Since the late 1970s, Kenya has been revelling in the glory of the international media as its evergreen athletes break new records and bag trophies. This tremendous and commendable performance by Kenyan runners has raised eyebrows of the western commentators, researchers and even the race-watchers.
Curiosity has been poked, questions have been asked, interviews conducted, opinions spilt in various international magazines and newspapers, all in a bid to unravel the genius behind Kenya’s phenomenal performance in the marathon.
The research findings conducted by white scholars and anthropologists were skewed by cheap, malicious and reckless racial politics that came into play rather than being defined by intellectual acumen. Malcolm Gladwell, an author who was fascinated by such research went ahead to delve into the puzzle. What did he discover?
Malcolm purported that Kenyan runners were successful in his sublime notes because of their supportive environment – sunny highlands, rough terrains where they run through herding sheep and cattle, and a long walking spree to school barefooted. He added that their success was also attributed to tremendous hard work by the athletes and finally their focus was always set on victory.
From all the researchers, something was apparent. They shunned scientifically articulating about the main thing; genetics. They brewed endless theories and overly obscured stories trying to cover and downplay the gem that makes Kenyan runners special.
The imperative role certainly played by genetic predisposition cant be divorced from this discussion. From genetic influence, Kenyan athletes, most of whom come from the Kalenjin ethnic group, have favourable skeletal muscle fibre, high maximal oxygen uptake and relatively high haemoglobin.
This special genetic wiring has made the Kenyan runners dominant in long-distance races. They have prevailed in different conditions, espousing the uniting Ubuntu African spirit and bringing glory back home. Their indefatigable spirit in the tracks and their resilience in surmounting challenges is admirable.
It’s been a journey, a long one, through a rickety path for the country to finally see its runners flex in the international limelight.
In early 1960, a discriminatory rule impeded girls from participating and flourishing in the sport.
Sabina Chebichi, born on the 13th of June 1959, won her first marathon while barefooted and only wearing a petticoat. This was after the athletic management scrapped off retrogressive laws that hindered girls from competing. Chebichi became the first Kenyan female athlete to win a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1974.
The research into the formidable power behind Kenyan athletes couldn’t table anything factual. With racial politics in play, the findings couldn’t escape the wrath of bias. Where do racial politicking bubble from? Well, from the colonial cauldron, where the black community was shackled by Jim crow laws, kept in bondage never to live the sunshine of freedom and exploited year in year out. An erroneous attitude about the ability of a black man was entrenched and incubated by white supremacists.
Therefore seeing the black community excel in performing arts shocks a system that has haunted, debased, and underestimated the potential of the black community. For a long stint, Africa has been taken as a recipient, an underdog in its contribution to manufacturing, energy, agriculture and innovation. Despite being lush rich in resources, the continent has been seen prevaricating and slowing down on its development path.
In the western world, black excellence is celebrated with widening eyes and twitching lips, this is a culmination of a deeply ingrained racial culture that for many decades has relegated the black community to the dregs of society.
Through sports, Africa has redeemed itself. Through incessant nurturing of psycho-motor skills, African youth have utilized every golden chance to showcase their magic in various international sporting arenas.
In 2011, former Ghana president Jerry Rawlings addressed the Ghanaian football team camping at the Moi International Sports Center, Nairobi. He told the players that Africa had been liberated of prejudice from other races and gained acceptance in the community of nations through performing arts.
Through athletics, Kenya with its neighbours Ethiopia, have kept the African dream beaming. They have demonstrated that dreams can sprout and flourish anywhere. With the Olympic Games around the corner, Kenya has unveiled its squad which features more than 30 athletes led by world champion Hellen Obiri, 1500m Olympic gold medalist Faith Chepngetich and marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, who is described as ‘the greatest marathoner of the modern era’.
Other notable names who will be racing are Brigid Kosgei for the marathon race, Julius Yego for Men’s Javelin throw, Eunice Jepkoech Sum for women’s 800m and Mark Otieno Odhiambo for 100m. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are happening from July 23 to August 8, 2021.
Written by: Eugene Rop
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.