An update on what to expect:
Karibu Sana! Welcome to the Enculturated Champion project. My name is Andrew Arnold, an athlete turned anthropologist, and the principal investigator of this research grant. Two weeks ago I set off to Iten, Kenya on a six month expedition in search for answers to a question that we have all asked ourselves at one time or another: What makes a person great?
It’s a question that’s not easily answered, especially given how elusive and subjective greatness can be. We all recognize it when we see it, but even then we disagree about what exactly it is that we’ve seen. When analyzing great men (and women) Aristotle spoke about something loosely translated to “magnificence”, German philosopher Max Weber labelled it “charisma”, but today we simply call it success. And humanity is enamored by success. Just look at all the kids wearing Steph Curry jerseys, or Adele’s sold-out world tour, or the million-plus Ted Talk views and you’ll know that people will spend their time and money to experience, honor and learn from individuals who exhibit something “exceptional”.
The nature of that “exception” is a fascinating concept, but the process by which an individual becomes exceptional is the focus of this project. As an anthropologist, I am inclined to believe that culture plays a pivotal role in forming an exceptional person. But you don’t need an anthropology degree to know that a person cannot become great all on their own steam. As John Donne so eloquently put it 500 years ago, “no man is an island”, and a good many athletes, billionaires and celebrities (if they have even an ounce of humility) will attest to that fact.
The truth is that our lives are the result of a strange relationship between culture and our choices, a debate that Anthropology frames with the terms “structure” and “agency”. While it is tempting to pick a side in this classic “nature versus nurture” argument, the reality is that we become individuals because of both poles, through a dialectical interplay of forces within and without ourselves. People cannot choose their heredity, or their parents, or their place of birth, and so many of our earliest experiences and limitations are already set in stone before we can even think about it. That is structure. But as we grow up, our choices become increasingly more important and powerful. We choose our friends and our studies and our activities and our lovers, and these choices lead to experiences and careers and families. That is agency. And while it is clear that these two realties are always occurring and effecting the course of our lives, what is less obvious is the amount of say we have in picking a direction.
French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu unpacked this ambiguity beautifully when he outlined a “Theory of Practice” and introduced the concept of “habitus”. Bourdieu’s compatriot, Michel Foucault, took that notion further with his theory regarding “discipline”. But frankly, I find both of these concepts to be slightly pessimistic. They help to explain social hierarchies, inequalities, and why people are where they are in society, but they fail to explain how some rare individuals transcend agency and structure’s perpetual tug-of-war. It seems to me that certain people are able to focus their thoughts and orient their actions over time in such a way that produces a future envied and altogether different from their peers. We see it time and time again; men and women who believe in a distant hope, and because of an unflinching faith are able to sacrifice and persevere to the point where their dream becomes reality. It’s as if they have the ability to perceive our world through a different lens, so that “structure and agency” instead become “providence and purpose”. This change in perspective inevitably leads to a change in the patterns of actions, and I call this unique process “ritual”.
You are probably sitting there thinking, “What on earth does all this have to do with Kenyan runners?!” As a matter of fact, it has everything to do with Kenyan runners. If you are looking for an example of how individuals transcend the oppressive structures of their lives and use what little agency they have to produce incredible results, look no further than Western Kenya. This small pocket of East Africa is home to the greatest concentration of athletic talent to be found anywhere in the world. Kenyan runners have won races and rewritten the record books with such frequency and ferocity that they’ve become a stereotype. Today, regardless if the race is 800 meters or the marathon, most athletes resign themselves to second place upon seeing a Kenyan toe the line… such is level of their dominance.
And yet the Kenyan domination of distance running has manifested itself against a backdrop of poverty, political corruption, and lack of education. Most of Kenya’s Olympic stars began their journeys as some of the poorest and most neglected members of their society. Few could read, even fewer had any money, and fewer still had a pair of shoes. Fate dealt them all a hand that should have reduced the Kenyan running phenomenon to a mere fantasy. But history tells us a different story.
This project will unpack that story and understand these athletes from a perspective that I has never been forwarded before. Most journalists and track fans come to Western Kenya searching for a “secret” to explain the running success. Even more tend to think that Kenya’s athletic prowess can be explained away with just a word. And there are good reasons for why these people think the way they do. Environment, heredity, and global economic disparities clearly have a role in producing this phenomenon. But as I mentioned earlier, that only gets us halfway to the finish line. To turn an individual into a champion takes more than just the right setting, it takes a mindset and a process; a faith and a ritual…
I encourage you to follow this ethnographic research as it unfolds over the course of the next six months. Since I will be training with these Olympic athletes as they prepare for Rio, my field work should offer you an unprecedented look at the culture and mentality involving the Kenyan athlete. I will be posting interviews, field notes, photos, and videos (when the internet allows for it!) in an interactive way so that you can make your own impressions of the Kenyan distance running phenomenon. Below you will find some notations to be on the lookout for:
FN - Field Notes: Journal entries outlining my field work, training and experiences in Kenya
KDRP - Kenyan Distance Running Phenomena: Conversations and insights from Kenya’s top athletes, coaches and agents
HAC - High Altitude Conversations: Kenya is home to not only the world’s best runners, but is also the preferred training grounds of athletes from all over the globe. These segments will feature my interactions with these international athletes, and their take on Kenya’s running success.