Sean Carey

East Africans reveal some of the secrets of Olympics success

The hunger for success is crucial to the development of athletes capable of achieving greatness at the Olympics as the East Africans clearly demonstrate. On the other hand, as China is proving through its innovative recruitment programme of youngsters, and Jamaica continues to show through holding prestigious sporting events at which gifted schoolchildren are the stars, it would be a great mistake to think that Olympic athletics medals can only be won by people desperate to escape poverty

— Sean Carey Now that the track events at the London Olympics are in full flow the big question is: how come East Africans dominate distance running? On the opening night of the track and field, Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba, became the first woman in history to retain the Olympic women’s 10,000 m race title, while on Saturday night, much to the home crowd’s delight, the Somali-born British athlete Mo Farah, won gold in the men’s 10,000 m.

Ethiopia had further success when Tiki Gelana set a new Olympic record in the women’s marathon last Sunday, and Kenya’s Ezekiel Kemboi won the men’s 3000 m steeplechase later the same day.

Ethiopians and Kenyans currently dominate the rankings in middle-distance and distance running. But in the past other East African nations have produced good athletes, although in smaller numbers. Think of Tanzanian Filbert Bayi, who broke the world 1500 m record at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974, and went on to set the mile record a year later in Kingston, Jamaica.

So successful have been Kenya and Ethiopia in creating world-class athletes that they have produced a surplus for export. Runners, including Kenyan-born 800 m specialist Wilson Kipketer, changed nationality and ran with great distinction for Denmark, while Ethiopian-born 800m and 1500 m specialist Maryam Yusuf Jamal, originally named Zenebech Tola, is representing Bahrain at the London Games.

One of those who have tried to solve the East African running success puzzle is Adharanand Finn, author of the recently published Running with the Kenyans. Soon after Finn’s investigation began in Kenya, Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish born missionary and former headteacher of Saint Patrick’s High School in Iten in the Keiyo District of the Rift Valley, who now runs a very successful training camp, told him: “People come to find the secret, but you know what the secret is? That you think there’s a secret. There is no secret.” (Note to Brother O’Connell: if you’re running a business targeting overseas runners, it’s best not to rubbish what you’re selling.)

Nevertheless, Finn places great weight on the fact that newly crowned Olympic champion Mo Farah’s fortunes changed considerably when a few years ago he visited Iten, and then lived and trained with a group of elite Kenyan athletes in Teddington, south-west London. Farah experienced at first hand the dedication and focus that a small group of young men apply to their trade. Since then, Farah has taken what he has learned from the Kenyans and joined Cuban-American coach Alberto Salazar’s group in Portland, Oregon. He has since refined his running technique, including taking on board his new coach’s advice to shorten his stride on the home straight, and gone on to achieve great things.

Analysing the Kenyan runners’ success, Finn thinks that there are a number of factors – living at altitude, eating a carbohydrate-rich, low-fat diet, and running barefoot, which gives children and adults strong feet and legs – that are important. But according to one of his interviewees, Glasgow University’s Dr Yannis Pitsalidis, who has looked for but failed to find any genetic factor that would confer a decisive advantage, transcending all of the known physiological and environmental elements, is the key variable: the “hunger to succeed”.

But what does the hunger to succeed consist of? Finn reckons that the main driver towards athletic success is escape from rural poverty. Of course, he acknowledges that poverty exists in many countries. The difference, according to Finn, is that in Kenya, “the will to escape” is “channelled into running”.

Mauritius has produced some very good runners in recent history– Stephan Buckland and Eric Milazar both did very well in the sprint events until their retirement, for example. Both came from modest backgrounds and benefited hugely from training and competing overseas. But it’s a reasonable assumption there must be other young people on the island, from modest and not so modest backgrounds of diverse ethnicities, who can compete not just over short distances, but the longer races as well.

What to do? Certainly, Mauritius can learn lessons from the recruitment and training regimes employed by Athletics Kenya and the Ethiopian Athletic Federation. But it can also gain knowledge from other parts of the world. In China, for example, teachers are taught how to spot pupils with good sporting potential, and notify the relevant authorities so that the talent can be realised.

In Jamaica, the prestige attached to athletics, especially sprinting, amongst all social classes trumps every sport, including cricket. In fact, the popularity of the sport goes back to over a century ago when the British established track and field championships in the Caribbean colony. Today, the annual schools championship attracts crowds of more than 50,000 people. Moreover, nothing succeeds like success. Jamaica has five synthetic running tracks, with the government, the private sector as well as wealthy individuals putting money into infrastructure and training programmes. Usain Bolt is the most famous current beneficiary.

One thing is clear: the hunger for success is crucial to the development of athletes capable of achieving greatness at the Olympics as the East Africans clearly demonstrate. On the other hand, as China is proving through its innovative recruitment programme of youngsters, and Jamaica continues to show through holding prestigious sporting events at which gifted schoolchildren are the stars, it would be a great mistake to think that Olympic athletics medals can only be won by people desperate to escape poverty.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

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