Is Keynan Running Dominance a Numbers Game?

Malcolm Gladwell riffs on comments in Sports Illustrated by Alberto Salazar where Salazar theorizes that Kenya’s dominance in distance running is largely due to the massive numbers of kids running big miles at an early age.

Kenyan Runners

We’ve always known that running is culturally important in Kenya, in a way it isn’t anywhere else in the world. But these are staggering numbers. A million 10 to 17 year olds running 10 to 12 miles a day? I’m guessing the United States doesn’t have more than 5,000 or so boys in that age bracket logging that kind of mileage. 70 miles a week is an enormous amount of running–even for an adult. I ran middle distance at a nationally competitive level as a teenager, and never got close to 70 miles a week.

The numbers game makes sense to me. While there may be some genetic advantages for distance running associated with being Kenyan, it still takes a tremendous amount of training to reach international dominance. That’s where the numbers game comes into play.

2 thoughts on “Is Keynan Running Dominance a Numbers Game?”

  1. And which came first, chicken or egg?

    The chicken ‘Kenyan genetic advantage’ or the egg ‘youthful lifestyle that values, expects, and encourages being active and running’ resulting in a youngster who appears as a genetically superior runner? I don’t think it is genetics as much as total acclimation (and I don’t mean elevation, although you could tack that on too). Think of it as learning by immersion, like a new language from youth onward.

    Heck, I was skinny at 15 too, and would have been even more skinny had I spent more time running instead of playing burst sports like baseball, basketball, tennis, and football…would I have been Kenyan fast? Not likely, because of environmental limitations like the lack of support and competition for youthful running in the USA.

    And only THEN it is the numbers game. We only see the top 50 or so Kenyan runners here or on TV, the other million, who would all run circles around even a well conditioned me, are back home scratching out life (like me! :)).

    Kind of like the every four years Kenyan x-c skier. They always have fitness and endurance, but none of the lifetime on skis that make a world-class skier. Are Scandinavians genetically superior skiers? While fabulous athletes, I think not. However they have a lifetime of support and competition and skiing expectations behind them…and then their skier numbers kick in.

    But, isn’t it fun to see a running story in SI and the blogsphere!!!

  2. Don’t forget socioeconomics. A Kenyan is much more motivated to become a professional runner. The money he or she will make as a runner is a lot more lucrative than what an Ameican will make. The American dollar is much more valuable to a Kenyan than an American.

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