Why long-distance running is a Kalenjin thing

Credit: Simon Bruty/Allsport
NAIROBI Recently, when I made a comment to a friend on the prowess of Kenyan athletes, he dismissed it contemptuously: "They're not Kenyans," he snorted. "They're Kalenjins." Needless to say, he is not one of them.

Deciding to follow this up, I interviewed Josh Kiragu, coach of the Kenyan team in more glorious days. He headed the team for the All-Africa Games in Algiers, and later at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada.

Nostalgically, he looks back to the era of Henry Rono, who broke five world records in the space of two years. Kiragu, himself a Meru, does not deny that there is something in Kalenjin culture and tradition which predisposes them to run well.

"It's the fact that they keep cattle and run after them in the highlands," Kiragu says. "Then there is the altitude in which they live, in the Rift Valley. Furthermore, there is a biological aspect: Their longer femur bone means that their reach is better.

"Most middle-distance runners have something similar to that," he added. "It's a question of strike: Their upper bodies are stronger, so they can take in a lot more air."

Is it another example of Darwin's "survival of the fittest"?

Yes, he replies, pointing to Ethiopia's celebrated Haile Gebreselassie, who is also built like that.

Last year, a group of Danish scientists who conducted trials on a group of Kalenjin schoolboys and Danish schoolboys claimed that the results showed that runners from Nandi Hills runners have a genetic advantage over other athletes.

Press reports dubbed these advantages "speed genes" and the scientists claimed that their research has support from some Kenyan top athletes including Mike Boit and Peter Rono, the latter of whom says that it was the environment, coupled with the food and upbringing, which made them natural runners.

Kiragu agrees that it's what you do in early life that determines fitness. Kalenjins have the advantage of high altitude, which means that, needing more oxygen, they are able to condition their hearts and breathing systems. When they come down to lower altitudes, they are able to run much faster than we lesser mortals.

"Train on top of a mountain and you'll be a star!" Kiragu says.

Diet also plays an important part. Like other pastoralists, Kalenjins consume a great deal of meat and milk, which provide the body with high-energy carbohydrates as well as bone-building calcium. The Kalenjin find grass for their animals in the lowlands and have to climb many hills, unlike the Maasai, who stick to the lowlands.

Scouts attend their primary school competitions to look out for special talent.

"When it comes to athletics," Kiragu joked, "everyone is scared of the Kalenjins because they always sweep the board."

Boys and girls are frequently gifted, but he points out that the early-marriage custom deprives many women of the chance to develop their talents. Tegla Loroupe has devoted much time and energy to setting up a camp for young female athletes in order to give them the encouragement that they need, besides being an excellent role model herself.

Young Kenyan athletes are being taken to camps in Japan, Germany and the UK to develop, whereas Kiragu believes it is important that they should train in Kenya, supported by a well-organized Ministry of Sport. Currently, the sports function is swallowed up in a large ministry that deals with culture and home affairs, thereby losing its potential to be truly effective.

It is left as in so many other areas of communal life to the individual and private organizations.

The military also has entered the fray, along with organizations such as the Kenya Communications Sports Organisation, to tap talent through regular competitions. Provincial championships ensure that future prize-winners are found.

Kiragu thinks back fondly to the 1970s when there were government-funded youth centers all over the country, and when the Kenya soccer team was strong. Nowadays, it supports an annual music festival in Nairobi, but sports are left out. Nevertheless, Kenya gained two gold, two silver and two bronze medals at last year's Olympic Games in Sydney all of them in running. Impressive though this may be, it does not compare to Kenya's performance in the Seoul Games in 1988, where the team won the 800, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. But Kiragu takes pleasure in reminding me that Kenyans had won the Olympic steeplechase every time since 1984!

Did he think the relative success of Kenya's runners in 2000 year might provide an impetus for new energy and funds? The athletes were on track not so much as Kenyans but rather as individuals, in which capacity they were able to earn a lot of money. The Kenya Amateur Athletics Association insists that they come back and run for the country, but that is only in an Olympic or Commonwealth Games year.

"It's a question of commitment and government support," Kiragu insists. "The government should do more to make athletes proud of their country."

He cites the example of Cameroon, last year's Olympic soccer stars: "The cream of their team can stay in any hotel and be wined and dined for nothing."

Cameroon has a ministry devoted to sport, that finds young talent and develops it. Kiragu compares this to the way former Kenyan boxing stars are allowed to die in anonymity. An exception is the former policeman-cum-athlete Kipchoge Keino, "the best athlete Kenya has ever produced," who has been honored by having a street named after him in every major town and city in the country.

Since his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, he has established a children's home in Eldoret, and now represents Kenya on the International Olympic Committee.

However Kip Keino dismisses the idea of genetic advantage as "racist rubbish."

"To me it's interest and hard work," the gold medalist from the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games says. "There's nothing in this world unless you work hard to reach where you are, and so I think running is mental; three-quarters of anything is mental."

Kiragu has in his time been head coach for soccer, swimming and basketball, and shakes his head sadly when he remarks on the number of top-flight athletes that are wasted. He himself ran and swam at secondary school and later went to Loughborough University in the UK, where he specialized in coaching. He worked in the Leisure and Recreation department of Utalii College in Nairobi, where he helped to train managers. He later went to Aberdeen, Scotland, to further his studies.

How did the UK compare to Kenya when it came to sports?

"Of course, the UK excels in such things as weight training," he says, "but here we have natural facilities and the high altitude that is so important for runners."

If anyone should doubt that throwing money at the problem helps, the performance of the UK at this year's Olympics is proof that it does. The British team's 11 gold medals represent an astonishing reversal of the decline in Atlanta four years ago.

"The difference from Atlanta," says Richard Williams in a recent Guardian Weekly, "was lottery funding, which, when used wisely, enabled athletes to prepare themselves on a full-time basis under the supervision of world-class coaches and expert medical teams."

The idea that these contests take place on "level playing fields" was scuppered once and for all by Global Equity Monitoring, based in Canberra, Australia, which re-calculated the Sydney Olympic scores daily, adjusted for indicators of economic and social development. Once GDP per capita was factored in, the United States dropped from first to 16th place in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

But people like Josh Kiragu don't waste time sitting about and feeling sorry for themselves. He is at present busy working at Imani School in Thika where he is sports master. He remembers the way he had to run long distances to school as so many children still have to do nowadays in rural areas of Africa.

"My school was far away so I ran a total of 12 kilometers a day!" he laughed.

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. Perhaps there are still some good things about living in a "backward" developing country.

Discuss This Article