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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Kenya and Running

The IAAF has an interesting piece up about the history of Kenya and cross country. It's worth a read.

There's one part of it that irks me a bit, but it's hardly unusual. It's titled "Four tribes -- innate endurance" and it seeks to explain Kenya's dominance of running. (It could be argued that they in fact no longer dominate the sport, and have been surpassed by Ethiopia, but that's a separate argument entirely). Why does it irk me? It comes off as a bit racist, as do all the "natural talent" arguments.

Anyone who has even a passing interest in distance running knows that neither natural talent nor hard work by themselves will make an athlete great -- there must be an abundance of both. The authors of Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography, and Global Change make a convincing argument that if in fact the Kalenjin have superior talent, their dominance comes not from the talent itself but by using that talent better than anyone else.

American teenagers by and large find distance running wierd, because American notions of masculinity are centered around doling out pain to others. Our most popular sport of football sums this up very well, but it's reflected in other ways too--without this attitude, we might not have ever been foolish enough to invade Iraq. Kalenjin masculinity, however, is centered around the ability to withstand pain. As a result, Kip Keino' heroics at the 1968 Olympics made him Kenyan masculinity personified, and running became the sport of manliness. Nowadays, you'll find very few Kalenjin boys with undiscovered running talent. When no one slips through the cracks, you tend to have great depth. And what makes Kenyan runners unusual is their sheer force of numbers.

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