Why does Kenya have the world playing catch up?
A $1,000,000 prize for first place gets you an awful lot of Kenyan shillings. We delve into the dominance of Kenyan marathon runners that has left the rest of the world clambering to cling onto their coat-tails.
- In the heart of Eastern Africa sandwiched between Tanzania and Uganda lies the marathon epicentre of the world; otherwise known as Kenya.
- An astonishing 340 Kenyan athletes qualified for London’s Olympic marathon last year. Meanwhile, Canada had a few make the grade too. Literally, three. Considering both countries have a population hovering around the 40 million mark this figure is clearly no fluke.
- Iten, a small town in the Rift Valley Province has earned the nickname ‘Home of Champions’ due to the sheer number of Kalenjin tribesmen and women that roll off the production line and flourish to become world class long-distance runners.
- The seeds of success were sown when Naftali Temu won Kenya’s first gold medal in the 10,000m at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Now, despite the men’s team failing to land the nation’s first gold medal in the marathon at London 2012, (having to settle for a measly silver and bronze combination), Kenya continues to tighten its grip on supremacy of the world’s most famous long distance race. Of the all-time top 10 fastest marathons recorded the Kenyan men lay claim to a staggering seven. But although much of the media attention is focused on the men, their female counterparts are hot on their heels, with an impressive three times posted within the all-time top 10.
- There are few sports throughout history in which one country has been able to boast of such unprecedented dominance. But why are the Kenyans so much better than the rest of the world? Other leading nation’s athletes and their coaches have been left scratching their heads. Others have boarded a plane and headed to Kenya’s plains themselves in the scramble to discover the secret.
- Well for a start it seems everywhere from Samburu to Nairobi the people of Kenya seem to adore running. For ages. And ages. Which helps. Debate rages whether they have been given a head start through their inherited genes. As Kenyans grow up in high altitude surroundings, this leads to a greater lung capacity. Foreign elite athletes, most notably Great Britain’s Mo Farah, lived and trained in Kenya before London 2012 to replicate the conditions faced by his African rivals. There is a hint of irony in the fact that athletes are swarming to Kenya to train, whereas the Kenyan athletes often yearn to run marathons anywhere but in Kenya.
- Others claim that the widespread success is simply down to a burning desire to train hard enough to go abroad, win a major title and come back to their family rich. A $1000,000 prize for first place in the Boston Marathon gets you an awful lot of Kenyan shillings. Marathon running has become a route out of poverty for many. Financial rewards undoubtedly play a part, but you cannot ignore the unmatched natural talent, dedication and motivation to endure incredibly tough training regimes.
- There is no simple answer as to why Kenyans are so far ahead of the rest of the human race. It would take scientists years of research and experiments before a definitive answer could be reached. One thing is for certain though, Kenyans are going to keep running marathons and it looks like they are only going to get better.
- With three major marathons in the space of two weeks, the world’s sporting spotlight rarely focuses as intensely on the marathon as it does throughout April. The Boston Marathon takes places on April 15th shortly followed by The Virgin London Marathon on April 21st while the Paris Marathon has already seen its winner, on April 7th, namely Kenya’s Peter Some.
- London has often been regarded as the biggest marathon of them all, a claim backed up by the poll in Runner’s World, and it is rumoured several athletes will lay siege to the world record, (currently 2:03:38), on the famous course. The race will feature one of the strongest fields ever assembled, the top 11 male athletes all have personal bests under 2 hours and 6 minutes.
- With London being a relatively ‘fast’ course and a field packed with raw talent, if the conditions are right, expect the field to start off at a fierce pace to drive out the slower competitors early on. Remember, when the going gets tough and athletes are dropping like flies but you see a figure at the head of the pack pounding through the streets, constantly widening the gap between him and the rest of the field as he drives towards the finish line, he’s probably Kenyan.