What science gets wrong about the secret behind Kenyan runners, the best in the world

What science gets wrong about the secret behind Kenyan runners, the best in the world

There is something almost comical about watching Kenyans race. They seem to breeze past the competition in a red, black and green clad cohort that passes the finish line one after the other. As their competitors are floored and taking on an increasing likeness to fish out of the water, the Kenyan victors beam for the eager cameras with their accolades in tow.

Watching Eliud Kipchoge or Brigid Kosgei can make you think that running a marathon is an easy feat when it is probably one of the most thorough tests of mental and physical endurance. So, what is it that makes these Kenyan runners so insanely good at what they do?  One thing is for sure. Science has missed the mark when it comes to explaining this phenomenon.

What scientific studies have shown

In actual fact, most long-distance runners from Kenya are from a particular community called the Kalenjin.  In that case, why aren’t all Kenyans great runners?  When the pool of excellent marathon athletes seems to originate from a specific group of Kenyans, it may seem only natural to investigate how that can be the case.

Controversially,  researchers from the Danish Sports Science Institute attributed Kalenjin running ability to what they described as their ‘birdlike legs’. The researchers also found that the number of red blood cells was higher for the Kenyan runners who mainly lived above an altitude of 2,130 metres. Kenyan runners were said to ‘flow’ through the ‘running motion’ rather than sink into the ground like the Danes they were compared to in the study.

FILE - (L to R) Bahrain's Mimi Belete, Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba, Kenya's Mercy Cherono and Kenya's Irene Chepet Cheptai, compete in the women’s 5000m at the World Athletics Championships at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, China, Aug. 27, 2015.

The problematic nature of scientific studies on Kenyan runners

The Channel 4 documentary in which the Danish research was unveiled was uncomfortably titled ‘The Difference’.  In response to backlash to the study, Hugh Montgomery-a cardiovascular geneticist from the University College London-suggested that looking at genetic factors is not racist. It is simply acknowledging the different strengths that different races have.

This view, however, is wilfully ignorant of the historical and social context that these studies have taken place in. The fact is that using science to justify that there is something ‘different’ about people of African descent is nothing new and has an ugly history. At its worst, it was used to justify slavery and oppression. The subjugation of Africans was deemed reasonable because there was supposedly a biological difference between them and Europeans.

 It must be said that European scientists conducting studies on the physical differences of Kenyan athletes is a painful reminder of the ways that Africans have been previously reduced to just their physical form.  Within this historical context, it is difficult to justify the use of science to differentiate Kenyan runners. It is a cruel continuation of practices that are better left behind. There must be a wider scope of understanding that goes beyond science and we must question whether some research should be conducted at all.

The reasons for conducting studies on Kenyan runners are unclear

Although science prides itself on objectivity, there is still room for human error. It is difficult to believe that scientists are unbiased in the studies that they choose to conduct.  When is the last time that research was done on why the British are such great cyclists? In fact, when suspicions arose about Britain’s stellar cycling performance at the Rio Olympics, the former UK sports minister Tracy Crouch argued that the team had simply gotten better. No more, no less.  

Picture List of Kenyan Athletes who bagged Medals In The Rio Olympics -  Eldoret Leo


We have more to learn from Kenyan runners than their genetic makeup

The problem with these scientific studies also lies in what they imply.  What exactly is to be gained from discovering that Kenyan runners have thinner legs? If the suggestion is that this gives them an unfair advantage then that completely undercuts the huge amount of hard work, training and mental fortitude that makes these athletes fierce competitors on the world stage.

One such example is Kipchoge Keino. He is a strong advocate against the narrative of genetic advantages for Kenyan runners and impressively won Olympic gold medals in 1968 and 1972. In response to the genetics controversy, he asserted that the suggestion was racist. For him, ‘running is mental’ and has to do with ‘interest and hard work’. He would know. In 1968, he ran six races in eight days with painful stomach cramps from a gall bladder infection.

 If the answer to the athleticism of icons like Kip Keino can really be boiled down to genetics, that would wrongly suggest that there is nothing that other athletes can learn from Kenyan runners. After all, if one’s thick legs are the sole reason why they are unable to scoop up gold medals then there is nothing that can be done about it.

Brigid Kosgei Wins 2020 London Marathon

Science downplays the importance of external factors

A research paper in the British Journal of Science and Medicine suggested that there is a readiness for sport scientists and practitioners to accept that ‘East African domination is due to factors out of their control’ such as genetics. In other words, it may be all too easy to rest on the assumption that Kenyan domination just cannot be helped due to a genetic advantage.  Looking at external factors would suggest that there is something that runners from other countries are not doing.

One example of an external factor that contributes to Kenya’s success is its running culture. A long history of previous Kenyan victors has made running accessible and attractive. The psychosocial effect of Kenyan runners being surrounded by successful sportspersons has been shown to encourage Kenya’s winning streak.

The paper also concluded that researchers cannot fully confirm the link between genetics and the success of East African long-distance runners. Instead, it encourages athletes and coaches to take responsibility for their own performance rather than blaming a dubious link to genetics for less success compared to East Africans. 

It is a disservice to reduce the triumphs of hardworking Kenyan athletes to a mere genetic predisposition. If the world is hoping to learn from Kenyan runners, then focusing on genetics would only paint an incomplete picture of what makes these athletes so special. Genetics cannot encompass the sheer mental force that pushes Kenyans to be positively unbeatable. Perhaps, in the words of Tina Turner, they are simply the best and the rest of the world will have to learn to catch up. Literally.

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