In Summary
  • The success of black-skinned athletes, particularly Kenyans, Ethiopians and sprinters from West Africa and, recently Jamaica, has fuelled the stereotype that probably athletics is a ‘Blacks’ thing. But this is quickly watered down by the fact that not all countries with a black-skinned population produce successful sprinters, marathoners or long distance athletes. Also, the fact that athletes who win these medals and set these records come from
    small tribes in a specific region in The Great Rift Valley means it is easy to conclude that they are endowed with ‘proper running genes’. But without strong scientific evidence, that remains a speculation, a myth

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Kenya shocked the running world when its top male runners won the 800, 1,500, 5,000 metres and the 3,000-metre steeplechase gold medals.

Since then, Kenya has dominated in these races, which begs the question: What is the secret of these East Africa running machines? What makes Kenyans so good that they beat the world? So far, science is yet to explain that ‘unique running gene’ in Kenyan athletes, but there have been numerous explanations still.

Barely 30 years ago, all middle and long distance races at the international level were dominated by Europeans, who boasted 43 per cent of the top 25 best athletes in races ranging from 800 metres to marathons. Africans contributed only 27 per cent, of which 13 per cent were Kenyans.

That changed within a span of 17 years. By 2003, the proportion of Africans among the top 25 best athletes was more than 85 per cent, Kenyans accounting for a stunning 55 per cent, while Europeans were reduced to a paltry 12 per cent.

According to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the decline of Europeans from the top list is not as a result of running slower — they still run as fast — but Kenyans and Ethiopians now run faster, breaking records and setting new ones.

The turning point for Kenyans can be traced back to the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when a Kenyan hero, Kipchoge Keino, won a gold medal in 1,500 metres and a silver medal in the 5,000 metres race. Since then, Kenyans have continually dominated international distance running events. The continued success has led to opinions, myths, assumptions and theories, both scientific and non-scientific.

Legendary athlete Kipchoge Keino follows proceedings at the Athletics Kenya Weekend Meeting held at the Kipchoge Keino Stadium in Eldoret on May 22, 2015. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |

Legendary athlete Kipchoge Keino follows proceedings at the Athletics Kenya Weekend Meeting held at the Kipchoge Keino Stadium in Eldoret on May 22, 2015. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |


The mystery of Kenyan runners is further heightened by the statistic that 80 per cent of all international athletes come from one small ethnic group of just four million people, the Kalenjin, with the Nandi sub-tribe accounting for majority of the runners.

The success of black-skinned athletes, particularly Kenyans, Ethiopians and sprinters from West Africa and, recently Jamaica, has fuelled the stereotype that probably athletics is a ‘Blacks’ thing. But this is quickly watered down by the fact that not all countries with a black-skinned population produce successful sprinters, marathoners or long distance athletes. The latter are essentially produced by two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia.

The fact that athletes who win these medals and set these records come from small tribes in a specific region in The Great Rift Valley means it is easy to conclude that they are endowed with ‘proper running genes’. But without strong scientific evidence, that remains a speculation, a myth.

Several studies have tried to explore this line of argument without coming near to singling out a gene that is the sole benefactor of Kenyan athletes. One speculation is that Kenyan and Ethiopian runners share a ‘unique running gene’ as a result of many years of isolation in the course of evolution.

This possibility was assessed by studying the mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) which is inherited from the maternal parent and is used in evaluating how species or different populations are related in the course of evolution.

Surprisingly, the mtDNA of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes were different, although they all perform well in long distance races. This shows that the two regions in Kenya and Ethiopia that share successes in distance running have a different ancestral contribution to their gene pool. This finding, therefore, objects the idea that these athletes have maintained and developed the ‘ancient antelope chasing’ endurance as a result of millions of years of isolation from migration and mixing with other races. In fact, the Ethiopian athletes have genes more similar to some Europeans’.

Although the studied athletes from Ethiopia did not show any differences in mtDNA genes, their Kenyan counterparts had a higher frequency of two categories of the gene, mtDNA LO and M haplogroups. Randall Wilber of United States Olympic Committee and Yannis Pitsiladisis of University of Glasgow, UK, say that perhaps these genes influence the level of athlete endurance, but they do not explain the outstanding performance of Kenyan athletes.

The assumption of an isolated gene pool is also discredited by the analysis of Y-chromosome distribution. Y-chromosome is the gene inherited from a paternal parent. The Ethiopian elite athletes have a different Y-chromosome distribution when compared to the general population and that of Arsi, which produces the largest proportion of athletes. It is either that the distinct Y-chromosome influences the endurance performance of Ethiopian athletes, or the population from which athletes come has a different Y-chromosome.

The second extensively studied gene is alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) gene. One variant of this gene is found in high frequency among Australian elite athletes, with another variant of the gene occurring in low frequency among sprint athletes and the other variant in high frequency among female endurance athletes. According to Dr Nan Yang of the Institute of Neuromuscular Research in Australia, who has studied these genes among East and West African athletes, there is no evidence of their association with the performance of Kenyan runners.

It seems the theory of gene, based on the studies that have already been carried out, somehow crumbles quite fast under strict scrutiny.

Although it cannot be dismissed entirely, probably future research with more advanced techniques will pick that elusive ‘proper athletic gene of Kalenjins’.

The failure of scientific studies to concretely link genes to the success of Kenyan Athletes has led to the notion that these athletes are successful because they live in high altitudes.

Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes come from geographical areas of The Great Rift Valley that lie in high altitude of about 2,000 to 2,500 metres above sea level. Kalenjins contribute 80 per cent of the Kenyan elite athletes, while the Ethiopian runners come from the Arsi and Shewa tribal regions.

The advantage associated with high altitude is ‘living high’ and ‘training high’. At high altitudes there is low oxygen, making training at high intensity strenuous. But those who consistently train at high altitude find it relatively easy to compete effectively at low altitude where there is high pressure.

What surprises scientists is that the Kalenjins are able to train on a consistent basis at race speeds in high altitudes which lowlander athletes from Europe and America cannot replicate. It is thought that after living in these conditions for millions of years, Kalenjins got acclimatised.

However, living in high altitude as the main contributor for Kalenjins’ success can easily be shot down by arguing that people from other parts of the world who live in high altitudes — such as Colombia and Nepal — should also be good distance runners.

Living in high altitude and training consistently is associated with developing good oxygen transport and usage during an intensive exercise. This is technically called high maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max).

It is reported that Kenyan elite athletes developed high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of walking and running from an early age, which ultimately contributed to exceptional endurance running at later stages in life.

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