The Kenyan sport secret

| September 5, 2012 | 0 Comments

As countries tried to outperform each other in the summer Olympics, author Adharanand Finn notes in his book Running with the Kenyans (2011, Random House) that in 2011, the world’s top 20 fastest runners were all from Kenya.

Finn spent six months in the Kenyan town of Iten, in the Rift Valley, finding out why Kenyans are such sport superheroes. He discovered that every successful Kenyan marathon runner is from a poor, rural family. Daniel Komen, the world record holder for the 3 000 m, told Finn: “Every day I used to milk the cows, run to school, run home for lunch, back to school, home, tend the cows. This is the Kenyan way.”

Kenyan children’s focus is also sharpened by the success they see around them, says Finn. “Every village has its star runner, someone who has gone off to win a world title or some big city marathon, and returned with enough money to buy a plot of land, a cow and a big car. There are role models everywhere. The children look around them and say, ‘when I grow up, I want to be a runner’.”

Finn says that the rest of the winning formula is easy to deduce. “You have a population who from a young age have been running everywhere, mostly in bare feet – which gives them perfect running form, and stronger feet and legs – and who all aspire to become athletes. Throw in the fact that they all grow up at high altitude, which increases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen (a good attribute for long-distance running), and eat a diet full of carbohydrates and very little fat, and you have the perfect recipe for producing great runners. Underpinning all their efforts is the constant spectre of poverty. For every successful Kenyan athlete, there are 10 others training in the hope of success. For them, making it as a runner, even modestly, is their only chance of escape.”

Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2012

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