Bulletin: Olympic Fadeaway

By August 27, 2016 September 1st, 2016 Athletic Performance

Why the East Africans’ dominance of distance running was sure to fade.

In the world of running pundits, there is always a new “force” to be reckoned with. Often this is followed by ridiculous marketing fads like certain foods based on the notion that some “new” superior race or nationality of runnings humans has been “discovered.”

For many years now this superior force in distance running has been made up of athletes from East Africa, especially the countries of Ethiopia and Kenya. They have dominated distance events from the 5K to 10K to the marathon. In a physical sense, this seems to make sense. Most elite Kenyan runners are small-stature, lean, and have whippet-thin legs, so they aren’t carrying extra weight, but equally important is many live at high altitude, spend most of their early years active and barefoot, and have the advantage of running being the national sport.

And yet with this latest Olympics in Rio we have seen the beginning of the loosening of the stranglehold East Africans have had on distance running events

This notion is not something new, but it is something easily forgotten. The first great U.S. runners were all Native American, particularly members of the Hopi tribe of the Southwest. The most famous Hopi runner, Lewis Tewanima, twice represented the U.S. in the Olympics and picked up the silver in the 10,000 meters at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Fifty-two years passed before another American medaled in the 10,000 meters — Billy Mills, who was of Sioux descent, took gold.

And then there was Finland. Who could forget how the “Flying Finns” dominated distance events in the 1912 Olympics, and then later in the 1972 Munich Olympics and 1976 Montreal Games? In these two Olympics, the last of the great Flying Finns, Lasse Viren, won a total of four golds in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters.

Remember “Chariots of Fire?” After the second World War, England was a powerhouse in middle-distance events like the mile. Then came other Commonwealth nations — New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland — which produced many world-record milers and middle-distance champions.

The U.S. never lagged far behind, with a great running program that lasted into the late 1970s and included such running legends such as Jim Ryan and Frank Shorter, whose marathon victory in the 1972 Munich Olympics is widely viewed as the catalyst for America’s first running boom.

In recent years it’s been African runners who have established themselves as the world’s best — from the North (primarily the Moroccans and Algerians) and the East (Kenyans, Ethiopians, and to a lesser degree, Eritreans). In recent years, Kenya has pulled away from the pack of its fellow East African contenders.

The trend of a certain nationality dominating for a period of time is also evident in other endurance sports. Check out the Tour de France with Spain, France, the U.S. and United Kingdom all taking pulls at dominating for multiple years. Australia and the U.S, have been major forces in Olympic swimming for decades. And the Scandinavian countries virtually rule cross-country skiing in the winter Olympics.

Some would say it’s genetics but I disagree. History speaks against this theory and plus it’s just bad science.

There are at least two important factors that lead me to believe that Kenya would eventually see its dominance begin to falter. The first factor has to do with genetics and the other is environmental. Both have been touted as the reasons for success in the endurance world. They are also deeply intertwined, and affect each other in profound ways. This relationship can be distilled as nature/nurture.

  • Nature is our natural-born biology, with genes that provide the blueprint of being human. We pass on this genetic material from one generation to the next in the form of DNA, which contains codes that dictate specific features that the newborn will possess. As examples, these include hair and eye color, body height, basic body build, and skin color. It has taken millions of years of natural selection for our genes to become what they are today.
  • Nurture is the environment’s effect on our body. This includes diet, stress, lifestyle and one’s upbringing. In particular, the development of physical activity from the earliest age can significantly influence one’s ability to run faster or slower later in life.

Some of the key factors associated with superb endurance is the combined importance of Vo2max, lactate threshold, and running economy in achieving optimal marathon performance. Specifically, how well do the Kenyans fare in these areas?

Mayo Clinic’s human endurance expert Dr. Michael Joyner has written that “a careful review of the scientific studies shows that [the Kenyans’] values are nothing special for elite distance runners. However, many do have outstanding values for running economy, but these values are not better than those seen in the most efficient runners of other races and nationalities. Also, no genetic factors have been identified to explain their success.” Joyner does state that if the East Africans have something unique, “It is likely due to hard and active lives at high altitude from an early age.”

It’s easy to see how people can view the Kenyans as indomitable. I’ve visited the country and have seen firsthand how the culture promotes champions by valuing running above other sports. And the lifestyle and training, rest and recovery coupled with an environment that provides hilly countrysides and high altitude produces winners.

But nothing lasts forever, and in this latest Olympics we saw the East Africans’ success beginning to fade with fewer top-10 finishes in distance events. Will this trend continue in the future? And, if so, what country will be next to rule over distance running?

This article was adapted from a chapter of 1:59: The Sub-Two-Hour Marathon Is Within Reach—Here’s How It Will Go Down, and What It Can Teach All Runners about Training and Racing.

12 Comments

  • murray cass says:

    Oops. It’s Jim Ryun not Jim Ryan.
    Thanks for your usual excellent analysis.

  • Jzs says:

    …you didn’t answer the question formed by the title of your own article; other than you say so and because others mentioned have also faded.

  • Brian O Leary says:

    Hi Phil, I enjoy your articles and website. FYI Ireland is not in the commonwealth. Hasn’t been since we became a republic in 1948. Not that we’re suffering a post colonial inferiority complex or anything. Just to keep the records straight. British media often refer to Irish atheletes as their own- only when they win of course.
    Best wishes
    Brain O Leary,
    Cork, Ireland

  • Maria Benavent says:

    So what’s the answer to the title’s question please?

  • Great article that gives absolutely no answers but airy fairily utters a few fairly dubious ideas.
    My own view is that the largest factor involved is the need for money. Running is a way otherwise ordinary Kenyans can make some decent money.
    I run the Khon Kaen International Marathon every year and it is dominated by young Kenyans eager to take the good prize money on offer.
    As life styles improve the desire lessens and then success fades. There are obviously other motivations but as in all things, filthy lucre is unfortunately the key factor.

  • Tom Scott says:

    What fade? East and North Africans in top 8 at Olympics:
    Men Women
    Marathon 6/8 5/8 (top 4)
    10k 7/8 7/8
    5k 7/8 6/8 (top 6)

    The only factor lessening the dominance of the African countries is that other countries are getting better at getting Africans to immigrate.

  • Robert Simms says:

    Could the winning streaks by countries have a bit to do with the psychology of impressing your opponents?

  • Steven Blostein says:

    Also, in the documentary on Kenyan runners “Running for Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTQVHZU4WzE one significant physiological factor was found that size of lower leg bones provides a significant effect on running economy and certain tribes inherited this lowered moment of inertia.

  • John Andresini says:

    Nice article but one really has to search for your answer to the original question.
    A big part of the answer is something sociologists have know for many decades. Sport or sports that people play or follow is a big consequence of socio-economic conditions of a community, city, region and or a state or country. You touch upon that when you talk about the living conditions of the Kenyans. There many other examples of this all over the world.

  • Ian Adamson says:

    Andrew: the answers are in the Science, referred to but not referenced. The data is there if you care to dig and pay for the peer reviewed, published articles (and be critical of their findings!)

    Steve: there is a degree of self selection for distance running success, and this has not been proven to be genetically biased toward specific populations. Lower leg structure (including muscle size and proportion and Achilles tendon length) definitely have an effect on running economy, but take a look at all the elite distance runners regardless of ethnicity and you will see very similar structure. One of the most important determinate of distance running economy is Achilles tendon length (based on lab data), effectively the size of the spring.

    Aerobic development: this occurs during growth years. Maturing humans (and other mammals) develop their aerobic capacity, skeletal structure, elastin and several other physical characteristics only while growing. Once mature we have limited ability to change this, and one important determinate of endurance running performance is aerobic development, which leads to the next point …

    Socio-economic effect (John lauded to this): Poor countries have limited (or absent) motorized transport. Many kids (if not most in rural areas of African countries) walk and/or run to school from a very young age. 6 to 10 miles each way is not uncommon in some areas for kids as young as 6. From a developmental perspective, this closely meets the criteria for building a large aerobic engine during growth years.

    Incentive: there is a significant financial incentive for runners from developing countries. Consider the teams of African runners who make prize money and then send it home. If you are living on $1 a day, then $1,000 is a fortune.

    Having spent time in Africa, talked with African runners and attended running races there, the above conditions are common.

    How many kids in developed countries have the above impositions and incentives?

  • Nigel Smith says:

    Whilst I partially agree with some of the above comments in that there is no clear answer in the text; I do agree that nothing lasts forever. I do not think that ‘history’ provides us with anywhere near enough robust data to make any judgements. After all, Europe & America have been taking sport seriously for the past century, whereas East Africa only came to the party in 1960 onwards, with track success from the early ’70s’ onwards. Additionally, there has to be a question mark against some performances from the mid-90’s until 2008, knowing what we know now about the prevalence of artificial blood boosting practices. If we take into account Africa’s access to the latest sports science & medicine etc, is there a case to argue that in the first 2-3 decades of their prominence they were punching above their weight? And as sports science progresses (more quickly than the accumulation of historical data) more countries have begun to invest in studies to understand from a physiological point of view what level & type of workload is required to succeed at the long distances (by which I mean 5000m to the Marathon). Whilst genetics and altitude may play a significant part in success, understanding the specific event requirements will surely mean that as more people have access to credible studies AND the combined desire to succeed, we will see more multi-national rostrums.

Leave a Reply