All research projects that seek to unpack a phenomenon begin with a question. My case study began with the question as to why Kenyans are the best distance runners in the world. Beginning in 1964 with Wilson Kiprugut’s gold medal win for Kenya over the 800 meters distance at the Tokyo Olympics, elite athletes have emerged from this nation of 50 million people with such frequency that both fans of the sport and scientists of a variety of disciplines have begun to wonder how this unprecedented manifestation of athletic prowess is possible.
Part of the reason that this Kenyan phenomenon draws attention to itself is due to the nature of the sport it operates within. Athletics, or Track and Field as it is known in North America, is a sport that celebrates measurement, and by consequence, allows for comparison. Born out of the enlightenment’s obsession with quantification, modern Athletics measures a human being’s physical potential in the controlled environment of a marked course or track oval, contrasting athletic performance against both time and space, as well as other competitors. The stopwatch or measuring tape transforms every race, every jump and every throw into a tangible performance, one that can be compared to other performances both past and present. Ask any athlete about their “personal record” and they will quickly respond with a figure that is accurate to the millimeter or the hundredths of a second. Track and field makes it painfully clear how well an athlete competes, the level of improvement an athlete makes, and obviously which athlete is the best.
In addition to being statistical by nature, Athletics is also a global sport, and represents the largest denomination of the Olympic disciplines. With over 213 nations now participating in Athletics, it boasts a universality that is unrivaled by other sports or disciplines. In effect, Athletics would seem to be an equalizing sport, one in which human beings from far flung continents and countries, of different ages and experiences, speaking different languages of different cultures, can each compete on equal footing with nothing more than their god-given bodies and the promise of glory. And yet, as global and ubiquitous as Athletics has become, a sport of worldwide participation, the elite athletic performances tend to coalesce within specific ethnicities and around certain geographical regions of our planet.
It may seem odd for a sport that celebrates individual achievement to become the exclusive domain of a specific population, but if history is any indicator, it reveals that is exactly what has occurred to distance running over the past 50 years. Prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the world record in the marathon stood at 2 hours and 15 minutes. Today, that record is owned by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran 26.2 miles in a time of 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds. Kimetto is by no means an outlier either, of the top 10 fastest times ever run in the marathon, eight of these spots are currently held by Kenyans. In fact Kenyans are responsible for over half of the best times ever run in the Olympic distance events, and since gaining its independence, Kenya has been near the top of the medal table in every International Track and Field competition it has participated in. This concentration of athletic dominance is unprecedented and begs the question as to what makes Kenyan runners superior to the rest of the world.
Questions that beg for answers are bound to find some explanations, and as of yet I am unsatisfied with the current trend of assumptions. At best, these assumptions claim that Kenyans have adapted to their high altitude homeland in a way that predisposes them to becoming great runners, an example of “environmental determinism”. At worst, these assumptions make ignorant claims that reduce the incredible athletic feats and dedication of these Kenyan men and women to nothing more than a random genetic code, as if natural selection decided to produce Olympic gold medals. My studies and experiences have led me to a different conclusion; one that requires a holistic perspective that takes into account not only biology and geography, but also history, culture and most importantly, practice.
To date, few of the studies on sport have effectively combined the anthropological perspective with practical experience. Notable exceptions include John Bale’s Kenyan Running and Imagined Olympians and Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul. These studies were exceptional in taking sports and their distinct internal cultures and unpacking them in a way that offers insight into our world’s more general social milieus. These studies have also laid the foundation for understanding sport holistically and as an example of “practice theory”, especially when viewing training as a kind of “habitus".
I have designed my project to be akin to these aforementioned exceptions, with an objective that aims to reveal how the unique training culture of Kenya is not only the primary factor for this nation’s concentration of Olympic caliber athletes, but also a fine example of how training can act as a cultural habitus, one that can act as a nexus between a nation’s identity, a region’s economy, and an individual’s biology. Practice and training are the keys to success in any sport, but combine these athletic principles with Kenya’s unique environment and economy, as well as its rich history and culture, and the combination yields the most profound emergence of athletic talent seen on this planet. My background in academics as well as writing a thesis for the Cornell Anthropology department on this subject, coupled with my experience as an elite distance runner, has given me a unique lens to view this athletic phenomenon blossoming atop the sides of the Great Rift Valley.
I believe that the key to understanding this Kenyan athletic phenomenon begins with understanding what lies at the heart of athletic performance, and that is practice. My project would take me to the epicenter of Kenya’s training grounds, Iten, where I plan on participating with and observing these athletes and their athletic networks both as an runner and as an academic. The High Altitude Training Center (HATC), founded by Olympian Lornah Kiplagat, has agreed to assist me in this project, and will serve as a headquarters from which I will gain access into this training culture by running with, interviewing, and studying the various training groups that exist around it. By contrasting the Kenyan training culture with my own experiences in the elite American running culture, I plan to demonstrate how Kenyan training is unique, and in many ways, superior to its western counterpart.
At its most basic level, understanding Kenyan running involves understanding the runners themselves and the early stages of my project will focus on developing relationships and gathering testimonies from both amateur and professional Kenyan athletes. I am fortunate that Peter Rono, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist and UN ambassador for Kenyan Sport, and Professor Mike Boit of Kenyatta University, also a former Olympian, have agreed to provide me with numerous contacts and introductions to the Rift Valley Provinces’ top athletes and coaches. I plan on utilizing these networks as a means of gathering exemplary biographies that can help cast a more defined impression as to how a Kenyan youth grows as a runner, for instance: begins training, finds a training group, gets exposed to a coach or agent or university, earns scholarships, sponsorships and race invitations, and ultimately becomes a professional athlete. I am also interested in the role that these professional athletes play in perpetuating this cycle of athletic production, for many of the elite Kenyan runners, (even after earning a fortune from international racing), return to their childhood homes after their running careers have ended.
After creating relationships with these runners by participating in their training and culture, the next stage of my project involves studying the systems that support this Kenyan training culture. Some of these systems are social, such as friendships formed between elite athletes and aspiring youngsters, foreign coaches/agents and local athletes, as well as families that help bolster the dreams of their talented offspring. Others are more institutional, and include high schools as well as government organizations, like Iten’s famed St. Patrick’s High School or the Rift Valley Province’s police and armed forces. All of these institutions have produced former Olympic champions and continue to churn out elite athletes with Olympic dreams. By understanding the history of these institutions and their relationship with Athletics, I hope to connect the personal experiences of these athletes with the more reified systems that support their training and progress in the sport. This connection can help demonstrate how training and its relationship with the individual athlete acts as a kind of anchoring point that can manifest social systems and structures.
Taken a step further, this interplay of training culture with governing bodies leads to the final stage of my project, which unpacks the convoluted relationship between bureaucracies and individual athletes. I plan on interviewing members of Athletics Kenya (AK), the nation’s governing body over the sport, as well statesmen in order to gain a better understanding of the role government plays in shaping the grassroots training culture of the Rift Valley Province. The timing of my project also helps in understanding the relationship this governing body has with the individual athletes, since I will be able to observe the selection process of the Kenyan Athletic team in Nairobi for the 2016 Olympic games. I will also be able to witness the celebration that follows these athletes as they return home from Rio, with what I expect to be many pieces of precious metal and a fresh cause for this training culture to gain more converts.
At the conclusion of my project, I hope to have gathered the necessary ethnographic material to make the case that training and practice act as form of ritual, a reification of culture that magnifies culture’s effect on the individual, and has the potential to shape our potential in ways that are equally as powerful as our genomes. I find this argument to be one of hope, for imbedded in this philosophy is a truth that we all have the ability to accomplish the incredible, it just takes hard work and unflinching belief. The Kenyans are living proof of this truth, and if my anthropological argument fails to inspire people to run for their dreams, then the story of these Rift Valley alchemists certainly will.