Johannesburg, South Africa

April 1, 2001

Speed genes?

Driven by speed genes or what?: The Kenyans rule the world

"There is another African physical type which has a different potential and has already shown it. Any visitor to Eastern Africa with a nose for athletic potential will see talk willowy types with long limbs and flat muscles. They are Nilotic or Nilo-Hamitic and abound in Abyssinia South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya They have already been seen in action in world class athletics. Abebe Bikila.. Mamo Wolde... Kipchoge Keino... Naftali Temu...andBenjamin Kogo...

"These are all portents of the great potential of Eastern Africa which has only begun to develop. There is no parallel with Australia, where a generally high standard of living encourages sporting activities. What the East Africans seem to have is an immense reservoir of natural talent and wherever modern methods of training can be applied as the Kenyans are increasingly doing the results are bound to he outstanding."

When George Gretton wrote those words in his 1968 book, Out In Front, little did he know that his seemingly prophetic observation would ignite controversy more than three decades later.

Just as Gretton had predicted, Kenya has fulfilled the prophesy. Its prowess in the long and middle distance races has been an enigma for years now.

Recent ratings released by the world's supreme athletics body, the Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), in late January, underscored the superiority of the East Africans. In the top 50 positions, Kenyan athletes occupy 24 places and Ethiopians 10.

It, therefore, came as no surprise last year, when the Danish scientists released their comprehensive report detailing glaring biological differences between European and African runners.

In the study, the Danish sports researchers who had camped in the Kenyan athletics cradle of Eldoret, where the IAAF maintains a highaltitude training centre, appeared to confirm what had hitherto been believed in some quarters: That African runners had physical genetic advantage over other races.

As expected, the findings elicited instant responses and were branded racist by some.

According to the findings, East African athletes have "bird-like legs, very long levers which are very, very thin", enabling them to easily "bounce and skip".

Compared to the Danes, the Africans "flowed through the running motion" as their European counterparts "landed heavily and sunk into the ground and almost had to pull themselves forward". They are "pullers" whereas the Kenyans are "bouncers".

The scientists even "found" that athletes from Nandi Hills in Kenya - the homeland of the Kalenjins - "have a genetic advantage over [all] other athletes" - African and European alike.

The report, compiled over a period of 18 months, went on to depict Thomas Nolan, one of Denmark's top distance runners, as a minnow compared to two "untrained" Kenyan school boys who easily beat him in a 10,000m race set up as part of the scientific research.

Nolan said after the race: "In the beginning they ran quite fast. It was a hot day, I had confidence. I thought, `let them run, they don't know much about running because they have not done any running before'."

He was to be surprised, when after 12 laps he discovered that the two novices were a notch better than him.

"I could not catch up with them," Nolan confessed. "I think they were about SOm or 60m ahead when we came to the finishing line."

David Kemboi, one of the two school boys in the race, said: "I was surprised I won because I didn't know I could run fast like a world champion."

It is this methodology by the Danish scientists which irked Harrison Koroso, a US-domiciled Kenyan who, in a letter to a Kenyan newspaper, said: "That runners from Nandi Hills have speed genes is utter nonsense. Next thing the researchers will say is that they are fast because these athletes eat ugali (stiff porridge) - they have an advantage over the lazy Danish runners, or they will call ugali a drug and Trio (maize and kidney beans) a speed booster."

But the Danish research is flawed in many areas. For instance, it fails to note that there have been better runners from other areas of Kenya such as those from the Kisii area, who include Naftali Temu, Nyandika Maiyoro, Yobes Ondieki and Robert Ouko. There are also Maasai athletes such as Billy Konchellah and Daniel Rudisha.

In fact, the incensed Koroso even failed to mention John Ngugi, Paul Ereng and Douglas Wakiihuri - all gold medallists in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. There are also Charles Kimanthi, Leonard Mucheru, Daniel Komen, and across the border, the Ethiopian legend Haile Gebresellassie, and even further afield the Moroccans, Said Aouita and Hicham el Guerouj. And none of these athletes is Kalenjin from Nandi Hills!

Kipchoge Keino, an Olympic gold medallist and chairman.of the Kenyan National Olympic committee, is one of those who disagree with the findings: "To me, it's interest and hardwork. There is nothing in this world unless you work hard to reach where you are. I think running is mental, three-quarters of anything is mental."

But Mike Boit, the Kenyan 1978 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, disagrees: "The genetic inheritance is there," he said in agreement with the Danish findings.

Peter Kono, also a Kenyan Olympic gold medallist, is somewhere between Keino and Boit. "It has to do with the tradition, the food, the environment, and then, of course, the upbringing of someone because you know we are brought up in a different kind of environment."

The debate over the findings has brought into focus something that happened in the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico, (the year Keino won his gold, and George Gretton wrote his book, Out In Front), and which was later adopted by the International Olympic Committee as the "Olympic Spirit". It read:

"MEXICO, 1968: Out of the darkness he entered the stadium - his leg bloody and bandaged. John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania was hobbling with pain.

The girls from Nigeria: 'Blacks of West African ancestry are the premier sprinters and jumpers', says Jon Entine

"An hour earlier the packed stadium had seen the marathon winner finish. Now, only a handful of spectators remained But the lone runner pressed on undeterred As he crossed the finish line, the small crowd stood to its feet, cheering with admiration.

Later a reporter asked the runner why he had not just given up as he had no chance of winning. He answered My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.'

"This is the 'Olympic Spirit', and the spirit of the African athletes who compete there."

Thirty-three years after this event, the invincibility of these humble East African runners has come back to haunt the world, and the possible explanation for their wizardry is still being sought.

Kenya has well and truly fulfilled Gretton's prophecy. But is it hard work? Is it genes? Or is it just a scientific excuse to justify decades of European defeat at the hands of the "tall, willowy" Africans?

In fact, the Danish study did not put much new into the public domain than was already known. In 1995, the British neurologist and retired Oxford don, Sir Roger Bannister, was the first to put his neck on the block when he said: "I am prepared to risk political correctness by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but understressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages."

He was followed by the American, Jon Entine, whose book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, caused such a stir in the world of athletics.

"There are only 800 million blacks [in the world] or one in eight of the world's population," Entine argues, "but athletes of African origin hold every major world running record."

Last year, Entine continued the argument in the London-based human rights magazine, Index on Censorship. He wrote:

"In the US, blacks make up 70% of the NFL (National Football League) and 85% of professional basketball. In England, which was slow to allow foreigners into football and has a black population of less than 2%, one in five soccer players in the Premier League is black.

"As equality of opportunity has increased in sports over the past 30 years, equality of results -- the diversity of the races of the elite players - has declined. And this is not a black and white issue.

"Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting and field events such as the short-put and hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws).

"Where flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events (hence the term `Chinese splits').

"Blacks of West African ancestry are the premier sprinters and jumpers. East African blacks - Kenyans and Ethiopians in particular - are the world's best distance runners."

This debate is not going to end any time soon. In the meantime, everyone would do well to let the records speak for themselves - and the records say this surely is the glory age of athletes of African descent.

Danish scientists seeking to unlock the "mystery" behind Kenya's dominance of middle and long distance running have produced a controversial report, claiming that East African runners have a genetic advantage over athletes from other races. Wanjohi Kabukuru, a Kenyan himself, cannot believe his ears.

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