictate the success of Kenyan athletes, I am inclined, like many writers before me, to say that it is a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental and psychological factors that contribute to Kenyan’s athletic prowess.
When Kipchoge Keino won gold and a silver in 1968, he was celebrated as a hero, feted like a king and even today he is a respected celebrity in Kenya. Kenyan elite athletes confess that they run to beat poverty, to escape drudgery, to make it in life.
Running, to them, seems the easiest route to stardom and better life. Therefore, they use everything at their disposal to run and be successful like the rich and famous role models in their backyards.
Myths, conspiracy theories and assumptions are hard to dispel, but it seems Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have learnt the secret as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success.
In the book, Gladwell explains what makes people like Bill Gates and Beatles (English rock band) world class. First they have the talent or interest, they work hard on it consistently for at least 10,000 hours to hone their skill, they master it and voila! they become superstars.
Think of the William sisters and tennis. Think of Tiger Woods in golf. Even the famous inventor Thomas Edison said “genius (call it success) is one per cent inspiration (you may call it talent/gene) and 99 per cent perspiration (hard work).
Can anyone just train and become an Olympics gold medallist? Perhaps no. You have to have something special, for example, the body features of Michael Phelps (swimmer), the height of Michael Jordan (basketball player), and then perfect the advantage.
Similarly, it is true that Kenyan athletes have a body type that is suited for running (which may be influenced to some extent by genes) and live in an ideal training geographical location (high altitude), but for them to reign, they train hard, consistently, sometimes under very difficult and unfavourable conditions.
And, finally, there is that drive, the thing that tells them to hold-on when exhaustion and tiredness sets in; the psychological motivation of wealth, fame and celebrity status.
Dr Joshua Arimi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Food and Health, UCD, Dublin, Ireland. These are his own opinions and in no way represent the views of his employer, UCD. See more of his articles at www.arimifoods.com