I write this from Iten, home of, among many others, Sharon Cherop, winner of the 2012 Boston Marathon.
If one spent any significant amount of time here, it would be hard to believe that Kenyan athletic “success may be innate “ as stated by Max Fisher in his 2012 article in the Atlantic Online titled, Why Kenyans make such great runners: A story of genes and culture.
The article exhibits a complete failure of imagination, research and knowledge. I have spent the last six years interviewing hundreds of runners, coaches, officials in Iten, Eldoret, Kaptagat, Kapsabet, Kisii and Nyahururu.
I have lived with athletes, watched their training and travelled with them to races in the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy the US and Japan, as well as watched many local races here in Kenya. I will give a short history of the sport in Kenya and the context in which the running dominance occurs.
Fisher cannot imagine that, as in many centres of excellence, there exists a system of knowledge, institutional infrastructure, and people that has created and sustained Kenyans’ running dominance.
Fisher did not interview any Kenyan athletes, coaches or administrators, though a good number of them were present at the Boston Marathon, where a sweep of both the men’s and women’s races by Kenyan athletes was the starting point for his article.
Instead, the writer used dated and controversial studies to draw the flawed conclusion that Kenyan runners are dominant because of their genes.
Kenya’s first major international competition was the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, where Nyandika Maiyoro was fourth in the three-mile event, Lazaro Chepkowny was seventh in the six-mile race, and the Kenyan team was fourth in the 4-by-400m relay. At the Olympics in Melbourne two years later, Maiyoro was seventh in the 5,000m race.
By the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where Abebe Bikila won East Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in the marathon event, Maiyoro was sixth in the 5,000m race and Seraphino Antao and Bartonjo Rotich reached the semi-finals of the 100m and 400m hurdles, respectively. At the 1962 Commonwealth Games, Antao won Kenya’s first Club gold medals in the 100 and 220 yard sprints.
The Perth Games also saw the first appearance of Kipchoge Keino, who would go on to become Kenya’s most famous runner of that era. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics saw Kenya’s first Olympic medal, a bronze earned by Wilson Kiprugut in the 800m.
It was at the 1968 Mexico Olympic games that Kenyan athletes came into their own, winning 11 medals, including three gold by Amos Biwott in the steeplechase, Naftali Temu in the 10,000m, Amos Biwott in the steeplechase and Kipchoge Keino in the 1,500m.
From 1954 to 1968 there was a steady progression where Kenyan athletes, coaches and officials were interacting with the best in the world, learning from them, adapting their methods to fit the Kenyan training regime, and creating strategies to beat them.
The late Seraphino Antao told me in an interview he improved his training methods after meeting world leading sprinters like American world record holder and Olympic gold medallist Bob Hayes and Peter Radford, the British world record holder. This led to Antao’s Commonwealth Gold medals.
On learning that altitude may be a factor at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, coach Charles Mukora moved part of the team’s training to Nyahururu, situated at high altitude.
Mukora and his coaching team also devised the strategy of Ben Jipcho going out really fast in the 1,500m so as to confuse the rest of the field, especially the American Jim Ryun, the then world record holder and pre-race favourite. It worked as Kipchoge Keino stormed to victory.
Other breakout athletes of the ’68 Games in the disciplined forces include Jipcho (Kenya Prisons) and Naftali Temu (Kenya Army). The disciplined forces continue that tradition today, hiring young athletes after high school, and, predictably, winning national athletics competitions every year.
Iten is home to more than 1,000 runners from various parts of Kenya. An additional 1,000 runners live and train within a 70-km radius in Eldoret, Kaptagat, Kapsabet and Cherang’any. Further afield in Kisii, Ngong, Nyahururu and Ukambani, there are another 1,000 runners. Some estimates put the figure of runners training in Kenya at 5,000. All running, not for recreation, but targeting excelling at the very highest levels of the sport and doing little else but eating, resting and training.
At the edge of Iten stands St Patrick’s High School. Founded in 1961 by Patrician Brothers, the school held both academic and sporting excellence in equal measure. St Patrick’s teams have been national high school champions in basketball and volleyball numerous times. They have excelled in football and hockey at regional level and produced many world-class runners.
In 1976, a young Irishman named Brother Colm O’Connell came to the school to teach Geography. He found a strong athletic programme run by Peter Forster, the brother of British Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Brendan Forster. Peter Forster was aware of the programme that his brother used, so the training at the school was already at a high level.
A year later, Peter Forster finished his volunteer term at St Patrick’s and Brother Colm became the new coach. He learned from the athletes, read all the material he could get his hands on, and attended coaching seminars in Nairobi.
The school had already produced Olympians such as Mike Boit, the 800m bronze medallist at the Munich Olympics who, by 1976, was in the American collegiate system. But it was the identical Cheruiyot twins running in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics while still high school students that captured the public imagination. At the 1988 Seoul games, Peter Rono became the first Brother Colm-trained athlete to win an Olympic Gold.
In those days running was a way to get a job after high school in state-owned-companies such as Kenya Posts and Telecommunications, Kenya Railways and the disciplined forces — the military, police and prisons. All these organisations provided infrastructure in the form of coaches, training facilities and salaries so the athletes could focus fully on training.
The coaches came to high school championships to scout and recruit the best runners for their teams. And if a runner’s grades were good enough, it was a way to get into American universities with a full scholarship. Competition to get into St Patrick’s became intense and there were many promising athletes who could not secure a place at the school.
Brother Colm set about establishing a system that would take the St Patrick’s method to other schools. In December 1989, he started a holiday youth camp for athletes and coaches from the region, and soon Sing’ore, Kapkenda and Tambach high schools had strong athletic programmes. Kitang, Kapcherop and St Francis Kimuron high schools soon followed, as did primary schools like Mokwo.
What the holiday youth camp in Iten did was to consolidate gains made by Kenyan athletics in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and take that knowledge to a wider and younger pool of potential athletes. In the 30-or-so years that the camp has been in existence, nearly 2,000 athletes have passed through it.
They include David Rudisha (800m world record holder), Wilson Boit Kipketer (former 3,000m steeplechase world record holder), Sally Barsosio (1993 World 10,000m champion), Wilson Kipketer (former 800m world record holder and three-time 800m world champion), Mathew Birir (1992 Olympics 3,000m steeplechase champion, Rose Cheruiyot (1995 All Africa Games 5,000m champion), Stephen Cherono (former 3000m steeplechase world record holder), Janeth Jepkosgei (2007 800m World Championships), Edna Kiplagat (2011 Daegu World marathon champion), Brimin Kipruto (2008 Beijing Olympics 3,000m steeplechase champion), Vivian Cheruiyot (2011 World 5,000m and 10,000m champion), and 2012 Boston Marathon winner Sharon Cherop. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
The late ’80s and early ’90s was also a time of great change at the IAAF. Under the leadership of the entrepreneurial Primo Nebiolo, the Federation’s annual budget grew from $50,000 (Sh5 million) to $40 million (Sh4 billion).
Nebiolo believed runners should make a living from the sport, just like football and basketball players. He approached companies, signed big sponsorship packages and negotiated lucrative television deals.
Athletes at the top of their events could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each season. Stars were made, there was a rejuvenated interest in the sport and races started to pop up in many cities and towns as they could attract sponsorship.
Among the Kenyan athletes to benefit from professionalisation of the sport was Douglas Wakiihuri, who won the marathon at the World Championships in Rome in 1987.
In 1989 he became the first Kenyan to win the London Marathon and the second Kenyan to win the New York Marathon in 1990. Other outstanding athletes from this period were John Ngugi, five-time World Cross Country Champion and gold medallist at the 5,000m in the 1988 Seoul Olympics; as well as Paul Kipkoech, the Rome 1987 World Championships 10,000m gold medallist.
The economist and 2011 MacArthur Fellow Ronald Fryer says that if you want to understand people, you have to look at “which direction the incentives are pointing them to”. With the professionalisation of the sport, runners stopped looking at athletics as a way to get a job or a college scholarship and started looking at it as a way to earn a living.
The first prize at the 2012 Boston Marathon was $50,000 (Sh5 million), and this did not take into account appearance fees, in the $100,000 (Sh10 million) to $250,000 (Sh25 million) range for top athletes, and shoe company bonuses. Kenyan runners do not operate in a vacuum, they operate within a global sports economy worth billions of dollars and overseen by the likes of Nike, Puma, Adidas, Asics, Brooks, New Balance, Under Armour and Champion.
The 2011 running shoe industry in the US alone was worth $2.33 billion. In 2010, 13 million people in the US finished road races, up 73 per cent from the year 2000. They buy running shoes, tights, shirts, hats, gels, power bars and energy drinks.
When an Adidas-sponsored Kenyan athlete wins the New York Marathon and breaks the course record, the company gets huge publicity, which in turn helps with product sales. Moments like this — course records and world records — are written into the athletes’ shoe contract, earning them lucrative bonuses and providing a strong incentive to run faster and faster.
When the first professional runners came back from the European circuit and paid cash for land, houses and cars, the young people around them took notice. The holiday youth camp at St Patrick’s provided the model for the professional training camps that sprang up in Iten, and many young people flocked to the camps with the dream of becoming star athletes.
In a country where higher education opportunities are limited, running presents a very real path to a better life, and that is why so many youngsters plunge into it.
The confluence of these events — a long athletic tradition that went back to the 1950s, a stable country with institutions from schools to the disciplined forces and professional camps where training could evolve to the highest levels, connections through international athletic managers to races all over the world where there are large sums of money to be won in the face of limited opportunities, and many young people attempting the sport, making competition cut-throat — has kept pushing the boundaries of distance running.
Nowhere else in the world do you get this combination of factors, except, perhaps to a lesser extent, in Ethiopia, Kenya’s perennial distance-running rival.
Within these institutional frameworks you find a system that can now exploit elements like altitude by living in the higher elevation of Iten and training at the lower elevation of Chepkoilel. There are other places in the world where high altitude occurs, like Nepal and Columbia, but they don’t have the institutions and resources dedicated to athletics that Kenya has.
This system exploits the fact that Kenya is an agricultural country that has relatively cheap food to meet the nutritional needs of its athletes. This system exploits the fact that, compared to other sports, distance running is relatively cheap to fund and the barriers to entry are low — all you need are two pairs of running shoes and a track suit, easily obtained at any second-hand clothes seller.
This system exploits the fact that its rigorous training methods prepare athletes for the toughest competitions. This system exploits the fact that Eldoret has an international airport that is a 45-minute flight to Nairobi, and from there you can catch a flight to races all over the world.
This system exploits the fact that since many of the top distance runners in the world are here, the young runners in their training groups are always pitting themselves against the best. When these slim margins are stacked up, they constitute a considerable competitive advantage.
When the results of this system are presented, as in Fisher’s article, as “how an ethnic minority that makes up 0.06 per cent of the world population came to dominate most of its long-distance races”, it shows a complete lack of knowledge or understanding and reinforces a superstitious rather than factual approach to Kenyan running dominance.
It also perpetuates the myth that for a Kenyan to be a successful athlete all he or she has to do is lace up a pair of trainers. For every runner who makes it, there are ten who don’t. Of the more than 2,000 runners who have gone through the holiday youth training camp in Iten, only slightly above 200 have made it to international level. Some 90 per cent don’t make it. And the 90 per cent that don’t make it were already at the top of their school or division. If this statistic made it into articles as often as the other one does, it would bring some much needed perspective into the discussion.
The observable in Kenyan running is far more awe-inspiring than the mythical. That is why runners from all parts of the world now come to train in Iten. After a stint in Iten in 2012, British athlete Paula Radcliffe, then the women’s marathon world record holder, ran her best 10,000m in years.
Another British athlete, the 2012 breakout distance runner Mo Farah, credits part of his success to spending time with Kenyan athletes.
Genes cannot be passed on by observation and immersion in the Kenyan athletic system. But knowledge can. On the day of the Boston Marathon, young runners from primary and high schools in the Rift-Valley were reporting to St Patrick’s holiday youth camp. For some of these 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds, it was the beginning of a long and difficult journey to the peak of distance running.
On the first day of the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Kenya won all six of the medals that were on offer, sweeping the women’s marathon that morning and the women’s 10,000m in the afternoon. Given that dominant display, those looking for easy answers would attribute it to genetics.
But the back story on the first day of Daegu was that women’s athletics in Kenya was evolving just as women’s roles in society were evolving. Both gold medallists Edna Kiplagat and Vivian Cheruiyot, as well as marathon bronze medallist Sharon Cherop, had been through the holiday youth camp in Iten, which gave equal opportunity to both male and female athletes — each session had 20 male and 20 female athletes.
The women’s ascendancy also had an economic component: men’s running had become so competitive that it was hard to make a living while there was a lot more to give in the women’s events, yet the prize money was equal.
Now, Edna’s and Vivian’s husbands, both accomplished runners in their own right, had given up their own careers and were focused on training with and taking care of their wives as the couple could earn much more in that arrangement.
There have been no changes in the law, as Mr Fisher states in his article, apart from the new Constitution that was promulgated in August 2010, and the ascendancy of Kenyan women athletes started years before, fuelled by increased education and opportunities.
Though Mr Fisher states in his article that “scientific research on the success of Kenyan runners has yet to discover a Cool Runnings gene”, he goes on to base his article’s genetic argument on two controversial studies that look at physiological traits. The studies, hardly neutral in the first place, do not even identify specific genes.
The first Kenyan to participate in the Winter Olympics was Philip Boit. Boit, a former distance runner, spent nearly two years preparing for the Olympics but came in last in the 10km cross-country skiing race at the 1998 Nagano Games. Bjørn Dæhlie of Norway won that race.
Dæhlie has also achieved one of the highest VO2 max scores ever recorded, which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption of the body during exercise. The top ten list has two other Norwegian, one Swedish and one Finnish cross-country skiers. It is almost impossible to imagine a Kenyan journalist then writing an article that states the accomplishments of Northern European skiers was the result of high VO2 max and this was in turn the result of genes.
It is also difficult to imagine a group of Kenyan scientists taking Philip Boit, Kenya’s skiing ‘superstar’, to Norway and then being amazed if he was beaten in a skiing competition by a group of Norwegian schoolboys.
Another area where athletes from Nordic countries have excelled is the javelin throw. When the Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego wanted to improve his performance, he turned to YouTube: since Kenya focuses so much of its resources to distance running, he did not have proper coaching.
The knowledge he gained from watching champion javelin throwers such as world record holder Jan Zelezny and Olympic Champion Andreas Thorkildsen on the internet led to a national record and a gold medal at the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo.
Jackie Lebo, producer of the athletics documentary Gun to Tape, is a writer and film producer with The Content House.