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Why a Brit, Aussie or an American (Black or White) May Never Win Another Major Marathon

By Jon Entine

What has befallen the great British and American marathon traditions?

The most notable British entry at this year's London Marathon is recently knighted Sir Stephen Redgrave, five time Olympic rowing gold medallist, who will also be the official starter. But suck gimmickry cannot conceal the reality that top countrymen such as Jon Brown and Mark Steinle are long shots at best in a field studded with marathoners from East and North Africa, southern Europe, and East Asia. Notably absent among the elite: Northern American and European whites and blacks.

The Boston Marathon results were not better. Rod De Haven finished sixth, the best showing in years. But the real story was the relative flop of American Josh Cox, who made a name for himself with grueling 180 mile training weeks in an attempt to improve match Kenyan dominance, finished almost seven minutes behind the winner. So much for former Boston winner Bill Rodger's oft-stated belief that Americans can match the Kenyans and other high-altitude athletes with hard work.

What's going on. Have Brits, and most of Europe and America, gone soft, victims of affluence and regularly bested by hard nosed athletes from emerging countries? It's a fascinating and little explored question.

Here's the startling headline: Don't expect marathoners from Britain, northern Europe or North America, white or black, to ever again reclaim the mantle as world's best. And cultural factors have little do with this changing phenomenon.

Running is the world's most competitive sport, requiring relatively little coaching and equipment. To understand the amazing transformation in world sport, it's helpful to focus on what's going on in Kenya. In that small East African country, coaches comb the countryside for the rising generation of stars, who are showered with special training and government perks. Adoring sports fans crowd the National Stadium in Nairobi to celebrate what amounts to their national religion.

After more than 60 victories by Kenyans in world-class marathon over the past two years ≠ more than from all of the rest of the world combined ≠ even casual fans are familiar with this success story. According to conventional wisdom, Kenyans, Ethiopians and other East Africans dominate because they ran to school as children, train torturously at high altitude, and are desperate to escape poverty. It's in their culture. This year in London, Tegla Laroupe tries to improve on last year's world record run while East Africans Eric Wainaina, Derartu Tulu, Japhet Kosgei and Paul Tergat pace the men's field.

There's only one problem: The national sport, hero worship, and social channeling speak to Kenya's enduring obsession with not running but soccer. Unfortunately, Kenyans (and other East Africans) are regularly trounced in the Africa Games by West African countries. It's just not in their genes.

Science does not support the speculation that East Africans dominate because of social factors, the myth widely peddled by the media. "I lived right next door to school," laughs Wilson Kipketer, world 800-meter record holder, dismissing such cookie-cutter explanations. "I walked, nice and slow." Some kids ran to school, some didn't, he says, but it's not why we succeed.

And for every Kenyan monster-miler, there are others, like Kipketer, who gets along on less than thirty. "Training regimens are as varied in Kenya as any where in the world," notes Colm O'Connell, coach at St. Patrick's Iten, the famous private school and running factory in the Great Rift Valley that turned out Kipketer and other Kenyan greats. O'Connell eschews the mega-training so common among runners in Europe and North America who have failed so miserably in bottling the Kenyan running miracle.

Though individual success is about fire in the belly and opportunity, genes set possibilities. East Africans win in large measure because elite runners have a near perfect biomechanical package for endurance: lean, ectomorphic physiques and huge natural lung capacity.

"Kenyans are born with a high number of slow twitch fibers," states Bengt Saltin, director of the Institute of Sports Science in Copenhagen. "They have 70 to 75 percent of their muscle fibers being slow. Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role. But based on the data it is Ćin your genes' whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented."

Not surprisingly, East Africans win more than 50 percent of top endurance races. Almost all trace their ancestry to the 6,000-8,000 foot highlands that snake along the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. This region of roughly 1.5 million wins 40 percent of international distance events. The Nandi district in Kenya, 500,000 people ≠ one-twelve-thousandth of Earth's population ≠ sweeps an unfathomable 20 percent, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.

The Copenhagen researchers believe that Rift Valley runners have an ability to process oxygen in just the same way as elite Europeans, but their bodies are more efficient at using that fuel. As a result, they can also run at higher speeds for longer than Europeans at the same fitness level. The theory is that the genes of some altitude populations in East and North Africa, parts of the Americas and East Asia, and southern Europe have probably mutated to adapt.

The team is absolutely clear, however, that race is not the issue. Their findings do not apply to the entire population of Kenya, let alone the entire world's black population, many of whom evolved in far different environments. For instance, athletes of West African ancestry (almost all African Americans and black Europeans) are generally poor endurance athletes but great sprinters, holding 494 of the top 500 times in the 100 meters. Researchers study population pockets, not countries or "races," As such, skin colour is incidental.

"I don't believe this is a racist issue," says Saltin. But that does not prevent journalists, and even some scientists, from injecting race into what is mainstream human anatomy.

Just two weeks ago, at a New York conference on race and sports, Harvard anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, renowned for his political correctness as much as for his scientific acumen, apparently attempted to score some media points with his declaration that there is no "running gene." Of course, no scientist claims there is a running gene. Geneticists assert only that evolution has played in role in circumscribing some patterned differences between populations, including in body type and physiology.

Gould's circumlocution seems designed to play to the popular myth of equal possibility. Reuters fell for the ruse, headlining its story: "Athletic Achievement Isn't in the Genes." Yet, even Gould didn't go that far. In his speech, he noted that sports success is a complex combination of social, environmental, and biological factors, none of which can easily be teased out and isolated. Of course, that's exactly what geneticists and anthropologists have shown repeatedly. Humans are different, a product of the intertwined and inseparable relationship of genes and environment.

The media reporting on genetics rarely demonstrates such nuance. Unfortunately, some scientists, themselves anticipating a backlash from those who see genetic research as inexplicable or something to fear, perpetuate the confusion. After the recent round of discoveries linked to the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins made a point of stating that humans are "99.9 percent the same," apparently trying allay fears about the potential misuse of data generated by advances in genetic science. Well, there is no detectable genetic difference between a wolf, a Labrador, and a poodle ≠ zero ≠ but no one would dare suggest that their body type and behavioral differences are culturally determined, rather than largely innate. Differences are grounded in gene sequences and proteins and are activated by obscure environmental triggers. All the training in the world is not likely to turn an Inuit Eskimo, programmed to be short and stout, into a striker for Manchester United.

Over the years there have been more than two hundred studies comparing the body composition of athletes, with the work of British physician James M. Tanner the most famous. His The Physique of the Olympic Athlete, published in 1960 after the Rome Olympics, found an ideal body for each sport, although the study noted considerable overlap in types - a classic bell curve. Runners at each progressively longer distance were progressively less muscular in the upper body. Long-distance runners were generally small, short-legged, narrow-shouldered, and ectomorphic, or lacking in muscle.

"Amongst competitors in both track and field events there are large significant racial differences," Tanner wrote. As nature would have it, different populations are better suited to excel at anaerobic activities such as sprinting, jumping, and lifting, than at aerobic sports such as distance running, cycling, and swimming.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small" that if you have a physique ... it might be very, very significant," agrees Robert Malina, Michigan State University anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology, who followed in Tanner's footsteps in numerous analyses of Olympic athletes. "The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

Could a Brit win the London Marathon? Certainly, for genes only circumscribe possibility and a two hour race opens the door for the roulette wheel of the human spirit. But don't hold your breath.

Certainly, caution over the potential misuse of genetic research is certainly warranted. After all, pseudo-science and claims that certain "races" are genetically superior and destined to dominate historically have been evoked to justify colonialism, slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. But scientists who have documented anatomical differences between populations generally reject notions that physical ability and mental acuity are inversely linked. Yet, in some important ways, certainly in the proclivity to many diseases and in highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, musculature and metabolic efficiency, group differences are real and sometimes huge.

When it comes to long distance running, certain populations, on average, have natural advantages: East Africans, North Africans from mountainous regions (Khalid Khannouchi), certain populations of East Asian ancestries including Amerindians (Takayuki Inubushi and Harumi Hiroyama of Japan, Mexico's Adriana Fernandez), and southern Europeans (Abel Anton of Spain, for example) who have a shared evolutionary history and a significant amount of gene exchange with continental Africa.

Such patterened differences help explain why at Boston, Catherine Ndereba of Kenya won for the second year in a row and an East African won three of the top five places on both the men's and women's side. East Asian Lee Bon-ju of South Korea and Silvio Guerra of Ecuador (whose ancestry traces to East Asia) who finished one-two in the men's race, have a great natural body type for marathons. East Asians are not very competitive at distances below the marathon, but at the longer distances, including ultra-marathons, they are among the best.

"The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up consistently in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations," notes Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves, Jr., who is African American. "Populations with roots in equatorial Africa are more likely to have lower natural fat levels. That is likely a key factor in running. It's an adaptive mutation based on climate. It varies by characteristic. It doesn't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather by geography. But that's a long way from reconstructing century old racial science," adds Graves, whose book on race science, The Emperor's New Clothes [Rutgers University Press, 2001], was just released. .

Popular thinking, still reactive to the historical misuse of "race science," lags the new bio-cultural model of human nature. The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue but to what end. "If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity," warns Walter E. Williams of George Mason University, an African American, "we concede the turf to black and white racists." Sports offer a non-polemical way to convey this message and de-politicize what has sometimes been a vitriolic debate.

Jon Entine (http://www.jonentine.com) is author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It [PublicAffairs, 2000], which was just released in paperback.