The prospect of Kenyan athletes winning most of the long-distance races at the Olympics this year has generated discussion about whether Kenyans – in particular, the Kalenjin – are genetically predisposed to running.
The latest of these discussions appeared in The Atlantic last month, where associate editor Max Fisher made an elaborate – but unconvincing – claim that supported earlier research by the Danish Sports Science Institute that concluded that “Kalenjins must have an inborn, physical, genetic advantage”.
He cites the researchers who noticed that Kalenjins had a higher number of red blood cells (which, as any medic will tell you, is normal in people who live in high-altitude environments) and that their “bird-like” legs made their running “less energy-intensive and give their stride exceptional efficiency”.
Fisher admits that his assertions may be misconstrued because “racial politics can make the genetics of African athleticism difficult to talk about in the West”.
However, he fails to convince the reader that his analysis is not based on the idea that biology is destiny – an assertion that has been used for centuries to keep “lesser races” in their place.
After all, no one would dare do a gene-based analysis to determine why Jews dominate the media and entertainment industries in the US or why Indian and Chinese children do so well in science (though the latter studies have been attempted, but never quite succeeded, in convincing people that Indian and Chinese brains are different from the rest of the world’s people).
Fisher just cannot fathom why “this medium-sized country of 41 million dominates the world in competitive running” or why “20 of the 25 first-place men in the Boston Marathon have been from Kenya” and why “of the top 25 male record-holders for the 3000-metre steeplechase race, 18 are Kenyan”.
Kenyan writer Jackie Lebo – who also happens to be a Kalenjin – provides an explanation. Lebo spent a lot of time studying a top training camp in Iten where she discovered that Kenya’s most successful runners don’t just wake up one morning and decide to run a marathon, but that they undergo vigorous and intense training that can be “all-consuming”.
Kenya’s marathon runners don’t owe their success to their “bird-like legs”, but to their sheer hard work, discipline and dedication.
In a recent article titled Running, Lebo writes that the typical day for a runner begins at 5.30 am, when the athletes run for about an hour, followed by breakfast, and then more training. At 9.30 or 10, they have day-specific training for six days of the week.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, an easy to moderate run. Tuesdays, speed-work at Kamariny track, Thursdays are alternated between hill-work and Fartlek training and Saturday, a long run of 30 to 40 kilometres, where they reach as far as Moiben.
Sunday is the only day of rest, with most of the trainees going to church and the family men leaving, perhaps once a month, to visit wives and children in other towns.
Betty Wamalwa-Muragori, who was a tennis champion in her youth, says that it is socialisation and the presence of good role models within the community – not genetics – that determine athletic success. She told me that in the days when she played tennis, 90 per cent of the team were Luhya like her.
It turned out that many of the team members’ parents knew each other and tended to imitate each other, including sending their children for tennis training.
The children soon learnt about the financial and social benefits of winning and competed even harder. “Now if they had measured the length of our limbs, what would they have found?” she quipped.
Many of Kenya’s winning runners come from humble and similar backgrounds. They see their fellow villagers coming home with big prizes and they want to be like them. So they train – very hard – to achieve similar success.
Potential athletes in other parts of the country see that running can be a way out of poverty and they begin training – and winning. That is what brought success to non-Kalenjins such as the late Sammy Wanjiru and John Ngugi.
Interestingly, most of the winners have ordinary legs that don’t look anything like a bird’s.