The Sociology of Sporting Dominance
If genes do not explain Kenyan dominance in running, then what does?
You can’t explain any phenomenon satisfactorily without looking at it as an example of a type. For example, you can’t explain why the French Revolution occurred without understanding how social revolutions occur generally. And you can’t explain why Kenyans dominate distance running without understanding why individual nations dominate individual sports generally.
Canada has a tradition of global dominance in ice hockey. Do they have better skating and stick handling genes there? Cuba rules Olympic boxing. Is there superior punching DNA on that island? Hungary has been a water polo powerhouse for decades. Are they blessed with exceptional water-treading genes in that country?
A survey of nations that have traditions of global dominance in certain sports reveals one causal factor that is always present and has nothing to do with the genetic makeup of the country’s inhabits: an intense passion for that sport. You will never find a country that achieves dominance in a major global sport without massive participation in the sport throughout the country, worship of the sport’s best domestic athletes, and the inculcation of a sense of the tremendous value of achievement in the sport in every young participant.
Kenya’s passion for running equals Canada’s passion for hockey, Cuba’s love of boxing and Hungary’s mania for water polo. Kenya’s best runners are national heroes. The dream of growing up to become a great runner is as widespread among Kenyan boys and girls as the dream of becoming the next Lebron James is among American children. It’s probably even more widespread because in Kenya, a poor country, there are few competing dreams.
“They know if they become good runners, it’s a way to help their families and help themselves get a better lifestyle,” said Swedish professional triathlete Lisa Norden, who has completed a couple of run training camps in Kenya. “It’s a ticket out. So they’re very motivated to run.”
Not only does running matter more to Kenyan runners than it does to American runners (you can’t manufacture desperation), but there are also far more runners.
“Out of 100 people in the United States, how many of them are going to take up distance running?” asked Roth. “It’s just not valued in our culture. Maybe you get one. Is that one going to carry the best gene combination of all the 100 people? In Kenya, maybe 40 [out of 100] people take up the sport, because it is such a culturally dominant force. Then your odds skyrocket.”
There is no great passion for triathlon, or its swimming and cycling components, in Kenya.
“Triathlon isn’t very well known,” Norden said. “You go there and you have to explain what a triathlon is.”
The factors that conspire to cultivate a national passion for a given sport can include geography, climate, culture, economics, natural resources, history and pure chance. Long winters and the accessibility of ice are certainly factors in Canada’s passion for hockey. Similar factors may also prevent a certain sport from becoming popular in a given country.
The barriers preventing triathlon from taking off in Kenya are gigantic. During her most recent training stint in Kenya, Norden observed that Kenyan women warned her of evil spirits in the water. That’s a pretty big barrier to swimming. Norden also observed that the members of Kenya’s one cycling team rode cheap steel bikes because, she says, “If they were given nice bikes, they would sell them and say sod off to their cycling careers.” That’s a pretty big barrier to cycling, to say nothing of the lack of paved roads and the notorious recklessness of Kenyan drivers.
“I think you’d almost have to bring some Kenyans out of Kenya to make them good,” Norden said. “To train there all the time for triathlon would be quite difficult.”
Well, that’s been tried, too.