The secret of East African running success
Now that the track events at the London Olympics are in full flow the big question for us sporty types is: how come East Africans dominate middle-distance and distance running? On Friday night, Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba, became the first woman in history to retain the Olympic women’s 10,000 m race title, while on Saturday night, much to the home crowd’s delight, the Somali-born British athlete Mo Farah,won gold in the men’s 10,000 m.
Yesterday, Ethiopia had another success when Tiki Gelana was first to cross the finish line in the women’s marathon, and Kenya’s Ezekiel Kemboi won the men’s 3000 m steeplechase. Expect more of the same from athletes of East African origin in the second week of the world’s greatest ever sporting competition being held in east London.
Ethiopians and Kenyans currently dominate the rankings in middle-distance and distance running. But other East African nations have also produced good athletes, although in smaller numbers. Think of Tanzanian Filbert Bayi, who broke the world 1500 m record at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974, and went on to set the mile record a year later in Kingston, Jamaica.
So successful have been Kenya and Ethiopia in creating world-class athletes that they have produced a surplus for export. Runners including Kenyan-born 800 m specialist Wilson Kipketer changed nationality and ran with great distinction for Denmark, while Ethiopian-born 800m and 1500 m specialist Maryam Yusuf Jamal, originally named Zenebech Tola, currently represents Bahrain.
One of those who has tried to solve the East African running success puzzle is Adharanand Finn, author of the recently published Running with the Kenyans. Soon after Finn’s investigation began in Kenya,Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish born missionary and former headteacher of Saint Patrick’s High School in Iten in the Keiyo District of the Rift Valley, who now runs a very successful training camp, told him: “People come to find the secret, but you know what the secret is? That you think there’s a secret. There is no secret.” (Note to Brother Colm: if you’re running a business targeting overseas runners, it’s best not to rubbish what you’re selling.)
Nevertheless, Finn places great weight on the fact that newly crowned Olympic champion Mo Farah’s fortunes changed considerably when a few years ago he lived and trained with a group of elite Kenyan athletes in Teddington, south-west London. Farah experienced at first hand the dedication and focus that the small group of young men apply to their trade. Since then, Farah has taken what he has learned from the Kenyans and joined Cuban-American coach Alberto Salazar’s group in Portland, Oregon going on to even greater things.
Analysing the Kenyan runners’ success, Finn thinks that there are a number of factors – living at altitude, eating a carbohydrate – rich, low-fat diet, and running barefoot, which gives children and adults strong feet and legs – that are important. But according to one of his interviewees, Glasgow University’s Dr Yannis Pitsalidis, who has looked for but failed to find any genetic factor that would confer a decisive advantage, transcending all of the known physiological and environmental elements, is the key variable: the “hunger to succeed”.
But what does the hunger to succeed consist of? Finn calculates that the main driver towards athletic success is escape from rural poverty. Of course, he acknowledges that poverty exists in many countries. The difference, according to Finn, is that in Kenya, “the will to escape” is “channelled into running.”
But looking at the issue through a social anthropological lens, there are at least two more factors, operating at different but related levels, which explain Kenyan and other East African countries’ success in athletics. First, at the micro level running provides considerable prestige within the primary peer group. The internal pressure from within a small social network, based on hierarchy, competition and cooperation, to achieve great things provides energy and motivation, especially for gifted individuals.
Second, at the macro level high-level athletic success provides celebrity status in countries where other sources of social power derived, say, from pop music, film and television, very familiar to those of us who live in the advanced economies, are either weak or absent. This was underlined by the effect of Tirunesh Dibaba’s victory in her home country on Friday night. “The Olympics mean so much to Ethiopia,” commented her US agent Mark Wetmore after the race. “It has put her in a rarefied air.”
That leads to a further point. In East Africa, sporting prowess can be readily transformed into the sort of political capital that Sebastian Coe once fantasised about. Ethiopian running legend, Haile Gebreselassie, a double Olympic champion at 10,000 m, is often spoken of as a future candidate for his country’s presidency. Perhaps, then, Tirunesh Dibaba, who will be favourite on Friday night to retain the 5000 m title that she won four years ago in Beijing to add to her other three Olympic titles and make her the greatest runner, male or female, of all time might consider adding her name to the ballot paper.Tagged in: Adharanand Finn, athletics, East Africa, Ethiopia, Ezekiel Kemboi, Haile Gebreselassie, Kenya, London 2012, Maryam Yusuf Jamal, olympics, running, Sport, Tiki Gelana, Tirunesh Dibaba, track, Wilson Kipketer
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