TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid to Talk About It
In the final excerpt from his book, Jon Entine shows how a tiny sliver of Africa has produced nearly all the world's marathon winners.
Story by Jon Entine for Quokka.com
Part Three: The Kenya Connection
Until the mid-1980s, no country dominated marathoning. Africa was an international also-ran. "We were told when we were younger that the marathon was not good for your health, that you might not be able to have children," says Kenya's Moses Tanui, who won his second Boston Marathon with a near-world-record run in 1998. That changed with the emergence of the Kenyans, spurred in part by the breakthrough success of Ibrahim Hussein in marathons in Honolulu, Boston, and New York. With Hussein's very visible victories, and as money and prestige washed over the event, such cultural constraints were soon swept away.
Now Kenya is the hands-down best at both middle- and long-distance running. At Boston, considered the world's premier marathon, Kenyan men have not lost since 1990. Even the slow Kenyans leave the rest of the pack behind. Each year, the top 50 fastest Kenyans can expect to break 2:13, a time out of reach of most whites and Asians.
Kenya Under the Microscope
Let's turn a high-powered microscope on this tiny powerhouse. Kenya is a diverse country with many ethnic tribes and only a loose and somewhat recent concept of a nation. All told, Kenya has collected 38 Olympic medals since the 1964 Olympics. That includes 13 gold in men's races, a haul exceeded by only the sprint-rich United States, with a population ten times larger. At Seoul in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800, 1,500, and 5,000 meters, along with the 3,000 meter steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the likelihood that this Texas-sized country could turn in such a remarkable medal performance is one in 1.6 billion.
Increase the power on our microscope to focus on the highlands along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria. Three-fourths of Kenyan world-class athletes trace their ancestry to this region, a level of dominance that has remained remarkably consistent over the decades. How remarkable is this juggernaut? Kalenjin runners have won more than 70 percent of Kenya's Olympic medals in world running and all but one of Kenyan-held world records. Over the past decade, athletes from this tiny dot on the world map have won more than 40 percent of all the biggest international distance-running honors available and nearly three times as many Olympic and World Championship distance medals as athletes from any other nation in the world.
Yet even these remarkable figures understate what's going on in Kalenjin country. Ratchet the magnification up another notch. One small district, the Nandi, with only 1.8 percent of Kenya's population, has produced about half of the world-class Kalenjin athletes and 20 percent of all the major international distance-running events.
By almost any measure, this tiny region in west-central Kenya represents the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports. "As far as Kalenjin running is concerned," observed John Manners, a former Peace Corps teacher in Kenya and author of two books on Kenyan running, "I think it's unlikely that anyone who spends any time in Kalenjin country and watches what untrained kids can do (especially when compared with other Kenyans of ostensibly similar backgrounds) will come away thinking that anything but genetic factors are paramount in their success. The evidence is impressionistic and anecdotal, but the prima facie case is pretty persuasive," he said, though he insisted that he remains skeptical of biological theories of athletic success.
Kenyan dominance of international endurance running is so complete that there is a movement afoot by some race directors to limit their number at future races. "They are not only slaughtering the Americans," said Brantly after finishing behind eight Kenyans in the 1998 Cherry Blossom 10-mile race in Washington, "they are slaughtering everybody."
It's gotten to the point where most of the world's best non-Kenyan men have all but given up contesting the middle distances in elite races. "When you are trying to earn your living on the road, it is getting silly," remarked a top British runner.
"There are 10 or 15 Kenyans everywhere." Fabian Rancero, the brilliant Spaniard who has run one of the best marathon times ever of 2:07:26, is skeptical that anyone can match up against the top Kenyans. "The only athlete capable of going close to 2:05 at this moment is probably [Kenyan] Paul Tergat," he said in 1998. "No white man is capable of running that sort of time."
The best of the non-African runners are dubbed "white Kenyans" in the same slightly patronizing way that Hank Aaron was once called the "black Babe Ruth." Many white runners such as Germany's Dieter Baumann, the surprise gold-medal winner at 5,000-meters in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, are stunned to find themselves slipping further and further back in the pack. "We Europeans are just as good as them and no less suited for distance running. I don't see myself on the defensive because the Africans are simply normal opponents."
Normal, yes. Beatable? That's another story.
"The record-holders used to be athletes from industrialized nations who had access to technology and financial incentives," said Frank Shorter, in search of an explanation. "As more Kenyans and Ethiopians could achieve the same access to agents, money and a lucrative running career, the balance of power changed. The Africans finally got a level playing field. Then, the game was over."