| Why Kenya?
The following essay was written in January, 1997, as a foreword to the book Train Hard, Win Easy: The Kenyan Way, by Toby Tanser. It was intended to provide background for the book's anecdotes and training information, which were based on Tanser's experiences during a five-month visit to Kenya a year earlier. The book is available from Track & Field News, phone 650-948-8188.
In the mid-1960s, when Kenya emerged as a world power in track, Tropical Africa seemed an improbable place for distance runners to come from. For decades, athletes from the cool climes of Northern Europe -- the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Soviet bloc -- had dominated the distance events, now and then giving way to interlopers from North America or Down Under, or to North Africans running for France. But sub-Saharan Africa, as far as track fans were concerned, was still terra incognita -- a land of future sprinters, perhaps, in that it was the ancestral home of so many American and Caribbean dash men, but surely not distance runners.
As late as 1960, few recognized the portent in the marathon victory of Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila at the Rome Olympics. Eight years after that, though, there was no mistaking the significance of the nine medals East Africans won in the long races at the Mexico City Games. The geographical center of distance running was shifting. It now lies almost exactly on the Equator in a poor African country that for the first half of the century seemed no more likely a source of world class distance runners than, say, Gabon or Cameroon.
Why Kenya should have become the world's preeminent distance running nation is a complex question, but it's a little less mystifying if you keep in mind two general points about the country. First, although Kenya straddles the equator, its most populous regions don't fit anybodys stereotype of tropical. More than three-quarters of the country's 28 million people live at altitudes of 5,000 feet or more, which means they enjoy a year-round climate that's something like summer in the former center of distance running, Northern Europe. What's more, of course, many of these high-altitude dwellers benefit from the thin air they breathe, developing powerful hearts and lungs to compensate for the deficiency of oxygen.
The second general point about Kenya is its state of economic development. By world standards, it's a poor country; the latest World Almanac gives its per capita Gross Domestic Product as $1,170. The comparable figure for the U.S. is $27,607. Now poor countries, as a rule, are not sports powers; either their citizens are too busy scraping by to indulge in such frivolous pursuits, or the countries don't have the resources to support the institutions that organized sports require. Yet Kenya suffers neither of these crippling disadvantages. Why not? First, Kenyans aren't quite so poor as the GDP numbers make them seem. Three-quarters of them are subsistence farmers who raise most of their own food and build their own homes out of materials that cost little or nothing, and since these activities don't figure into the cash economy, they are difficult to count in the GDP. In fact, compared to their fellow Africans, most Kenyans are quite well supplied with basic necessities. Malnutrition is rare, and while droughts produce occasional food shortages, famine is practically non-existent. The infant mortality rate is among the lowest in Africa, life expectancy and literacy among the highest. More than 85% of all children attend at least a few years of primary school.
What accounts for Kenya's relative good fortune? In a sense, it comes back to altitude. The southwestern quarter of the country, where most of the population lives, is largely made up of highlands watered by moisture drifting over from massive Lake Victoria on Kenya's western border. It's some of the best farmland in Africa. This fact was not lost on the British when they built a railroad from the coast to the lake at the turn of the century. The aim was to secure the lake, the source of the Nile, for geopolitical purposes, but to help pay for the railroad, they encouraged British settlement in what soon became known as the White Highlands. The settlers, who had come to stay, built roads and bridges and towns and covered hillsides with huge plantations of coffee and tea -- all, of course, with the help of minimally paid African labor on land forcibly expropriated from its original possessors.
Along with a modern economic infrastructure, the British developed sport -- golf, tennis, cricket, horse racing and polo for themselves; soccer, boxing and athletics (track and field) for the Africans. At first, African sport was concentrated in the army, the police and the country's few mission-run schools, but eventually British district officers were marking out running tracks on pasture land around the country and conducting regional meets that built to a Colony championship and sometimes an inter-territorial meet with neighboring Uganda. By the time of Independence in 1963, Kenya had sent small teams -- mainly runners and boxers -- to two Olympics and three Commonwealth Games.
After Independence, Kenyans took the base left them by the British and, well, ran with it. The government, as in many poor countries, was autocratic and corrupt, but it was also pro-West and relatively stable, so foreign investment poured in. And with increasing jet travel, tourists came in growing numbers to visit the country's magnificent game parks and Indian Ocean beaches. A sizable chunk of the government's proceeds from these enterprises went into education, especially at the secondary level, which had been largely neglected by the colonial administration. And with secondary schools came secondary school sports, a vital new avenue for athletic talent.
Before long, U.S. college coaches discovered this fresh source of educated, English-speaking athletes, and from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, when the NCAA imposed age restrictions that made many Kenyans ineligible, hundreds of young men traveled to America to complete their education and develop their running skills. This exodus was decried at home, but it helped sustain Kenyan athletics through the disastrous Olympic boycotts of 1976 and 1980. Then came the International Amateur Athletic Federation's liberalization of its oft-flouted amateur rules, and a few Kenyans began to earn serious money in Europe and the U.S. When the cash started filtering back to Kenya, it had a galvanizing effect on thousands of young men and women. They saw an opportunity to earn unimagined riches, and they began to train with the ferocious dedication that Toby Tanser documents so thoroughly in this book.
Now, having taken note of all this -- relatively recent developments like scholarships and prize money, as well as Kenyas long-standing advantages, such as high altitude, a temperate climate, a reliable food supply and a solid athletic infrastructure -- its important to remember that Kenya is still a poor country. And interestingly, given the other circumstances, that, too, can be a plus when it comes to turning out hardy distance runners.
Consider the following points. First, houses in Kenya tend to be small, dark and smokey, and on average, there's one TV set for every 106 people. This means that Kenyans, especially kids, spend most of their waking hours running around outdoors. Second, cars in Kenya are a luxury. There's one passenger car for every 180 people; the U.S. ratio is a hundred times greater -- one car for every 1.8 people. An obvious consequence of this disparity is that Kenyans cover a lot more ground on foot. Stories of kids running or walking several miles a day to school and back are by now tired cliches, but they're nonetheless significant. All those miles from early childhood -- most of them, it should be noted, covered barefoot -- can't fail to have helped condition young adult Kenyans to withstand training regimens that would injure legs unsteeled to such punishment. Finally, in a country where the average income is roughly 4.2% of what it is in the U.S., it's hardly surprising that there's a great willingness to strive and sacrifice for the rewards available even to second- or third-rank distance runners. A net income of just $10,000 in a year is nearly nine times the average Kenyan's annual earnings.
So it seems that Kenya's altitude and its particular stage of economic development are a fortuitous combination that has helped to turn out legions of world class distance runners. The odd thing is that while the vast majority of Kenyans share these circumstances, the runners, with very few exceptions, have come from just four of the country's 40 tribes: the Kikuyu, the Kamba, the Kisii (or Gusii) and the Kalenjin. In fact, about three-fourths of Kenya's best runners come from just one of these tribes, the Kalenjin, who make up a little more than 10% of the population. To explore the reasons for this astonishing concentration of talent would take another book, but ethnic affiliation -- and, sadly, friction -- is such a central fact of Kenyan life (not unlike race in the U.S.) that it cant be ignored even in a book about training.
Tribal consciousness is pervasive, but acknowledging it is avoided in polite conversation. Kenyans rarely need to make explicit references to tribe in any case, since a person's name, accent or physiognomy will usually reveal his or her origins. If they want to make a point of ethnicity, Kenyans will often use a geographical euphemism in place of a tribal name, much as Americans use terms like "inner city." This sort of conversational delicacy is easy for Kenyans because the country's administrative regions have generally been drawn along tribal lines. Several of Kenya's 57 districts are actually named for their principal tribe or sub-tribe -- the relevant examples here being Nandi District, Keiyo District, Marakwet District and Kisii District -- and a few of the eight provinces (each of which encompasses several districts) are also closely identified with a particular tribe, so that referring to, say, Central Province, can be tantamount to speaking of the Kikuyu.
The trickiest of these multipurpose geographical terms is Rift Valley, and it requires some explanation here because it comes up frequently in the chapters that follow. Depending on the context, Rift Valley can mean any of several things: 1) The Rift Valley is a geological formation, a massive gash in the earth's crust that runs from the Dead Sea down through eastern Africa to Mozambique. It cuts right through Kenya, north-to-south, geologically splitting off the western third of the country. In its most populous part, it's about 30 miles wide, bordered on either side by steep escarpments that rise 2,000 feet or more. 2) Rift Valley Province is the largest of Kenya's administrative regions in both area and population. The province includes practically all of the actual valley, but it also takes in a great deal of territory on either side. 3) Rift Valley is increasingly used as a euphemism for the Kalenjin. Few Kalenjin live in the actual valley -- most are spread out along its western rim and as much as 70 miles west of that -- but the provincial boundary was drawn and redrawn, first by the British and later at the time of Independence, to include almost all of the tribe's territory. The Kalenjin now constitute close to half the province's population, and partly because the current president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, happens to be a member of the tribe, the Kalenjin are the politically dominant group in the province.
Finally, when a runner speaks of the Rift Valley as a place, he's generally referring neither to the actual valley nor to the province, but rather to the Kalenjin homeland, a region of rolling green hills and red dirt cow paths lying at altitudes of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. And in these respects, the Rift Valley is quite similar to the homelands of two of Kenya's other running tribes, the Kisii and the Kikuyu. As you will see, all of these areas, Kenya's western highlands, constitute an ideal environment for the sort of training that has developed the corps of distance runners who now dominate the sport.
| Kenya's Running Tribe
This article originated as a talk given to the annual conference of the British Society of Sports History at Keele University on April 13, 1997. It was later published in the Society's journal, The Sports Historian (No. 17/2, November 1997).
This talk is about a tribe in Kenya that has a remarkable faculty for turning out world class distance runners. The people are called the Kalenjin. They occupy an area about the size of Wales and they number something under 3 million. That's about 10% of Kenya's population. But this group has earned about 75% of Kenya's distance running honors. That's impressive enough, in view of the degree to which Kenya now dominates the sport, but looked at another way, the figures are even more remarkable: Over the past 10 years, athletes from this small tribe have won close to 40% of all the biggest international honors available in men's distance running.
Most of this talk will be a discussion of various notions that have been advanced to account for this phenomenon, but before that I want to throw out a few more numbers to show what I mean by that 40% figure. First, I want to make it clear that I'm talking about men's distance running. Kalenjin women -- African women in general -- have lagged behind their male counterparts for reasons I'm afraid I won't have time to get into.
Now, the Kalenjin excel in varying degrees in all three of distance running's disciplines: cross country, road racing and track. I'll take them one at a time, starting with cross country.
Three weeks ago, the annual World Cross Country Championships were held in Turin. I don't know how much coverage the press here gave the event, but from an international perspective, the World Cross Country Championships are a big deal. In fact, it's often said that the men's championship is the toughest of all foot races to win because it attracts the world's best at distances from the mile to the marathon, and each country can enter not just three runners, but nine. In this year's men's race there were 280 competitors from 60 different countries, most of them hoping somehow to upset the Kenyan juggernaut, but in the end, out of those 280 runners, five of the first seven to finish were Kenyans and four of those five were Kalenjin.
Remarkable as it may seem, this result is fairly typical. Since 1986, when Kenya began taking these championships seriously, the country has yet to lose the men's team race. And Kalenjin runners have made up fully three-quarters of the scoring runners on those 12 winning Kenyan teams. In fact, in eight of the 12 winning years, if only the Kalenjin runners had competed, they'd still have taken the team title. What's more, of the 36 individual medals awarded in the men's competition in those 12 years, Kalenjin runners have won 18, precisely half the total.
In road racing, Kalenjin participation has been comparatively limited until recent years, but they've had a perceptible impact at the top -- the unofficial world best times for the standard road race distances. Kalenjin men own the world bests at five of the eight commonly run distances shorter than the marathon, and in two of the remaining three, Kalenjin runners have bettered the listed world best while running in longer races. As for the marathon itself, a Kalenjin claims history's second fastest time -- 2 hours, 7 minutes, 2 seconds -- and Kalenjin runners have won the Boston Marathon, the world's oldest and most remunerative road race, four times since 1988. In fact, at last year's Centennial Boston Marathon, the richest road race in history, Kalenjin runners took the first two places, three of the top five, five of the top eight and nine of the top 18.
But nowhere in road racing do Kalenjin achievements compare with the record they've built up in the more exacting discipline of track. Here we're talking about distances from 800 meters to 10,000 meters, and success in these events is measured mainly in two ways: medals and times. I'll start with medals. First, Olympic medals. Kalenjin distance runners have won 26, eight of them gold. The only meaningful numbers to compare this to are medals won in men's distance events by whole countries during approximately the same period. If we begin in 1964, the first Olympics to which Kenya sent more than a token contingent, and if we exclude the two Olympics that Kenya boycotted -- 1976 and 1980 -- the nearest national total is the U.S. with 10. Next, I'm happy to tell you, is Britain, with eight. Fourth place, seven medals, is a tie between Morocco and . . . non-Kalenjin Kenya. Here are the leading national totals, medals and gold medals. As you can see, in the Olympics in which they have fully participated, Kalenjin distance men have won nearly three times as many medals and three times as many golds as rivals from any whole country.
MEDALS, MEN'S TRACK EVENTS 800m to 10,000m
Olympic Games, 1964-96 (excluding boycotted Games of 1976 & 1980)
All Medals Gold
Kalenjin 26 8
USA 10 3
Great Britain 8 1
Non-Kalenjin Kenya 7 4
Morocco 7 3
Germany (East & West) 6 1
Ethiopia 5 1
Finland 4 3
New Zealand 4 2
Tunisia 4 1
Until 1983, the Olympics were the only worldwide open competition in track and field. But in that year the sport's governing body introduced the Athletics World Championships, which provide Olympic-level competition without the Olympics' political baggage. Kenya has participated in each of the five World Championships so far, and Kalenjin distance men have built a record much like the one they've established in the Olympics: 17 medals and nine golds. The countries that come closest are Germany (East plus West), with eight medals and two golds, Morocco with seven medals and one gold, and non-Kalenjin Kenya, with five and three.
If we concentrate on more recent worldwide competition -- say, in the last 10 years -- the medal totals become altogether lopsided. In three Olympics and three World Championships, Kalenjin distance runners have won 31 medals and 12 golds in men's track events -- 34% and 40%, respectively, of the available totals. The nearest whole countries are Morocco with 11 medals and Algeria with four golds (all won by Noureddine Morceli), each total equal to about one-third that of the single Kenyan tribe.
So much for medals. The other gauges of success on the track involve recorded times. The most comprehensive of these are what are called all-time lists, which set out in order the top performers in the whole history of an event, strictly on the basis of their best recorded times. As you might expect, Kalenjin runners are well represented. Here are the number of Kalenjin appearing in the all-time lists for the five Olympic distance events at three different levels -- top 10, top 20 and top 50:
NUMBER OF KALENJIN IN MEN'S ALL-TIME LISTS
Event Number of Kalenjin
Top 10 Top 20 Top 50
800 2 7 13
1500 0 4 13
5,000 3 6 13
10,000 5 7 13
3,000 St. 9 13 20
19/50 37/100 72/250
38% 37% 29%
If we tally up these figures for all five events, we find that members of tribe make up 38% of the all-time top 10, 37% of the top 20 and 29% of the top 50. But even these numbers don't quite convey Kalenjin runners enormous recent impact. That shows up more clearly in annual rankings from the last several years. These are also based solely on recorded times. Here are the numbers of Kalenjin in the top 10 in the five years from 1992 to 96:
NUMBER OF KALENJIN IN ANNUAL TOP TEN LISTS
Event 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
800 4 5 4 5 5
1500 4 2 2 2 6
5,000 3 3 3 5 3
10,000 2 4 3 4 5
3,000 St. 7 4 6 9 9
20 18 18 25 28
40% 36% 36% 50% 56%
Another quick tally reveals that in the last five years Kalenjin runners occupied 43.6% of the top ten spots in the five men's endurance events. Take this together with their 38% of the top-ten spots on the all-time lists for those events, and the 34% of all Olympic and World Championship medals they've won in those events since 1988. Then throw in their collection of world bests in road racing and the incredible 50% of all men's medals that they've won at the World Cross Country Championships since 1986, and you can boil this down to the generalization I made at the beginning: In recent years, of the biggest worldwide honors available in men's distance running, Kalenjin runners have won something like 40%.
I contend that this record marks the greatest geographical concentration of achievement in the annals of sport, and if we had time I'd welcome arguments to the contrary, but for now, let's look at what makes these people so good. There's been a fair amount of published speculation on this subject. I'm going to look at a few of these ideas, and then I'm going to offer a couple of suggestions of my own.
Altitude is most people's first thought, and with reason. 2,000 meter elevations are common in Kalenjin country, and leading a vigorous outdoor life in the thin air at such altitudes has been shown to help create the high aerobic capacity that's vital to distance running success. Every athletics fan has heard stories of runners' childhoods in these highlands spent covering mile upon mile chasing cattle or -- to cite the contemporary chestnut -- jogging back and forth to school. The question is, why have these circumstances been so much more helpful to the Kalenjin than to other high-altitude dwellers? Where are the world-class athletes from Nepal, Peru and Lesotho? And what about elsewhere in Kenya? A dozen tribes around the country lead similar lives at comparable altitudes and have produced no notable runners.
How about diet? When I first wrote about Kalenjin runners 20 years ago, nutritional theories of the time ascribed benefits to the relatively high proportion of protein in their diet (from cows milk and blood) compared with the diets of other African peoples. Actually, by Western standards, Kalenjin protein intake was pretty low -- lower still among mess-fed soldiers and school boys, from whose ranks most of the athletes come. These days, however, conventional dietary wisdom touts complex carbohydrates, and Kenyans starchy fare has been cited as a possible source of runners' strength in several recent TV programs and articles in the consumer press. There's no question that the Kalenjin do live on a starchy diet. But then so do most Third World peoples. Starch, after all, is what subsistence farmers produce.
Material incentives are the time-honored explanation for ethnic disproportion in professional sports -- the classic examples in my country being the succession of Irish, Italian, Black and Latino boxers from the wrong side of the tracks. By this line of thinking, the downtrodden groups' inordinate success results from hordes of boys taking up boxing because they see it as an escape route from their desperate poverty. The same reasoning is often applied to running in Kenya today. The availability, first of U.S. college scholarships and now prize money and appearance fees has had a demonstrable effect in boosting interest and participation throughout the country. But the Kalenjin were turning out world-class runners long before such rewards became available, and they continue to turn out three times as many as the rest of Kenya's tribes combined, incentives or no incentives.
Clearly, none of these factors is a sufficient explanation for Kalenjin success, but neither can they be dismissed out of hand. Altitude by itself, for example, doesn't account for much. But when you combine 2,000 meter elevations with equatorial latitudes, you get an ideal climate for sustained outdoor activity -- comfortably warm days, cool nights, low humidity. That, together with altitude's aerobic benefits, begins to show why Kenya's highlands as a whole are an ideal home for distance running. And it's worth pointing out that while about a quarter of Kenya's population lives in comparatively sultry conditions at altitudes below 1200 meters, every one of the country's world class runners is a highlander.
Diet, too, has some significance, though I doubt if it has much to do with complex carbohydrates. Rather, it's that, like most Kenyans, and unlike many of the world's poor, the Kalenjin have enough to eat. The simple fact that Western Kenya has a lot of excellent farm land and a reliable food supply sets the country apart from many places that might otherwise be breeding grounds for runners.
That brings me back to poverty, which is also an important factor, but not quite in the cliched sense of an oppressively grim environment that drives young men to train maniacally as they dream of escape. Rural western Kenya, where almost all the runners come from, is a far cry from a teeming slum or a grimy coal field. It's a land of beautiful green hills, not unlike Somerset or Wiltshire. And compared with other African countries, Kenya is fairly well supplied with basic necessities. Malnutrition is rare, infant mortality is among the lowest in Africa, life expectancy and literacy among the highest. More than 85% of all children attend at least a few years of primary school. And the country has been able to support the institutions -- schools, uniformed services -- that provide a fairly solid athletic infrastructure. So Kenya is at least prosperous enough to provide athletic opportunities.
Yet the people are poor, and unemployment is high. Kenya's per capita Gross Domestic Product is about $1200 a year, less than 1/20th the figure of a prosperous Western country. This means that to the average Kenyan, even the meager winnings brought in by most professional or semi-professional runners look pretty lavish. The prospect of earning, say, $10,000 a year as a second- or third-rank road racer is a powerful incentive, and in view of the hundreds of Kenyans now making that kind of money, not an unrealistic ambition. Someone who thinks he has potential as a runner might quite reasonably devote a year or two to intensive training in the hope of attracting the attention of an agent and landing an invitation to a foreign road race or track meet.
Still, while there's something in each of these factors -- altitude, diet, poverty -- that helps explain the phenomenon of Kenyan running as a whole, none of them begins to account for the hugely disproportionate success of the Kalenjin. For that, we have to look more closely at circumstances unique to the tribe.
An obvious thought is that the Kalenjin might be endowed with some sort of collective genetic gift. This is touchy stuff, of course, and there's nothing like replicable scientific data to support the idea. But the prima facie case for a genetic explanation makes some sense: the Kalenjin marry mainly among themselves; they've lived for centuries at altitudes of 2,000 meters or more; and, at least by tradition, they spend their days chasing up and down hills after livestock. So it's not unreasonable to suggest that over time some sort of genetic adaptation has taken place that has turned out to be helpful in competitive distance running.
This notion gets some flimsy support from the fact that ethnographic and linguistic data link the Kalenjin to tribes elsewhere in East Africa that have turned out a majority of their country's world class runners: the Oromo in Ethiopia, the Iraqw and Barabaig in Tanzania and the Tutsi in Burundi. There's a temptation to imagine a race of lean, cattle-herding uebermenschen wandering up and down the Rift Valley.
What I find more intriguing, however, is the possibility that some of these peoples' customs might have functioned indirectly as genetic selection mechanisms favoring strong runners. I'm thinking specifically of the practice of cattle theft -- euphemistically known as cattle raiding. It was common to all these pastoral peoples, but in Kenya, at least, the Kalenjin were its foremost practitioners. Of course they didn't regard it as theft; they were merely repossessing cattle that were theirs by divine right and happened to have fallen into other hands. Never mind that those into whose hands the cattle had fallen often felt the same way. Anyway, Kalenjin raids often called for treks of more than 100 miles to capture livestock and drive them home before their former owners could catch up. The better a young man was at raiding -- in large part, a function of his speed and endurance -- the more cattle he accumulated. And since cattle were what a prospective husband needed to pay for a bride, the more a young man had, the more wives he could buy, and the more children he was likely to father. It's not hard to imagine that such a reproductive advantage might cause a significant shift in a group's genetic makeup over the course of a few centuries.
Much as I enjoy this sort of speculation, however, a different kind of data is needed to substantiate anything approaching a scientific genetic theory, and so far none exists. The most rigorous work to date has been done by the Swedish exercise physiologist Bengt Saltin, who took a team of researchers to western Kenya in 1990 and conducted elaborate treadmill tests and muscle biopsies on several dozen Kenyan men, all of whom happened to be Kalenjin. He discovered unusual features in his subjects' muscle tissue and response to physical exertion, but he concluded that these were probably the result of the Kenyans' lifetime of vigorous activity at altitude.
One of his findings does suggest the possibility that the Kalenjin evince uncommon "trainability" -- the capacity to increase aerobic efficiency with training -- and research by the Canadian geneticist Claude Bouchard has shown this trait to be largely hereditary. Before drawing any firm conclusions about Kalenjin gifts, however, further studies would have to determine that trainability -- or any other heritable trait -- was truly instrumental in distance running success and that ordinary Kalenjin exhibit the trait to an unusual degree.
Without such evidence, notions of Kalenjin genetic superiority rest on anecdotal data -- and as you might imagine, there's an abundance of that, some of it surprisingly persuasive. My favorite data of this sort are a dozen brief case studies I've collected of Kalenjin young men in their 20s who had never thought of themselves as runners at all until they wound up in circumstances that more or less obliged them to take up the sport. Most often this was because friends who were runners helped them to secure American track scholarships under false pretenses, and once on campus, the non-runners had to run in order to stay. In each case, what happened when they started training is quite remarkable. I'll give one example.
Paul Rotich is the son of a prosperous Kalenjin farmer. The father wanted his son to go to college in the U.S., and in 1988, when Paul was 22, he was packed off to South Plains Junior College in Texas, where there were several other Kalenjin already enrolled, all of them on track scholarships. Rotich, however, went with no scholarship but with $10,000 his father had managed to collect, a sum that should have been plenty to pay his tuition, room and board for two years. By the end of the first year, though, Paul found that he had spent $8,000, and he realized he had to do something to get himself through the next year. Under the circumstances, the first thing that came to mind was a track scholarship. Trouble was, he had never run a race in his life, and he was fat -- 85 kilos (13 and 1/2 stone) at a height of 1.73 meters (5 ft. 8 in.). He began training, running at night because he was embarrassed to be seen lumbering around the track. In the autumn he managed to make the cross-country team, and by the end of the season he finished in the top 50 in the national junior college championships. But that was just the beginning. He landed a track scholarship to nearby Lubbock Christian University and over the next two years he earned All-American honors 10 times in cross country and various track events. When he went back to Kenya and told his cousin what he had done, the cousin replied, "So, it is true. If you can run, any Kalenjin can run."
It may be true, and if it is, it may be because of some as yet unspecified genetic endowment. But even if the Kalenjin are blessed with an innate physical gift, that doesn't account for their astonishing record in major championships. To succeed in those circumstances, an athlete must not only be able to run fast, but to run fastest when it matters most. And in this, the ability to rise to the occasion, to perform under pressure, the Kalenjin are supreme. I've tried to quantify this ability by evaluating performances in the most pressure-laden of all athletic events, the Olympic Games, and to compare Kalenjin performances with those of their rivals in the distance events. The aim was to rate performances not just in terms of medals or finishing places but in comparison to each athlete's pre-Olympic personal best. The base line, 0, was what I judged to be a respectable but undistinguished Olympic performance: not getting a medal, not reaching the final, but coming close -- within half a percent -- of the pre-Olympic PB. In a 1500 meters, that means within about a second. I gave positive points for reaching the final, finishing in the top eight and for winning medals, and also for improving a personal best by various percentages. Negative points for failing to finish and for falling short of a personal best by various percentages. Here's a summary of the scoring system:
PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE Point System
Base line: 0 = < 0.5% slower than pre-Olympic PB, not finalist, not medalist
+1 for reaching final
+2 for reaching top eight
+3 for bronze
+4 for silver
+6 for gold
+1 for PB by <1 %
+2 for PB by >1 % but <2%...etc.
+1 additional for PB in final
+1 additional for Olympic record (no world records in sample)
Negative points for times slower than pre-Olympic PB by > 0.5% (e.g. -2 for time >1% but <2% below PB)
I evaluated every performance of every Kenyan in men's track events from 800 m to 10,000 m, for every Olympics from 1964 to 1996, and I did the same for the two countries with the next best records in terms of medals, the U.S. and Britain. Here's a brief rundown of the aggregate scores:
PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE
National Aggregate Scores
-107 points by 82 men in 104 appearances in 7 OG; 9 PBs; 7 PBs in finals.
Avg. per man: -1.30
Avg. per appearance: -1.03
-95 points by 76 men in 92 appearances in 7 OG; 6 PBs; 5 PBs in finals.
Avg. per man: -1.25
Avg. per appearance: -1.03
+49 points by 18 men in 24 appearances in 7 OG; 9 PBs; 7 PBs in finals.
Avg. per man: +2.72
Avg. per appearance: +2.04
+175 points by 41 men in 59 appearances in 7 OG; 25 PBs; 15 PBs in finals.
Avg. per man: +4.27
Avg. per appearance: +2.97
What accounts for this extraordinary difference? What is it that gives seemingly every Kalenjin runner the ability to summon a supreme effort when it matters most? We tend to think of such emotional strengths as acquired rather than inherited, though of course there's the possibility that cattle raiding or some other custom might have conferred a reproductive advantage upon, say, individuals who stood firm in crises, and that that faculty was somehow passed on. But I'm inclined to believe this ability is the result of conditioning -- that the tribe's austere warrior culture prepares young Kalenjin almost from birth not to quail under pressure.
The most obvious and probably the most significant set of customs in this regard is the series of escalating physical ordeals each child undergoes while growing up, culminating in circumcision, which marks initiation into adulthood. Circumcision is the central event in the life of every Kalenjin youth, anticipated for years with dread, and suffered with unblinking stoicism under the eyes of watchful elders, who are ready to brand a boy a coward for life if he so much as winces. It's not hard to see how this rite might help develop a capacity to put up with pain, which, of course, is vital in running long races.
But circumcision is far from unique to the Kalenjin. Dozens of societies in Kenya and hundreds elsewhere in Africa use more or less the same operation for more or less the same purpose; in many, the rite has much the same significance and is accompanied by comparable community-wide commotion. For this reason, I was at first inclined to look beyond circumcision for whatever it was in Kalenjin culture that gave the runners their special strength. I changed my mind after going to a couple of circumcision ceremonies. I don't have time now to give a detailed account of what I saw, but when I compared it to what I was able to glean about other initiation rites from standard ethnographies and cross-cultural studies, I found what I think are significant differences.
They're not in kind, but in degree. In general, the Kalenjin rite and the long recovery period that follows are invested with greater secrecy and solemnity, and with greater importance as a means of inculcating standards of behavior. The operation itself is more physically arduous and the sanctions for failure more severe (flinching in fear or pain can result in what amounts to a kind of permanent internal banishment). Perhaps most important is the pervasive sense among adults, children and initiates that the traits of character tested in the ritual -- courage, endurance, determination, restraint -- are the ones the tribe values above all, and that to pass the test is to affirm those values, to fail it is to betray them. Thus as the initiates approach the predawn ceremony, they're quite conscious of bearing the weight not only of their own fears and hopes and those of their family and friends, but also those of the whole community, the tribe and centuries of Kalenjin tradition. A boy who stands up under that kind of pressure at 14 or 15 is unlikely at 25 to be anything but invigorated by the comparatively benign tensions accompanying an Olympic final. And if he was able as a boy to muster the strength to endure the excruciating pain of circumcision, what must he be able to do as a man when faced with nothing more than the aches and fatigue of the closing laps of a tough race.
Now, as a final note, since this is a gathering of British sports historians, I'd like to bring up another possible reason for Kalenjin success that has to do with a British colonial law enforcement policy. I once had high hopes for this idea, but up to now I haven't had much luck finding evidence to support it. I've talked about cattle raiding. In the early part of the century, it was endemic in Western Kenya, and the colonial administration went to some lengths to stamp it out. Because the Kalenjin were the most frequent offenders, they got more than their share of attention from the British in this regard. Raiders who were caught were jailed, and prisoners were sent out as laborers on public works projects; among these were the leveling and marking out of running tracks. Thus rustling and running seemed to be connected in an odd kind of symbiosis. This connection was confirmed in a letter I have from a former colonial officer -- now dead -- who recalled a campaign he conducted in one part of Kalenjin territory in the 1930s, promoting athletics as a surrogate for cattle raiding with a slogan that translates roughly as, "Show your valor in sports and games, not in war."
So it seemed that the Kalenjin fondness for raiding earned them an extra push from the colonial administration to take up track instead. But try as I may, I haven't been able to find any evidence in colonial records that my correspondent's approach was ever applied throughout Kalenjin country. There are lots of references to Kalenjin cattle raiding, some with a detectable note of admiration, but none that mention the promotion of sport as a surrogate. I've looked through some of the literature on sport as a mechanism of social control, and there's certainly evidence that sport was used this way among another Kenyan tribe, the Kikuyu, after the Mau Mau rebellion in the '50s. But I've found nothing about the Kalenjin. I've even looked at the encouragement of cricket as a surrogate for ritual warfare among Trobriand Islanders to see if I could in some way argue that this sort of thing was a common policy throughout the Empire. But that argument seemed a little thin. And in any event, if athletics was encouraged disproportionately among the Kalenjin in the '30s, the effects of the policy were long delayed: Kalenjin names don't start turning up with any frequency on the rolls of national champions until after World War II, when the tribe began to join the mainstream of rapidly Westernizing Kenya. Still, I'm eager to pursue this idea further if anyone here can suggest sources that I may have overlooked on colonial law enforcement or the use of sport as a means of social control.