Races and races

It’s probably easier and wiser to avoid the awkward subject of the relationship between race and sporting ability. Whatever the truth one way or the other, discussing the possibility of inherent racial advantages in anything is only going to be divisive.

But when you turn on the World Athletics Championships 10000m race, and see that after 3000m the leading group consists of four Kenyans (one running for Qatar), three Ethiopians, an Eritrean, a Ugandan, a Zimbabwean and an American who was born in Somalia, it’s hard to avoid. The men’s distance events are so consistently dominated by Ethiopians and Kenyans in particular; both countries seem to produce new world-class distance runners by the dozen. In the last 10 years, there have been three Olympics and six World Championships, and in the 10000m, 25 of the 27 medals have been won by Kenyans and Ethiopians.

Surely, you have to think, there’s some kind of physiological trait present in some East African populations – probably an adaptation to altitude – which gives them an advantage. And if there is, it would be interesting to know what it is. It would also be interesting to start projects to look for gifted distance runners in other high-altitude countries like Ecuador and Nepal.

I suppose one difficulty is that if you say Ethiopians are naturally gifted distance runners, it tends to devalue their achievement, although they still have to beat each other. The race today, which the awe-inspiring Kenenisa Bekele eventually won after the Eritrean, Zersenay Tadesse, set a gruelling pace for most of the way, certainly didn’t look any easier or less competitive because it was dominated by East Africans.

Of course it’s worth pointing out that the classic simplistic idea of race doesn’t apply here. Distance running isn’t dominated by ‘black’ or African athletes in general; it’s specifically Kenyans and Ethiopians. And perhaps just a specific subset of people from those countries.

I was in Japan during the Sydney Olympics, and the Japanese seemed generally convinced that black people were just ‘stronger’ than Asians, and that was that. So when a Danish TV documentary ran a tiny informal experiment that supposedly demonstrated that people from a particular ethnic group in Kenya had an advantage in distance running, I wasn’t surprised to see the Japan Times report the story with a headline that was something like ‘Blacks proven to be naturally faster’, illustrated with a picture of Michael Johnson. Johnson, of course, is neither Kenyan nor a distance runner. In fact, as a sprinter, any physiological adaptations which favoured endurance racing might well be an active disadvantage.

All of which leads me to… I don’t know, really. I don’t really have a point, except that it’s all quite interesting.

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