Sports Zone


Photo archive

My high school chemistry teacher was a burned-out veteran educator who spent inordinate amounts of valuable teaching time ridiculing the achievements of black people. He didn’t like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he didn’t like sprinters, who were mostly black, and dismissively ridiculed their achievements by declaring they were born with natural advantages but could not win the ”thinking man’s” races.
Nearly 50 years ago, instead of teaching us how to balance equations, he said: ”Put them in a thinking man’s race like the mile, and they can’t compete.” How I wish he lived long enough to eat his words and see how Africans excel in the ”thinking man’s races” today.
Since bursting to the top of the leaderboards in the late 1980s, Kenyan runners have dominated distance races. This is not the first time one region’s dominance has come under scrutiny. Before Kenyans, Scandinavians dominated the distance events for decades.
Journals, studies and opinions offer various explanations. After reading scores of views and studies providing data on the subject, I think it wise to step lightly into this debate, if only to avoid being proven a fool in the future.
With that caveat, here is a summary of objective facts and various theories offered to explain Kenyan excellence.
The facts:
• Kenya small African nation of 50 million, has produced a disproportionate amount of elite and winning runners in the Steeplechase, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters, mile, marathon, and other long-distance races through the past 30 years.
• 1988, 22-of-32 men’s race winners of the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan.
• Since 2000, when a Kenyan woman first won the Boston Marathon, Kenyan women have won 13-of-20 races.
• Since 1987, when a Kenyan man first won the NYC Marathon, Kenyan men have won 15-of-33 races.
• Three-fourths of Kenyan champions come from the Kalenjin tribal group, an ethnic minority of 4.4 million people.
• Most Kenyans are poor. Fame, as a runner, lifts one from poverty.
The theories:
• Kenyans are born and raised at an altitude that gives them higher aerobic capacity, an advantage in long races.
• Kenyans have unique body structures (skinny legs) that help them run efficiently.
• Kenyans run fast because running or walking to school or work is an essential mode of transportation within Kenyan society.
• Kenyans, being of the Nile region (Nilotic people), have evolved an array of superior genes for running distances.
• Kenyans are skinny in scientific terms, Low Body Mass Indices.
• Kenyans don’t eat junk food.
• Kalenjin people have a history of cattle raiding, wherein fast runners poach other tribes’ cattle. (Really, I did not make this up)
• Other countries have grown more slothful and obese and develop fewer elite runners.
Theories are fun, but as my college zoology professor often said, ”Theories are only so good as the facts that back them up.”
While there are elements of truth in each of these theories, no scientific data has identified any singular cause explaining why Kenyans – and other North African people – run so well.
Sometimes others are just better at something because they care about it enough to work harder at it than everyone else.
I’m going out on a limb to declare the reason why Kenyans win so many long-distance races: They run faster than the other racers.



View this profile on Instagram


The Chronicle (@thechronicle1909) • Instagram photos and videos