Elite Athletes are Born, Not Trained

October 7, 2001

By Jon Entine
Special to the Tribune

According to the common wisdom, Sunday's LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon is wide open in the absence of three-time champion Khalid Khannouchi.

Well, sort of.

The favorites are Paul Tergat, Moses Tanui and Ondoro Osoro, all of Kenya, and one Japanese runner, Takayuki Inubushi. In other words, it's wide open to East and North Africans and a handful of elite marathoners from Asia and a few other countries. But don't bet the house on any Americans finishing among the elite.

In fact, here's a prediction that may startle: An American-born runner may never win another Chicago Marathon. The sobering reality is that American-born runners, white and black, almost never win major marathons anymore--or any elite distance races, for that matter.

What has befallen the great American distance-running tradition, built on the exploits of Jim Ryun, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers?

The world distance rankings paint a dismal picture for Americans. East Africans hold nine of the top 10 spots in the men's rankings. That includes eight Kenyans.

The trend in the women's division is much the same: The world's top two road runners, Kenyans Catherine Ndereba and Lornah Kiplagat, are the favorites in Chicago. Overall, Kenyans hold seven of the top 10 spots in the women's rankings.

So-called experts will offer the usual clichés: Americans are soft. They can't match the grueling training regimens of African runners.

Earlier this year, there was some talk of an American "comeback" after 18-year-old phenom Alan Webb broke Ryun's 1,500-meter scholastic record. Don't believe it. Webb offers potential, but even if he should emerge as an elite runner, he will be one compared with hundreds from East and North Africa.

The American "resurgence" rests almost entirely on the shoulders of two African runners who have emigrated to the U.S.: Moroccan-born Khannouchi and Meb Keflezgihi, a native Eritrean who shattered the U.S. 10,000-meter record in May.

Note that Khannouchi is from mountainous sections of North Africa and Keflezgihi is from East Africa, the ancestral home of the world's top distance runners. Runners from highlands that snake along the western edge of the Great Rift Valley that cuts through Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have clocked more than 60 percent of the best times ever run in distance races. Kenyans alone win 40 percent of top international events. The Nandi district of 500,000 people--1/12,000th of the Earth's population--boasts an unfathomable 20 percent, marking the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in sports history.

What's going on? Science certainly does not support the popular notion that Kenyans prevail because they train harder or run to school, myths peddled by the media.

"I lived right next door to school," Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, world 800-meter record-holder, says with a laugh. "I walked, nice and slow."

For every terrific Kenyan miler there are others, like Kipketer, who get along on fewer than 30 miles a week. "Training regimens are as varied in Kenya as anywhere in the world," notes Colm O'Connell, coach at St. Patrick's, the famous private school that turned out Kipketer and several other Kenyan greats.

The explanation for this phenomenon, it turns out, is in the genes. Why are African-Americans such poor distance runners? Highly inheritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, muscle-fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency and lung capacity are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors. Though individual success is about opportunity and "fire in the belly," thousands of years of evolution have left a distinct footprint on the world's athletic map.

"Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role," says Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, who outlined his findings in Scientific American magazine.

"But we argue based on the data that it is in your genes, whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented. The extent of the environment can always be discussed, but it's less than 20 or 25 percent."

Is this a racial issue?

"Absolutely not," Saltin says. This is not an issue of black and white, but the consequence of thousands of years of evolution in varying terrains.

"We need to understand that there are some patterns of differences between populations," says Joseph Graves Jr., an evolutionary biologist and author of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

"Differences don't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather with geography and climate. Genes play a major role."

East and North Africans, runners from southern Europe and those from high-altitude regions in Asia and Latin America are more likely than whites of northern European and West African descent to win distance races because they are born with a biomechanical package for endurance activities: lean, ectomorphic physiques, large lung capacity and a preponderance of slow-twitch muscle fibers. All the training in the world is unlikely to turn an African-American into an elite marathoner--or a Kenyan into a top 100-meter runner.

Populations that trace their ancestry to West Africa have an almost perfect biomechanical package for sprinting and jumping: small, efficient lungs and a naturally high percentage of fast-twitch muscles. While American blacks and athletes from West Africa are not good distance runners, they hold the top 200 and 494 of the top 500 times in the 100 meters.

On the other hand, the fastest 100 meters ever run by a Kenyan is 10.28 seconds, ranking 5,000th on the all-time list.

Although there have been great white runners in the past, the domination evident in the past by the Flying Finns or the great Anglo runners from Britain, Ireland and the U.S. is a thing of the past. By and large, white runners do not have the lean physique necessary to dominate distance running or the explosive kinetics of athletes of West African ancestry to excel regularly in sprinting.

According to scientists, white athletes will continue to dominate in power sports such as weightlifting, the shot put, the discus and the hammer throw because of superior upper-body strength.

Could a native-born American win Chicago again? Certainly. In the not-too-distant future, naturalized Americans from East and North Africa will be having children of their own. That's the beauty of the great American melting pot. And as a result of natural variation and the roulette wheel of the human spirit, there will always be great runners from every part of the globe, including America. But genes do circumscribe possibility, or "innate capacity."

Humans are different, and society pays a large price for not discussing this subject openly, if carefully. Events such as the Chicago Marathon provide an opportunity to broaden our understanding of the genetic revolution now unfolding.


Jon Entine writes for www.Africana.com, TheBlackWorldToday.com and BlackAthlete.com, and is author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It." E-mail him at www.jonentine.com.

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