Kenyan runners, particularly from the Kalenjin people, have dominated long-distance running since Kipchoge Keino’s win in the 1968 Olympics. Their success is attributed to their body shape and ability to work through pain, possibly due to painful initiation rites in childhood.
The sport of long-distance running changed dramatically in 1968 when a Kenyan runner named Kipchoge Keino finished ahead of American world record holder Jim Ryun in the 1,500m finals at the Mexico City Olympics. Since then, race after race, East African runners, especially those from Kenya, have dominated the sport, especially the grueling marathon, held at 26.2 miles (42km). But did you know that nearly all great distance runners, men and women, are members of Kenya’s Kalenjin people, an ethnolinguistic group with a population of just five million? To get some perspective on their success, consider this: In the entire history of the marathon, only 17 Americans have run the race in under 2 hours and 10 minutes. Surprisingly, 32 Kalenjin riders broke that time in October 2011 alone.
Fit to win marathons:
There are many theories as to why Kalenjins dominate, but in his book The Sports Gene, David Epstein suggests that body shape gives Kalenjins their edge in running. Specifically, they have relatively thin ankles and calves, which allows their legs to swing like a pendulum.
John Manners, a former journalist who helps talented Kalenjin students get into Ivy League schools, thinks the key is the ability to work through pain. Historically, Kalenjin undergo painful initiation rites in childhood.
Runner Kalenjin Kipchoge Keino’s win over Ryun at the 1968 Olympics came just days after he was diagnosed with a painful gallbladder infection. Despite his illness, Keino not only won the race, but also set a new Olympic record that day.