Running: The African Revolution.

Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer dominated the 800 ...

Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer dominated the 800 metres records indoors and outdoors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his commentary on the 1988 Seoul Olympics a TV commentator described Peter Rono’s 1500m win as “another upset from the Kenyans” after Paul Ereng took the 800m gold for Kenya. Little did he know – perhaps the real upset was Europeans finishing second and third (Elliott, UK, Herold, GDR). In 1988 North and East Africans won 6 of the 18 men’s Olympic distance running medals on offer. In 1992 this became 10 of the 18, and in 2000 at Sydney North and East Africans won 17 of the 18 men’s medals available. (Europe picked up two medals, but one was won by a Kenyan representing Denmark. The African domination continued at Athens with 12 medals going to North African born athletes. Medal count alone does not show the full extend of African strength – in the 5000m nine of the first 10 runners were from the region; in the 10,000m Kenyan, Ethiopian and Kenyan medal winners had Africans taking three of the next four placings.
And North and east Africa has totally dominated the world crosscountry scene for 20 years or more.
Why, and how? Part is tradition, part lifestyle, part genetics, part is the opportunity to make big money and a big part is excellent coaching and high work ethic. There is no getting away from the fact that Kenyans train hard. Certainly, many live at altitude, they have an ideal body shape of light frame, good musculature, great power to weight ratio plus a history of aerobic conditioning thanks to formative years spent running over natural terrain rather than driving everywhere. But it’s not the complete picture. Kenyans train hard but hard training has yet to produce a world class Kenyan sprinter. Wilson Kipketer (world record in 800m) lived next door to his school and walked there.
An important factor could be attitude. East and North Africans expect to win, in the same way that the All Blacks expect to win. And then there is the standard of local competition that immediately raises the bar – a Kenyan has to beat the best in the world to make a Kenyan team. When local competitions are the standard of world championships or higher (Olympics can have only three Kenyans in a team, in the Kenyan trials or a club race there is no limit), standards must improve.
While many Kenyan coaches have been through the American college system or learnt their coaching skills at an American university, Kenya is not blessed with sports science labs and a proliferation of all weather tracks. But nor was New Zealand in the 1960’s and 70’s. Well-coached athletes prepared to work hard is the common factor. It resulted in both countries being best in the world.
That doesn’t mean science is ignored. Wodemeskel Kostre, known as the father of Ethiopian athletics and coach of many of Ethiopia’s greatest runners including Tulu, Gebrselassie and Bekele as well as the all conquering crosscountry team, graduated from the Budapest Institute of Sports Science and Pedagogy then later returned to Budapest for his PhD. Kostre’s interest in athletics stemmed from Abebe Bikila’s Olympic marathon gold at Rome. Bikila not only inspired Kostre, he inspired a whole country – Ethiopia is still passionate about athletics.
The Moroccan approach is also science based. Morocco operates one of the most scientifically advanced training systems in the world and includes talent spotting and selection, testing (including running styles scientifically analysed) and huge financial support. The Moroccans realised that they lacked the depth of talent of Kenya so invested heavily in their system. In the 1970’s the decided they could not match developed countries in the technical events so made the decision to focus on middle and distance events.
According to Australian coach and author Tony Benson, the Ethiopians favour a Lydiard based system with more long runs while the Kenyans base their training on Cerutty principles with more threshold work. Kenyans appear to do a higher percentage of training at their anaerobic threshold.
So there are many factors inherent in the rise of African running, and many more that have not been discussed here. But beware of stereotypes and generalisations. For every Kenyan athlete who ran 10 miles to and from school every day there is one who walked next door (or boarded at the school itself). For every Ethiopian who runs to fame across rough savannah trails there is one coached by a sports scientist at elaborate facilities. But the one common factor among all is desire and commitment. The Moroccans may find the physically perfect runner in their talent identification programme, but it means nothing without the athlete’s commitment.


About swimbikerun1
Devoted Father, Husband and Employee.Endurance sports fanatic (running,cycling,swimming).Triathlon athlete and coach.If only days had more than 24 hours.

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