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Kenyan World Beating Athletes: Is It in the Genes or Is It in the Money?

At every Summer Olympics games, one thing is predictable: that the middle and long distances races will be dominated by Kenyan athletes. The debate will then continue: just what do these Kenyans have? Theories will again be postulated as to why they always win.

The most dominant of the theories as to why they win are: it is in their genes, they have been brought up at altitude thereby getting “oxygen trained”, they run to and from school and therefore start training early and that it is an only way out of poverty.

There is quite a lot of literature on this subject and a number of scientific studies have been done on it. However, none of the studies has ever conclusively said just why Kenya athletes always win.

It is not in doubt a combination of all the factors previously mentioned together with serious training will produce good results. But just which one of these factors contributes the most to the exceptional performance of Kenyan athletes?

Before going into the factors, it may be worth noting that the majority of the Kenyan distance runners come from the Kalenjin community in Kenya.

As a Kenyan who has lived in the Kenyan highlands all my life, I postulate that the factors rank as follows in order of decreasing importance. Way out of poverty, it is in their genes, running to and from school, growing up at altitude.

These ranking are based on the following observations. Nandi district in Kenya is hardly the highest place where people live in Kenya. Kapsabet in Nandi is at altitude 6499 feet while Tamau another town in Kenya is at altitude 7229 yet very few athletes come from Timau. Also, there are many other places in the world where people live in altitudes higher than that of Kapsabet.

Running to and from school does undoubtedly play a role in preparing young children for eventual careers in athletics. But children in Meru, Kenya which is on the same altitude as Kapsabet also run to and from school every day. So running to and from school would not explain the difference between Meru and Kaspsabet in producing athletes.

There does seem to be reason to believe that some ethnic groups are naturally endowed to excel in certain sports. Just see how the Spaniards and their Brazilian cousins harass everybody else in football. In Kenya, the only factor the Kalenjins, who make up the bulk of Kenyan runners, do not share with the rest of the Kenyan is that they are Kalenjins. Therefore, there seems to be sufficient reason to believe their success lies at least partly but quite significantly so to their ethnicity.

There are many Kalenjins who live in urban centers in Kenya. These Kalenjins with their genes, altitude and all hardly produce any athletes of repute. Sure their kids don’t run to and from school but more importantly their children are assured of a college education and may be a job after college. The amount of training and effort that Kenyan runners put to become world beaters is simply phenomenal. Sure the athlete will probably have more money than the college guy eventually but what it takes is not worth it for a person that has “other ways out of poverty”. In the 1960s Kipchoge Keino might have won because he had Kalenjin genes. Today the Kalenjin genes are certainly helped a lot by the presence of 4×4 cars and big mansions in the villages owned by athletes who would otherwise be tilling land for $2 a day.

The success of Kenyan runners today therefore has more to do with psychology rather than physiology and more to do with attitude rather than altitude.

Kamau Kimindiri

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