“We are tired of giving away these trophies to East Africans. We will be committing resources to training Nigerian athletes so they can win the marathon”. Words of His Excellency, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, after the East Africans (male and female) dominated the medals list once again at the third edition of the just concluded Access Bank Lagos City Marathon on Saturday.
Well, I can’t be too sure if the world is also tired of the East Africans dominating every long distance race there is, but what I’m quite sure of is; everyone is looking for an explanation why this is so.
Based on several research works and studies carried out in recent times, there are three major reasons peculiar only to the East Africans especially Kenyans and Ethiopians, that contribute to their success in these races.
First is the quality of their training. East African athletes reportedly train in high altitudes going through tough sessions at high intensity. The training sessions at high altitudes leads to superior levels of haemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body) and haematocrit (the volume of red blood cells in the blood). This in turn leads to a higher maximal aerobic capacity – an increased ability to transport oxygen to the working muscles; a key determinant of endurance performance.
However, scientists have revealed that any advantages of living at over 2000m are also available to those in Mexico, the Andes, and large parts of central Asia. So it’s safe to say that sustained training at high intensity (which isn’t common to athletes in other parts of the world) while at high altitude, to improve endurance ability may be one of the distinguishing factors for East African long distance runners.
A more distinctive factor for the East African marathoners is their body structure. Research has revealed that East African athletes use lower energy to run and maintain a fast pace compared to Caucasians. This according to scientists is due to the light weight of their legs.
Studies have also shown that majority of the Kenyan champions including most of Kenya’s Olympic medal winners come from a single tribe – the Kalenjin, an ethnic minority with a population of 4.4. million i.e 0.06% of global population. Meanwhile for the Ethiopians, it is the Oromo ethnic group who boast of most of the elite long distance runners in the region.
A research carried out in 1990 by the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, compared post-pubescent schoolboys in Kalejin to the famed national track team. The study found that boys on the high school track team consistently outperformed the professional Swedish runners. The researchers estimated that the average Kalenjin could outrun 90% of the global population, and that at least 500 amateur high school students in Iten alone could defeat Sweden’s greatest professional runner at the 2,000-meter.
Another study in 2000 by a Danish Sports Science Institute trained a large group of Kalenjin boys for three months and then compared them to Thomas Nolan, a Danish track superstar. After trouncing the Danish superstar, these studies revealed that the Kalenjin boys had less mass for their height, longer legs, shorter torsos, and more slender limbs. In conclusion, they emphasised the “bird-like legs” that make running less energy-intensive and give their stride exceptional efficiency.
This then begs the question: “If the East Africans (especially Kalenjins in Kenya) have a body structure that suits long distance runners, why haven’t they dominated long distance races since inception? The only answer for now has to be that they started dominating when they imbibed the “Running Culture.” This, is the third reason for East African dominance in long distance races across all competitions in the world. One of those towns where this culture is most prevalent is the Ethiopian town of Bekoji which was the subject of a 2012 documentary called Town of Runners. In recent years, it has produced 10 Olympic gold medals, 15 world records and 34 World Championship gold medals, according to British runner and writer Declan Murray.
According to Bale and Sang, when Finnish athletes dominated the global running scene in the 1930s and ‘40s, various theories about “climatic energy” and the vast wilderness where they lived “like animals in the forest” were offered for their success. But, as O’Connell (who ran the running program in Iten, Kenya), told David Epstein (author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance): “The genes didn’t go away in Finland, the culture did.” This is why the running culture has to be considered another important factor for East African dominance.
In Bale and Sang’s prize-winning book on Kenyan running, it describes the influence of missionaries and the British army in promoting modern athletics such that once it took root and success started to come, the tradition of distance running in the region became self-perpetuating.
So here is my little piece of advice for Governor Ambode if he wants a Nigerian to win the Lagos Marathon or any marathon in the world: We need our men to marry women with strong genes from the Kalenjin and Oromo tribes in Kenya and Ethiopia respectively. So that the kids have the body structure in these regions. Let the kids grow there and undergo the high intensity training at high altitudes in Bekoji (Ethiopia) and Iten (Kenya) where the running culture is prevalent. Next up, bring them back to Nigeria to participate in the Lagos Marathon.
Sounds more like a long term project than what money and good facilities can just make happen. Phew! But impossible, is nothing!!!