Why Kenyans Win the Boston Marathon (And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It)
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Banned in Boston! (by the Herald!!)

Peter Brimelow writes: Jon Entine,  author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It [PublicAffairs, 200],  just released in paperback , is as I understand it a perfectly harmless liberal. Nevertheless, sheer intellectual honesty has caused him to blunder into the issue of human differences, and from there into being banned by the Boston Herald (the “conservative” alternative to The Boston Globe). This article was commissioned to run the weekend of April 14-15, in time for the Boston Marathon on Easter Monday, which is celebrated in Massachusetts as Patriots’ Day…for now. Through the miracle of the Internet, you get to read it on VDARE!  File (not for the first time) under “Diversity vs. Freedom.”


It's the passion of the adoring crowds at the National Stadium in Nairobi. Coaches comb the countryside for a rising generation of stars, who are showered with special training and government perks. It's no exaggeration to call Kenya's national sport a national religion.  

After 10 straight Kenyan victories in the men’s division of the Boston Marathon, and four consecutive wins by East African women, even casual fans are familiar with this success story. According to conventional wisdom, East Africans dominate because they ran to school as children, train torturously at high altitude, and are desperate to escape poverty. It’s in their culture.  

There's only one problem: The national sport, hero worship, and social channeling speak to Kenya's enduring obsession with not running but soccer. Unfortunately, Kenyans (and other East Africans) are regularly trounced in the Africa Games by West African countries. It’s just not in their genes. 

Science does not support the speculation that Kenyans dominate because of social factors, myths widely peddled by the media. "I lived right next door to school," laughs Wilson Kipketer, world 800-meter record holder, dismissing such cookie-cutter explanations. "I walked, nice and slow." Some kids ran to school, some didn’t, he says, but it’s not why we succeed.

And for every Kenyan monster-miler there are others, like Kipketer, who get along on less than thirty. "Training regimens are as varied in Kenya as anywhere in the world," notes Colm O’Connell, coach at St. Patrick’s Iten, the famous private school and running factory in the Rift Valley that turned out Kipketer and other Kenyan greats. O’Connell eschews the mega-training so common among runners in Europe and North America who have failed so miserably in bottling the Kenyan running miracle.

Though individual success is about fire in the belly and opportunity, genes set possibilities. East Africans win in large measure because elite runners have a near perfect biomechanical package for endurance: lean, ectomorphic physiques, large lung capacity, and a preponderance of slow twitch muscle fibers. That’s a poor anatomical profile for sprinting (the best Kenyan 100 meter time is a pokey 10.28), soccer, weightlifting, and field events, sports in which Kenyans are laggards.

"Kenyans are born with a high number of slow twitch fibers," states Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, one of the top experts in this field. "They have 70 to 75 percent of their muscle fibers being slow. Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role. But based on the data, it is in your genes whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented."

Not surprisingly, East Africans win more than 50 percent of top endurance races. Almost all trace their ancestry to the 6,000-8,000 foot highlands that snake along the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. The loosely-named Kalenjins, roughly 1.5 million Kenyans, win 40 percent of international distance events. The Nandi district, 500,000 people–one-twelve-thousandth of Earth's population–sweeps an unfathomable 20 percent, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.   "If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," notes retired molecular biologist Vincent Sarich, "then you probably could be led to believe just about anything. But such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays not role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports. When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cerebral cortex just shuts down."

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell and colo-rectal cancer, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative mental disease Tay-Sachs, and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that the success of East African distance runners, Eurasian white power lifters, and sprinters of West African ancestry can be explained, in part, by genetics?

Acknowledging any innate differences runs head-long against the American myth that everyone has an "equal possibility" at success, when the Constitution, and science, commits only to "equal opportunity." Advances in population genetics makes it quite clear that in some important ways humans are different, certainly in the proclivity to many diseases and in athletic skills. This is not "scientific racism," as some assert. Scientists who have documented anatomical differences between populations reject notions that physical ability and mental acuity are inversely linked. There is simply no denying that genes can matter.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," notes Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology, "that if you have a physique... it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place." 

To underscore the magnitude of such an advantage, Professor Sarich calculated, based on population statistics alone, the probability that all of the last ten Boston Marathon winners would hail from the same region in Kenya: 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000002. That’s functionally equivalent to the last ten winners all coming from Idaho.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, the popular myth persists that there are no meaningful genetic differences. In his State of the Union address in 2000, President Clinton declared that "We are all, regardless of race, 99.9 percent the same," apparently trying to allay fears about the potential misuse of data generated by advances in genetic science. Well, there is no detectable genetic difference between a wolf, a Labrador, and a poodle–zero–but no one would dare suggest that their body type and behavioral differences are cultural, rather than innate. Differences are grounded in gene sequences and proteins and are activated by obscure environmental triggers.

All the training in the world is not likely to turn an Inuit Eskimo, programmed to be short and stout, into an NBA center or a Nigerian (or for that matter an African American who traces his ancestry from West Africa) into an elite marathoner. The world's most elaborate sports factory combined with state-supervised illegal drug supplements still could not turn even one East German sprinter into the world's fastest human. Highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, musculature and metabolic efficiency are not evenly distributed across population groups.

Yet, hypocrisy abounds, even among many scientists. Just last week at a conference on race and sports, Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, renowned for his political correctness as much as for his scientific acumen, apparently attempted to score some media points with his declaration that there is no "running gene." Of course, no scientist claims there is a "running gene." Geneticists and anthropologists assert only that genetics plays a role in some patterned differences between populations, including in shaping body type and physiology.

Gould’s circumlocution seem designed to play to the popular myth of equal possibility. Reuters fell for the ruse, headlining its story: "Athletic Achievement Isn't in the Genes." Yet, even Gould didn’t go that far. Buried in the article was Gould’s admission that sports success is a complex combination of social, environmental, and biological factors, none of which can easily be teased out and isolated. That’s of course exactly what geneticists and anthropologists have shown repeatedly. In other words, humans are different, a product of the intertwined and inseparable relationship of genes and environment. Such nuance is apparently too controversial to trust with the media.

But hard scientists who actually experiment with genetic variation, such as Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves, Jr., reject such equivocation as obfuscation. "The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up consistently in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations. It varies by characteristic. It doesn't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather by geography," notes Dr. Graves, an African American and author of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a book about race science. "Populations with roots in equatorial Africa are more likely to have lower natural fat levels. That is likely a key factor in running. It's an adaptive mutation based on climate. But that's a long way from reconstructing century old racial science."

Caution over the potential misuse of genetic research is certainly warranted. After all, pseudo-science and claims that certain "races" are genetically superior and destined to dominate has historically been evoked to justify colonialism, slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. It’s not clear, however, that disingenuity, deception, and even censorship are the tools to guarantee against such potential misuse.

Popular thinking, still reactive to the historical misuse of "race science," lags the new bio-cultural model of human nature. The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue but to what end. "If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity," warns Walter E. Williams of George Mason University; "we concede the turf to black and white racists." Sports offer a non-polemical way to convey this message and de-politicize what has sometimes been a vitriolic debate. 

Jon Entine  is author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, PublicAffairs, 2000], which was just released in paperback. 


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