Kenyan Runners: Nature or Nurture?
by Steve Sailer
UPI, September 27, 2000
This Friday evening in Sydney, Kenyans try for their seventh straight Olympic gold medal in the 3000 meter steeplechase, that odd track event that combines distance running, hurdling, and splashing through water. Excluding the two Olympics they boycotted, the Kenyans haven't lost this event since 1964. Why do Kenyans perform so extraordinarily well in the steeplechase and other endurance races?
Is their secret that they all ran to school as children? Is it growing up at high altitude? Is it something they eat? Or, disturbing as this may sound to many in this racially sensitive era, do Kenyans also tend to enjoy biological advantages over the other peoples of the world?
Kenyan-born journalist John H. Manners, who has trained in the Great Rift Valley with many of top Kenyans, is writing a book called "The Running Tribe." He argues that one reason these slender and long-limbed Kenyan highlanders are the world's best distance runners is that Darwinian selection has equipped them with the ideal genes for running.
Whatever the cause of Kenyan superiority, no one can deny that it exists. Although two swift Moroccans have emerged to offer the first serious challenge to Kenyan domination of the steeplechase in years, runners from this East African nation still account for 91 of the 100 best times ever.
Kenyans appear to be at their best at the 3000 meter length, but they also excel at other distances. They've won a few Olympic medals in the 400 meter sprint, but they don't hit their stride until 800 meters. Manners calculates that from 800 through 10,000 meters, this country of only 30 million (0.5% of the Earth's population) wins about half of all the Olympic and World Championship medals for men's distance running.
In Sydney so far this week, Kenyan veteran Paul Tergat finished a close second to the great Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie in the 10,000 meters. World record holder Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan running for Denmark, earned a disappointing silver medal in the 800 meters.
The Kenyan record in the marathon is more mixed. They have yet to win Olympic gold. Still, having captured ten straight Boston Marathons, they certainly have the talent. (Why the discrepancy? Running a fast marathon can be permanently debilitating. Thus, many Kenyans prefer risking their health in Boston in the hopes of earning the price of a big farm back home rather than in the Olympics, where all you can win is a gold-plated medal and a hearty handshake.)
Even more remarkably, men from a single tribe earn three-fourths of Kenya's medals. The three million Kalenjin make up only one tenth of Kenya's population, and just 1/2,000th of the world's. Yet, these highlanders from the Great Rift Valley win about three-eighths of international men's distance running prizes. Within this region, the half million people of the Nandi district win one fifth of the globe's medals!
In 1990 physiologist Bengt Saltin, currently director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, took part of the Swedish national track team to St. Patrick's Academy in Iten, Kenya to race the world's greatest high school track team. The local kids repeatedly trounced the champions of track-mad Sweden. Dr. Saltin estimates there are at least 500 schoolboys in the region who could beat Sweden's best man at 2,000 meters.
Based on the results achieved by the finest Kalenjin runners, Berkeley anthropologist Vincent Sarich, the co-founder of the field of genetic anthropology, statistically estimates that the average Kalenjin could outrun 90% of the rest of the human race. (For comparison, using a similar method, Sarich estimated that the average African-American was a better basketball player than 80% of whites.)
Sarich also believes that the Kalenjins' average woman could outrun the world's average man … if both trained to their full potential. But, there's the rub. Until very recently, this polygamous culture discouraged women from doing much besides having babies and tending the farm. In the Eighties, the average number of children per woman in Kenya was five times greater than in West Germany. In the Nineties, however, Kenyan women won more freedom. The birthrate has dropped, and Kenyan women runners have begun to emerge on the world stage. For example, Tegla Loroupe has twice broken the women's marathon record.
The Kalenjin are only the most spectacular example of the trend toward "athletic hotspots," a term coined by author Jon Entine in his recent book, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk about It." In the 5,000 meters, for example, the globe's two hotspots are the highlands of East Africa and the Atlas Mountains region of Northwest Africa. Kenya owns 48 of the 100 best times ever, nearby Ethiopia holds 18, and Morocco 23. Of the ten times credited to wealthy nations, six actually belong to African immigrants.
In contrast, the hotspots for sprinting are almost anywhere people of West African descent live. In Sydney, for the fifth consecutive Olympics, the eight men who reached the finals of the Olympic 100 meter dash -- the race that determines the World's Fastest Man -- were all of predominantly West African origin. Going back to 1984, the last 40 finalists have all been blacks from West Africa or its Diaspora.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Greater equality of opportunity should have continued to bring greater equality of results. That's the way it worked in the first half of the 20th Century. When the Olympics began, whites monopolized all the races. But by 1932, growing equality of opportunity had nicely integrated the six finalists in the men's 100 meter dash: three whites, two African Americans, and a Japanese.
Yet, by 1984, the 100 meter finals had become a photographic negative of the all white races of the old "Chariots of Fire" days.
Similarly, whites won all the steeplechase medals until 1968, when an untrained Kenyan named Amos Biwott, using a comically rustic hurdling style, stunned the track world. Observers expected that Biwott's win would herald a new era in which a wider variety of peoples would take their turn on the steeplechase medals' podium. Instead, it opened the Kenyan Age.
Frank Shorter, America's marathon gold medallist in 1972, sums up, "The record-holders used to be athletes from industrialized nations who had access to technology and financial incentives. … The Africans finally got a level playing field. Then, the game was over."
Not all white runners agree. Pointing to his 1992 gold medal in the African-dominated 5,000 meters, Dieter Baumann of Germany argues, "We Europeans are just as good as them and no less suited for distance running." Unfortunately, Baumann's case for white biological equality in distance running lost some credibility recently when he tested positive for steroids. (He insists that some scoundrel spiked his toothpaste with nandrolone.)
By the way, there has not been a single major drug scandal involving Kenyans so far.
Why do Kenyans run so fast? One charming and popular suggestion is that Kenyan talent stems from their all having had to run to school. There are a few problems with this idea, however. Joe Sang, a Kenyan researcher, asked 20 international runners if they ran to school as kids and 14 said no.
Further, most children around the world try at least once to run to school. The great majority of them, though, stop after a few blocks, huffing and puffing. So, the fact that some fraction of Kalenjin kids run miles every day, and do so at high altitude, appears to be less a cause than an effect of their underlying ability.
Recent TV shows have attributed Kalenjin endurance to their eating a lot of the "complex carbohydrates" favored by sports scientists. Manners replies, "There is no question that the Kalenjin do live on a starchy diet. But then, so do most Third World peoples. Starch, after all, is what subsistence farmers produce."
Certainly, the money a farm boy can make running in Europe and America is a big incentive. But Biwott and Kip Keino won gold medals in the amateur-only Olympics of 1968. In fact, Western race promoters and agents complain that Kenyans aren't greedy enough. Many head home after saving up the $20,000 or so that will buy a farm.
Living at high altitude definitely helps. Kalenjin country averages 6,000 to 7,000 feet (2,000 meters). Many world class runners in the Western world move to high altitude locations to train. They find themselves stronger when they return to the abundant oxygen of sea level to compete.
Still, this factor can be overblown. Worldwide, there are scores of millions of people living at similar or higher altitudes in the American West, Mexico, the Andes, and Central Asia. Yet, combined, they win fewer distance medals than the half million residents of the Nandi district. Mormons, for example, tend to live at high elevations in America's Great Basin, but Mormonism is not known as the "Running Religion."
Further, training high probably isn't the perfect regimen. The latest thinking among sports scientists is that endurance athletes should sleep at high altitudes but train at low altitudes. Thus, European cross-country skiers have taken to sleeping in special motor homes that are depressurized to the oxygen level found at 11,000 feet.
This example puts the Kenyan situation in perspective. The land of the Kalenjin is indeed a wonderful place to run. Manners, an American whose father was an anthropologist in Kenya, explains, "When you combine 2,000 meter elevations with equatorial latitudes, you get an ideal climate for sustained outdoor activity - comfortably warm days, cool nights, low humidity. It is a land of beautiful green hills." In fact, the countryside rather resembles summertime in rural England, where lads running cross country from one village's church steeple to another invented the steeplechase.
"Compared with other African countries," Manners points out, "Kenya is fairly well supplied with basic necessities. Malnutrition is rare, infant mortality is among the lowest in Africa, life expectancy and literacy among the highest."
Nonetheless, Kenyans can't afford depressurized Winnebagos or the hundreds of other expensive tricks sports scientists have concocted for athletes from wealthy lands.
Many argue that the Kalenjin secret is in their training regimen, which violates most tenets of sophisticated Western thinking. In Christopher McDougall writes in Outside Magazine, the Kenyan style "mandates a combination of huge mileage, relentless race-caliber intensity, and an every-man-for-himself attitude," combined with "a ruthless process of elimination that leaves many promising runners injured or demoralized." He goes on, "But it seems the more the Americans study the Kenyans, the slower they go: American marathoners are running worse than they did 25 years ago."
So, perhaps Kenyans don't run faster because they train harder so much as they train harder hard because they can naturally run faster. The most famous Kalenjin runner of them all would agree. Kip Keino introduced the world to Kenyan runners during the 1968 Olympics when he buried the legendary American miler Jim Ryun in the 1500 meters. Keino argues, "We are natural athletes. Most of our runners are naturally born athletes. We have only to work on improvement, the technical part of it. We feel that running is our blood."
Manners theorizes that running got into their blood through a Darwinian process. Although most Kalenjin are farmers now, their traditional livelihood was from herding. As "horseless cowboys," they had to run down stray cattle on foot. The faster the runner, the bigger his herd, the more wives he could afford to buy, and therefore the more descendents that carried on his genes.
For fun and profit, the Kalenjin enjoyed nothing more than long-distance cattle-rustling. A group of youths would raid a distant tribe and try to hustle their steers home. The fastest runners brought home the livestock, earning the affection of the local maidens. The slowest runners ended up with spears in their backs and no descendents.
We know that herding can cause rapid human evolution, since adults tend to be lactose tolerant mostly in ethnic groups that have a tradition of tending dairy cows, such as the Kalenjin or the Scandinavians. So, Manners' theory is not scientifically implausible.
Still, Bowdoin College anthropologist Scott MacEachern, who has worked in the Great Rift Valley, is unimpressed. "Why do some neighboring populations, especially those in similar environments and practicing even more specialized cattle herding, not produce Olympic champions? Why do other, totally unrelated, farming populations like the Kikuyu and Kamba produce so many fine runners?"
Further, no one has ever found any genes that make Kalenjin faster runners. But, then, no one has ever looked, either. Despite all the hype about the completion of the Human Genome Project, we still have no idea what the vast majority of genes do, much less what all the DNA variations found among different ethnic groups are for.
In the meantime, Manners' offers what he cheerfully admits is "anecdotal data" supporting the genetic aptitude of the Kalenjin. He has collected a dozen examples of "Kalenjin young men in their 20s who had never thought of themselves as runners at all until they wound up in circumstances that more or less obliged them to take up the sport." Typically, they had fooled American college track coaches, who assume all Kalenjin are great runners, into giving them scholarships. Once they arrived at their American schools, however, these nonrunners had to make the track team or be sent packing. Manners contends, "In each case, what happened when they started training is quite remarkable."
One young Kalenjin student named Paul Rotich, however, had never even intended to masquerade as a runner. His father was too prosperous for him to bother. And at 5'-8" and 190 pounds, the 22 year old was too fat to pretend. Unfortunately, in his first year at a Texas junior college, Rotich blew the money his father had given him to see him threw two years. To avoid returning in disgrace, he decided to get a track scholarship. Manners recounts, "He began training -- running at night because he was embarrassed to be seen lumbering around the track." Somehow, he made the cross-country team that fall. He improved so fast that he won a scholarship to a four year college. There, Manners concludes, "He earned All-American honors ten times in cross-country and various track events. When he went back to Kenya and told his cousin what he had done, the cousin replied, 'So, it is true. If you can run, any Kalenjin can run.'"