Amos Biwott, Kenyan racer in the 1968 Olympics 3000 meter steeplechase, came out of nowhere. As did the African runners as a whole. Up until 1968, no Kenyan runner–no African runner–had medalled in the steeplechase and only one had medalled in any race. Since Mexico City, two-thirds of the 39 steeplechase medals have been won by Africans, and more than half by Kenyans–all of the golds in non-boycott years. Kenyans also now hold nearly all the world records in distance running from 800m to the marathon. How did the Kenyans come to dominate long-distance running?
Running Barefoot and Other Legends
Abebe Bikila was Ethiopian, not Kenyan. However, his back-to-back championships in the men’s marathon, in Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964, set the stage for the many African athletes who would follow. He was the first black African to win an Olympic medal (only white South Africans before him had). Only two men have ever managed to repeat as marathon champions, which puts him in select company. Lastly, Bikila ran barefoot. He did it because recently purchased running shoes didn’t fit properly, but in doing so created this near mythic image of the skinny, impoverished but stoic African runner.
Somewhat lost in this story is the fact that Rhadi Ben Abdesselam of Morocco came in second, another African. In fact, of the 62 marathoners overall who finished (nearly twice as many finishers than in 1956), 7 were African, and 4 of the top 10 were African. Bikila was the first, but the Africans had joined the party in force. The early 1960s heralded a wave of African talent, brought in through a combination of outreach by the IOC, funding by USSR/ African partnerships, and the rise of independent African countries transitioning from colonies.
For instance, for the Kenyans, it wasn’t the marathon but the sprints that heralded their country’s first source of pride. At the 1962 Commonwealth Games, Seraphino Antao beat a talented cross-section of British and Australian runners in the 100m and 200m races to win the first golds in international games. When Antao passed away in 2011, one Kenyan Minister accorded him “legend status” for starting the “Gold Rush” for Kenya. An immediate question might be, what were Kenyan runners doing before 1962?
The clue is in that name: Commonwealth Games, which had recently been called the British Empire Games, reflecting the conglomerate of territories that Britain “owned.” In 1962, Antao’s home country was called the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya and officially ruled through British treaty by the Sultan of Zanzibar. In 1964, which happened to be an Olympic year, Zanzibar and the U.K. released Kenya to become independent. For the first time, the Republic of Kenya was able to send athletes to the Olympics. That first medal, a bronze in the 800m by Wilson Kiprogut, also became the stuff of legend. It was Kiprogut’s distance medal, more than Antao’s sprints, that caught the country’s imagination.
In the next Games in Mexico City, Kenyan athletes won nine medals, all except one in distance running. They never (metaphorically) looked back. Still, how can the discussion of the Kenyan “rise” from out of nowhere fail to acknowledge that this occurred simultaneous with their ability to represent a new country? What more pride could you bring back to your new president than to be the first to win a medal on the world stage?
Kenyan’s subsequent success has led to a proliferation of essays and studies on the theme “What Makes Them So Good?” A typical scientific abstract suggests many potential factors: (1) Genetics; (2) Somatotype (Kenyan bodies are often tall with skinny legs); (3) Walking/running everywhere from childhood onward; (4) High carb/low fat diet; (5) Living and training at altitude; or (6) Motivation to achieve success. The possible genetic link becomes an obsession as paper after paper tries but fails to establish a connection. One study, for example, searched to see if the mitochondrial DNA of elite Kenyan runners was unique but found instead that the same DNA was present in many other non-running or non-Kenyan populations.
Other attempts to show the genetic, “inborn” link struggle with the idea of a control group. If you compare elite runners from Here to elite runners from There in order to draw genetic conclusions, you miss other characteristics of Here and There. Even studies which compare Kenyan teenage runners to other countries’ teenage runners are still comparing trained runners. If you really want to conclude that Kenyans are better genetically, you’d want to compare their non-runners to other people.
For runners, it’s not just the genes that are different, and not only just the critical characteristics of location (altitude), diet, and culture. It’s also key differences in training methods, race tactics, and the countries’ expectations for athletic success. If you understand pre-Games hype around American swimmers or female gymnasts, you can imagine what it’s like for Kenyan distance runners. When your teams start winning, your team is expected to keep winning. Recent examples of a few Kenyan trainers turning to doping, like they do in other countries, reflect that immense pressure.
Even without evidence, writers still continue to insist that there must be genetic superiority somewhere. In one frequently-cited 2012 essay in the Atlantic, Max Fisher claims that scientific references back up what must be a genetic connection. Yet, the citations link back, not to scientific digests, but to a British tabloid whose details don’t hold up. For example, The Guardian mentions a study of untrained Kenyan boys who reportedly beat a famous Danish track champion. Fine, let’s read the study. Only it turns out the “Danish track superstar” (Thomas Nolan) isn’t a track champion at all, but perhaps one of the scientists. Furthermore, that study doesn’t necessarily conclude that Kenyan teenage runners are better than Scandinavian (or other) teenagers. Instead, Professor Bengt Saltin concludes:
Thus, the reason for the superiority of the Nandi tribe in running compared with the other Kalenjin groups is probably not different genetic endowments. The reason is more likely that the first famous Kenyan runner, Kipchoge Keino, as a Nandi, gave rise to a tradition in his tribe that was followed by recruitment of talents to the High School where good organized training and competitions were early established.“Aerobic exercise capacity at sea level and at altitude in Kenyan boys, junior and senior runners compared with Scandinavian runners,” Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports, September 1995
Other Factors Aside from their Birdlike Legs
In other words, purported genetic superiority doesn’t have a real scientific backing, but is just speculative Internet hoohah based on Kenyans looking “birdlike.” Even the scientist says it may be more about how the early winners attracted good training infrastructure.
There are things about Kenya that help runners in competition. Kenyans live at high altitude, which is such an advantage that non-Africans often spend time in Kenya to find ways to improve competitively. It’s also true that Kenyan children tend to walk rather than be chauffeured places like their western counterparts. Perhaps they don’t all always run 20 miles to school every day, as was suggested in lyrical TV “up close and personal” profiles of yesteryear, but Africa is a walking and running culture, not a driving culture.
Then, there are race tactics. In only their second Olympics, the Kenyan team in the 1500 used a pre-race strategy to beat favored American Jim Ryun. Kip Keino’s teammate, Ben Jipcho, set a hot pace designed to melt Ryun’s finishing kick. It helped that Mexico City’s altitude was closer to Kenya’s own, but winning a gold rested in part by having at least one runner take one for the team. In the Olympics of the late 1950s, the Soviets were famous for such tactics. Such maneuvering isn’t a secret. Nobody wonders why bicyclists use team tactics in their races; they criticize the athletes who don’t.
Arguments like this article from NPR, which claims that Kenyans are especially good runners because they become accustomed to pain from teenage tribal initiation rituals, seem designed to look for any reason except the obvious ones. Kenyans train hard from childhood forward and are passionate about the sport. Arguing that a group’s sporting success is because of their built-in talent or “primitive” cultural practices fails to give them athletic credit where credit is due.
The Wrong Question
So let’s parse this down. Kenyans walk and run everywhere, practically from childhood. They work together as teams, leading to success for individuals. They also have some of the best training methods in the world, and expectations are now set for entrants to win. For a Kenyan, winning the marathon is like USA winning basketball. It annoys every other country but is considered a “must” for the Kenyan athletes.
Asking “why the Kenyans are good at running” is asking the wrong question. Better questions might be “What can athletes learn or take away from Kenyan training methods?” “What successful approaches in practice and on race day can other countries replicate?” “Why aren’t our athletes able to design team tactics that work as successfully as they do for Kenya?”
About Amos Biwott…
Back to where we started, that first gold in the steeplechase in 1968, sometimes the answer is innovation. Amos Biwott was a 10,000m specialist, who wandered into a local 3000m steeplechase only two hours after completing his longer distance race. He thought he’d “just have a go.” Coming in second put him into the national trials which got him to the Olympic team. In Mexico City, completely inexperienced at the discipline, he took a novel approach to the hurdles and water jumps. He jumped on the hedges and hopped across the water rather than running through it. He flew over the hurdles two feet at a time… “leaping the water hazard as if he thought crocodiles were swimming in it.” In the finals, as favorites Ken Kogo and George Young started to outshoulder each other on the final backstretch, Biwott loped up from last place to breeze by Kogo at the finish.
The Kenyans have been dominating 3000m steeplechase ever since, sometimes even ending dry-footed. By 1992, Kenyans had added running in group harmony: “Before the race started, we discussed the way each of us runs, our strengths and weakness…Our aim was to run most of the race together and leave it to the one who was strongest at the end to come home first for Kenya.”
Competing against Kenyans is not a matter of finding the magic gene. It’s about having better strategy and training methods. Or maybe jumping the hurdles with two feet? The Kenyans were willing to try all sorts of things. It might be worth a shot.
This post continues the series on the Olympics for the April A to Z challenge: