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Cut and Run

Friday, November 01, 2013 - 05:00 PM

Legions of athletes, sports gurus, and scientists have tried to figure out why Kenyans dominate long-distance running. In this short, we stumble across a surprising, and sort of terrifying, explanation.

At the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, Kipchoge Keino overcame a gall bladder infection to win gold in the 1500 meter race. Since then, one particular group of Kenyans - the Kalenjin - has produced an astonishing number of great long-distance runners. Gregory Warner - NPR's East Africa correspondent - takes Jad and Robert down a rabbit hole of theories about what exactly is going on in Kalenjin country.  

David Epstein and John Manners help Greg untangle a web of potential factors - from something in the cornmeal to simple economics. And, after talking to a young Kalenjin runner named Elly Kipgogei, Greg discovers a somewhat disturbing explanation for Kalenjin running prowess that actually makes him want to get on the treadmill and push himself just a little harder. 

 

Check out a video of Kipchoge Keino's 1968 Olympic 1500m run:

Guests:

David Epstein, Mr. John Manners and Gregory Warner

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Comments [56]

John

Isn't this why some cultures appear to be better at some things than others? The Germans seem to be masters of all things engineered, the French art, the English literature, and so on. The pride of a culture has a reciprocal relationship with the expectations a culture places on its citizens. We know the height of a particular tribe is enforced through cultural norms as well. In short, it seems as though we are breeding ourselves for specific capabilities.

Apr. 16 2014 07:49 PM
lions20 from Oviedo

I believe that multiple factors come into play. Both genetics and the rituals Kenyan's perform increase their running ability. Genetics allow them to move faster due to their fast twitch muscle fibers, and their rituals allow them to endure pain for a longer timespan that the average human.

Apr. 03 2014 05:40 PM
Chazz from Earth

@Steve From Georgia: I think Grayhounds are faster than Saint Bernards because Saint Bernards spend too much time sitting on the couch watching TV and eating donuts.

Mar. 18 2014 12:39 PM
EricYoder

The podcast made it seem like it's simply this small tribe. Ethiopian long distance legend: Haile Gebrselassie
Somali: Mo Farah.

Ethiopians have dominated at the 10,000 meters along with Kenyans. I don't think it's just the isolated tribe. It's obviously the region.

Feb. 24 2014 12:40 AM
Steve from Georgia

I suppose Greyhounds are faster than Saint Bernards because of some cultural tolerance to pain, or perhaps emotional scars from getting neutered.

Feb. 03 2014 12:46 PM
Jane

Why are people scared to admit that there are different genetics between races? It is science and can be proven.

We are so focused on everything being 'fair' and continue to deny our physical differences to the point of ignoring scientific evidence. There is practically a religion where people deny that our genetics have anything to do with our capabilities.

Jan. 09 2014 11:43 AM

@elevit, it's so annoying that people like you write these long misguided diatribes that make it clear that you didn't even finish the episode (no Kenyans, huh?) and then never come back to eat crow--er, I mean, learn from your mistakes.

Jan. 02 2014 05:53 PM
Erin

What is the song at the end?

Dec. 23 2013 12:54 PM
Alexander from Toronto, Canada

Great episode but what's with the painfully high squeak (at 10:01) in the audio. Heard it in a couple of other episodes, too. OUCH. Just me?

Dec. 19 2013 07:44 PM

elevit, i'm not sure you understand what eugenics, genetics, or racism are.
also, why do you say they should have had a Kalenjin on? they DID! the last quarter or so of the episode is just talking to Elly Kipgogei. he spoke about his experience with the ritual and his views on passing the perseverance (which may or may not be attributable to it) to his sons without the use of it.

in what way is this similar to a racist joke ? what is racist about this episode at all?

fully agree with whambot. they don't condone or condemn anything that this culture does at all. they are completely neutral and just address whether a particular practice that's been around for awhile produces cultural and genetic pressure which predisposes people to a particular talent.

in addition, to those saying that radiolab didn't consider alternatives or should to this or that in their research, radiolab is not conducting a study. they're exploring one possible hypothesis at a very colloquial level. they go out of their way to say that any athletic prowess is attributable to a whole host of factors. radiolab doesn't do studies! they present contemporary and credible theories to the laymen in an interesting and amazing way. this episode is no different.

the only part i felt a little weird about was not addressing the female circumcision at all, which obviously (from our western vantage point) has horrifying moral implications. but i think they probably thought this wasn't the appropriate venue to address that issue.

Dec. 06 2013 03:37 PM
Alex

Omg the title of this short takes a whole new meaning after hearing about the circumcision part.

Dec. 04 2013 06:00 PM

I've made an account just to say how ridiculous this comment section is.

Some people are offended that Jad and Rob didn't address the genetic aspects enough, while at the same time some people are offended that they even brought up genetic aspects in the first place. Some people are offended that Jad and Rob didn't give an ethical opinion about the castration practices, and some people are offended that they did. Some people are angry that they didn't speak with enough Kalenjin. Some people are angry that they spoke with *too many* Kalenjin or Kalenjin related people.

Some people are angry that they didn't do numerous, peer-reviewed case studies to prove things that have already been proven-- as if that's even what Radiolab does in the first place! Radiolab speaks to experts and interviews them and lets them tell their stories-- and that's what happened here.

It's like.... Radiolab presented this story with a pretty neutral tone, and yet you have people on both sides saying they're extremists! Somehow, according to the comments, they've managed to not only perpetuate racist and colonialist ideas about East African cultures, but they've also managed to support and promote unsavory aspects of those cultures at the same time?

Unbelievable. This was a good short and this whole comment section is off the wall.

Dec. 03 2013 02:18 PM
Dave in Nairobi from Nairobi, Kenya

Poor logic. The team put forth this idea that one tribe in an area had a certain social activity that made them good runners. Then they never bothered to test the theory against the other tribes that have very similar practices, just down the road. The Masai or Kikuyu perhaps?

You get grants for promoting science but do not bother to look at similar data that undermine your theory?

Dec. 03 2013 08:16 AM

I registered for this site exclusively to express how unbelievably racist this story is.

This is not the first time that Racistlab has had problems with cultural and racial sensitivity.
You should have abandoned this story when you started to squirm at how dangerously close your "research" was getting to eugenics. You nervously veered away from the idea of genetic running ability, stumbling into speculation on cultural practices that was exotifying, dehumanizing, and incredibly condescending. I cannot believe that you were smirking while discussing this, and pretending that this had anything at all to do with running. This show was the equivalent of a racist penis joke. You both should be embarrassed and ashamed.

If you're beginning to feel defensive, ask yourself this: Why didn't you have a Kalenjin person on the show?
Seriously, why? Don't tell me you "couldn't find anyone." It's because you would have been embarrassed of your own assertions and assumptions. Instead you had a white "expert" on Kenyan runners, which is racist and neo-colonial in itself-- but conveniently saved you from having to look a Kalenjin person in the eye.

Please thoughtfully consider the comments that are calling for you, Jad and Robert, to take a serious look at this story and understand why it is completely unacceptable.

If you had any decency or sense of responsibility to your listeners, you would remove this story from your website immediately.

- White woman in NY

I also want to echo the sentiments of the poster "alli" and am including their entire comment below.

The second half of this story is so irresponsibly racist and neoimperialist, as the comments that advise bombing kenya here clearly show. Not only is the logic irrational (if pain led to awesome runners then every woman who had extreme pms would run marathons), the assumption that such a coming of age ritual leads to "pain bearing" runners can only be accepted if you believe the most racist stereotypes of Kenyans. There is a long colonial history of using circumcision rituals as an excuse for judging/condemning or taking over Kenya. Such policies led to the an anti-colonial expansion of radical fgc that did put lives in danger. What irresponsible disgusting 'research'. See for ex: http://appweb.cortland.edu/ojs/index.php/Wagadu/article/viewArticle/355/674 as well as http://crs.sagepub.com/content/33/4/689.abstract

Dec. 02 2013 03:37 PM
Daniel S from Portland, OR

Overall a great broadcast.

Running involves two basic skills -- (1) getting your body to move fast and (2) keeping it moving fast when it starts to shut down. Genetics contributes to the first skill, while the pain ceremony contributes to the second skill. Throw in high altitudes and a running culture and you have the perfect storm.

Solid theory.

Nov. 22 2013 02:32 PM
Sandy

I am disappointed in this show. The podcast begin by acknowledging that genetic factors are probably at work and they must be handled carefully to avoid racism. Then they decide they like the cultural ceremony explanation, because, as one of the anchors puts it, "it feels fair."

I normally like Radiolab, but this treatment made me rather upset. So I want to take a moment to lay out how I would have liked to see this story oriented:

1) Genetic factors are clearly at work. This is easy to see simply from looking at the runner's body type. This isn't a racist observation, it's true of all distance runners - they tend to have a very particular body type.

2) Cultural factors are clearly at work. The story about the pain ceremony was interesting and seems relevant, so it makes for a nice podcast topic.

3) Neither (1) nor (2) completely explain the phenomenon. As mentioned, there are numerous tribes and ethnicities with the distance-runner body type. There are also numerous tribes that have their own version of the pain ceremony. But only one tribe has produced so many Olympic Champions. So there are clearly more effects we are not aware of.

I am annoyed that Radiolab spent so much time whinging over the potential racist implications of acknowledging differences in body type (which feels fake - if something is true, just acknowledge it).

I am sad that they chose the pain ceremony explanation because it "feels fair."

The topic is interesting, but execution is condescending.

Nov. 22 2013 09:42 AM

For those asking about the lovely song at the end of the podcast: Gasper Lawal - Kita kita!

Cheers,

Nov. 15 2013 12:37 PM
Ken from Raleigh, NC

Wow, so what happens to those Kalenjins so munfortunate as to be born with a physical defect? Something like, "No reproduction for you! No go hobble over there to the corner in case we need bait for tomorrow's hunt." perhaps?

Kinda of gives the whole concept of the "cool kids" in school a whole new meaning.

Nov. 14 2013 05:38 PM
Marete

On the other hand, we here in Kenya are horrified by the limitless leeway and endless coddling afforded American and western children in general, so that they any manner trivial eventuality traumatizes them and lands them on the therapist's couch.

Further, the application of epithets like "torture" and "child abuse" to proud traditions here (such as circumcision) is ridiculous and we reject it as hysterical. This kind of sneering attitude towards Africans (as well as other non-white people) has been familiar to us for the last 500 years, more or less, and does not shock us. We understand it very well. It is manner in which modern, educated westerners act-out the age-old instinct to colonize and dominate that is so deeply embedded in western culture and which, appearances notwithstanding, has never abated.

Nov. 13 2013 11:04 PM
DS

A very interesting story and hypothesis. However, as a scientist, distance runner, and avid radiolab listener, I was a little surprised that radiolab seemed to come so quickly to a conclusion that is likely not so simple, especially when one of radiolab's particular talents is demonstrating that science is rarely one-dimensional.

I was very impressed by radiolab's neutrality in difficult subjects (despite comments here that seem to oscillate between complaints about radiolab's implicit support of a "horrific" subject and complaints about apparent cultural insensitivity regarding the SAME subject). However, because radiolab has such a wide range of trusting listeners, it would be helpful to include these topics with at least a brief discussion of their implications. In the same way that showing violence and sex to children can be dangerous without discussing their meaning, having reputable sources present controversial issues with minimal discussion can produce extremely unfortunate misinterpretations (see Tom Batt's and Marko's comments for the most vivid examples).

Nov. 12 2013 10:07 PM
rh from NYC area

They talk about lower limb size, but is this only related to long-distance running? My family is long-waisted, short-legged, and my son is very fast (multiracial European/Asian and some African but probably west coast of Africa not east) despite his "disability" of short legs. There are also several African-Americans in his school who play football, soccer, or run track, and none are the fastest at the school or even close, be it short or long distances.

I question whether there is a tradition of Ethiopian distance runners that is begetting more and more success, or if there is a tradition of African distance runners where Ethiopia is the only successful country in distance running. If it is a tribal characteristic, genetic testing can be done to determine if any particular person of African descent has genetic links to the tribe, and if they inherently have the same long distance abilities. If it is a result of high-altitude training, that is certainly an advantage.

Races are not as different as others posted. Torturing children has already been shown in China and Russia to produce Olympic athletes. Forcing children into intense exercise at young ages can change their physical makeup. If you take an Ethiopian businessman of the same descent as the distance runners, and make him a record-breaker, then I'll start thinking about this being a nature rather than a nurture situation.

The simplest way to look at this is cases like Serena and Venus Williams are rare. Yes, some families have athletes but very few have many Olympic or world record winning athletes. Yet they have the same parents?

Nov. 12 2013 12:51 PM
alli

The second half of this story is so irresponsibly racist and neoimperialist, as the comments that advise bombing kenya here clearly show. Not only is the logic irrational (if pain led to awesome runners then every woman who had extreme pms would run marathons), the assumption that such a coming of age ritual leads to "pain bearing" runners can only be accepted if you believe the most racist stereotypes of Kenlyans. There is a long colonial history of using circumcision rituals as an excuse for judging/condemning or taking over Kenya. Such policies led to the an anti-colonial expansion of radical fgc that did put lives in danger. What irresponsible disgusting 'research'. See for ex: http://appweb.cortland.edu/ojs/index.php/Wagadu/article/viewArticle/355/674 as well as http://crs.sagepub.com/content/33/4/689.abstract

Nov. 10 2013 08:02 PM
TTN

Just a couple of notes:

When people talk about genetic diversity related to athletics, they generally express it incorrectly. Simply put, Africa has tremendous genetic diversity because groups of people have evolved distinct from each other. So, eventually one group of people becomes very different from another. Remember, mixing actually REDUCES genetic expression. So tribes who have for years and years developed without influences out side the tribe will have characteristics very particular to that tribe.

It has been estimated that the number of people from Kenya who attempt to run, is about 1/40th of those who run HS track in the US every year.

There has never been a notable Kenyan sprinter. Seems odd, but then again if your specific genetic make-up gives you such an advantage to run distance races, then you can not also be a world class sprinter. Those two talents oppose each other physiologically. This lends support to a genetic advantage.

The Tarahumara run incredible ultra distance races, which no one else cares about or even cares to run. There is no element of speed in their running, so calling them the greatest runners is a comparing apples to oranges. They may be endurance specialists but not talented distance runners. No Tarahumara has ever qualified for an Olympic running event.

There are many other peoples around the world born at altitude, suffering hardships and pain, none have achieved any of the success the Kenyans have. Not all successful Kenyan runners ran to school, suffered genetic mutilation, etc. One of the greatest Kenyan runner lived above the school he attended. People from Kenyan heritage born and raised in other countries have become world class runners.

Again, this is not a statement on race, but a the realization of an incredible group of people, whose talent should be acknowledged and appreciated.

Nov. 10 2013 08:01 PM

^ @ what Ryan said, times 10.
I found the podcast amazingly, refreshingly non-PC and neutral about genital mutilation in these ceremonies (despite a lot of nervous laughter in the background.)

I'm sorry that so many are offended. IT HAPPENS. Any media that gives it some attention, like this one, can only spread light. I was very heartened to hear near the end that hospital circumcisions are becoming more socially accepted (though I would hope for none at all.)

Why beat up Radiolab for reporting this practice - maybe a little more than tangentially - in a fascinating podcast? They are not condoning it. I apologize, but I worry about such easily offended folks. I fear that you're missing the bigger picture.

Nov. 09 2013 09:48 PM
d from Midwest-Chicago

I would like to add that the Tarahumara who reside in the Copper Canyon area of Mexico have honed the ability to run hundreds of miles without rest or injury. They are a hidden tribe, super athletes and run races that most of the world has never seen. The Tarahumara are probably the best runners in the world without question. Their traditions differ from most running cultures. Again they probably are the best runners in the world. True ultra runners in which a 26 mile run for them is a warm up. Please check your science. The Tarahumara are legends in the history of running.

Nov. 09 2013 09:47 AM
EM from SOCAL

WOW- didn't see that coming. Please include more of a disclaimer at the front of these shows. Wasn't ready for the description and had to shut off podcast immediately! Not going to censor or criticize subject material, but would have like to have had a warning...
THX.

Nov. 08 2013 09:11 PM
Amy from California

This story broke my heart. These are CHILDREN.

Nov. 08 2013 05:31 PM
David

One thing that was only touched upon in the show was the fact that so many of the Kalenjin try running. With that kind of sampling, they are bound to find the best runners in their population of (approx) 5 million. How many excellent runners might there be within 1 mile of you, but who never took up the sport? My wife (a cross-country coach) tells me that every once in a while a kid shows up with no prior training and has tremendous talent. If that kid had never shown up on the track, no one would have ever known. And if fewer and fewer people try running in the increasingly sedentary western countries, then it seems inevitable that fewer and fewer talented runners will be discovered there.

One thing that was not mentioned in the show is that Africans are the most genetically diverse group on the planet. All the rest of us descend from one or two branches of the African family, who left Africa approx 100,000 years ago. In other words, Africans are more different from each other than Asians are from Europeans (on average), genetically speaking. With such a broad sample of genetically diverse people on one continent, there is a better chance of matching genetics to a particular sport, I would think. I've never heard any one else suggest that this might be a reason, but doesn't that make sense?

Nov. 08 2013 12:24 AM
Heather Clegg from Austin, tx

I too was horrified at the glib discussion of male and female mutillation in this podcast. I've loved WNYC Radiolab from the first episode until yesterday. We would never accept the practice of child rape as a religious right so why do we accept the practice of sexual abuse with a knife or sharpened stick?

Nov. 07 2013 11:13 PM
matt from Illinois

What is that hauntingly beautiful song at the end of this episode?

Nov. 07 2013 09:30 PM
j276

Is it really so hard to believe that there are subtle genetic factors that give certain genetic subpopulations advantage when looking at the top 1% of a large population? Listen again to the numbers of elite runners vs population of that tribe. There are lots of motivated and abused populations that do not dominate a sport with a tiny population. This wouldn't be controversial with any other species but consider it in humans an you're a monster.

It seems perverse in this hand-wringing PC age that the ability to withstand genital mutilation is deemed a more palatable explanation.

Nov. 06 2013 11:25 PM
John Oliver from Norfolk, Virginia

Radiolab prides itself on good science as well as good stories, and not only did science lose out here, moral sensitivity did as well. I am deeply concerned that radiolab became so enamored with the (unproven) notion that the ritual of genital mutilation inflicted on children turns them into adults who can perform great physical feats that it was unwilling to address the enormous damage done by such abuse. The comment has already been made that other African communities still inflict genital mutilation on their children without attaining the glory of Olympic gold that apparently justifies such mutilation in this story. Given its public platform and influence, radiolab has a moral responsibility to return to the issue of how we should respond to an entrenched ritual of inflicting such harm on children (including the extra harm on those "cowards" who cry.) Otherwise, I suppose I should expect a future radiolab episode on how hazing rituals enable people to perform better. (Maybe the NFL could be a sponsor.) Here's hoping you do the right thing and address this.

Nov. 06 2013 09:18 PM
Ryan

This wasn't an editorial on the ethics of this Kenyan ritual. It was an overview of a theory of how a particular area of a particular country produces elite runners. Is that ritual terrible? I think we would all agree it is. Is its terribleness what this show was about? Come on.

I bet if you ask Jad and Robert, they aren't too keen on child abuse and genital mutilation, either. But their ethical judgment would be irrelevant to the subject matter and, in my view, inappropriate. These guys provide consistently excellent, thoughtful, FREE radio programming. If you don't like it, don't listen.

Nov. 06 2013 09:14 AM
hailrobonia

This whole story is overshadowed by the theme of child abuse dressed up as cultural practice. Mutilation and torture are wrong.

Nov. 06 2013 08:55 AM
Marko

We should send our stealth bombers and aircraft carriers to Kenya to protect the poor children from those barbarians.

Nov. 05 2013 03:15 PM
Brody Salinger from Columbus, OH

I found a related article on the Kalenjin people and thought the title was a pun:

"Peering Under the Hood of Africa's Runners"

http://www.jonentine.com/reviews/AAAS_peeringUnderTheHood.htm

Turns out, it's just about their physique and muscle make-up.

Nov. 05 2013 11:25 AM
Bernice from North Carolina

This story does not give the reader much to work with. A lot of Kenyan tribes go through the same initiation/circumcision ceremony that the Kalenjins go through with some variation but they are not as good runners as the Kalenjins. It is very possible that it is in their genetic makeup to be such good runners and the ugali,altitude, mursik (sour milk)just add to the equation.I do not think anyone knows the secret yet, and if there is a secret- i doubt they will be sharing with the world.

Nov. 05 2013 09:57 AM

This topic was generally interesting. I was a bit put off by the hosts' aversion to even a discussion of there being a possible genetic component, as well as the vague reasoning to that aversion. I do not think there necessarily is a genetic factor, but it's in the realm of possibility and does not deserve to be glossed over for the sake of misguided political correctness.

Nov. 05 2013 12:39 AM
William

You people are utterly disgusting. Not only the flippant manner in which you speak about the torture these people are put through, but the one who HELD his nephews legs apart as they cut and ripped his foreskin off?! What the actual fuck?! You Americans are so disgusting.

Nov. 04 2013 08:21 PM
Anna from Santa Rosa , CA

Has anyone addressed the fact that the Kalenjin are not the only tribe in Kenya at altitude to practice circumcision rituals? Masai also practice such rituals and have similar customs with regards to cowardice and courage. Does the study suggest that the Kalenjin rituals are significantly more brutal?

Also, maybe an appropriate follow-up story should focus on recent efforts to end traditional circumcision and shed more light on the attrocities these young people are forced to endure during their traditional schooling.

Nov. 04 2013 04:54 PM
Charles Savoie from Montreal, QC, Canada

I was quite disgusted with the glib manner in which the topic of male genital mutilation was approached in this segment, particularly when the hosts laughed at the suggestion that the boy will be beaten if he grimaces. Had it been a teenage girl being cut up, and the hosts laughed, there would be a public outcry and they likely all would lose their jobs. But it's a boy being mutilated and not allowed to show pain, so it's funny, and it's okay that it's funny. I'm really disappointed with Radiolab.

Nov. 04 2013 04:02 PM
sepiae

Like other commentators I've been frustrated and infuriated about the subject of genital mutilation having been handled this lightly, like an aside, a mere context. 'Respect' and 'tolerance' for something one would not tolerate within one's own realm and range can't be the explanation, it'd be the 1st step of giving up one's own values by using double standards. Even if the take is 'it wasn't about that', the description was long and elaborate, so it was very much about it as well.
The same goes for the entire initiation ritual of pain-enduring. The only voice speaking against it was the father who stated he'd never subject his children to this tour de torment.
There's no tradition that stands above common sense and the rights of children and adolescences. A tradition is essentially called so for the purpose of flagging - at least so it should be. You call something a tradition, you state that it is in need of constant revision: does it still make sense? Do they stand the test of ethical questions? Are they still or were they ever of a benevolent nature rather than a repressive?
There's a large number of issues where if one draws a line purely because of 'cultural distance' one commits an act of cowardice, no less.

On the matter of genetic dis- and advantages: the unease expressed in the podcast might originate in difficulties with distinction. Please rest assured: you won't be labelled a Nazi doctor if you point out genetic variations. Genetic variations are very much part of what drives diversity and therefore evolution. They ain't bad. Another example for pointing out such diversion would be the average difference in body length where Danish people, Masai and Pygmies are compared. It won't be calling each people 'better' or 'worse'. meanwhile the tendencies in regards of length are there. Hence the question whether cultural habits, be it of such despicable kind as genital mutilation or other, less or not at all damaging kinds, can be impregnated onto genetic code remains a fascinating one.

Nov. 04 2013 06:48 AM
E from Indiana

I haven't listened to this yet, but wanted to say how I've seen a lot of Ethiopians, and Mo Farah, win just as many distance races lately. In track & field Kenyans seem to win the steeple chase quite a bit, but the Ethiopians have won many 5 and 10ks in recent years. Just look up the stats.

Nov. 03 2013 10:01 PM
Parker

While genetics always strike up a chord of disagreement, the fact is these individuals have better genetics for their sport than most of the world. Add their training environment, diet and other factors and they produce winners. There's a reason why Bolt keeps winning the 100, Lance Armstrong--knowing his peers were probably all doping--was a multi-race winner in the Tour, Steve Prefontaine, or, top skill players such as pitchers simply rise to the top to the top. They've got the genetics (gross & fine motor skills, muscle length, bone structure, etc.)...add the right training environment, etc., and there you have it.

Nov. 03 2013 09:20 PM
Kip

Harlan-

This HAS been shown several times scientifically (lower limb size). Additionally, there are other significant anthropomorphic characteristics which separate them from other populations/subpopulations. When compared to people of European decent, Kenyans and other Africans have lower sitting heights (which means smaller torso or longer legs comparatively). Etc, etc. When competing in an all out effort event, such as running maybe these differences result in an advantage? Maybe they are a disadvantage for other sport events. I don't see too many Kenyan football players, yet many NFL players from West Africa?

The point is, elite runners from all over the world have always recognized the physical differences between the Africans and non Africans. For various reasons the general public is not ready to acknowledge any one group has a physical advantage. I don't understand the fear.

I've run competitively for years on a high level. I trained with elite runners from all over the world. The idea that a pain tolerance culture is the primary reason for Kenyan success is absurd.

ps. Don't tell the Ethiopians, Moroccans, Algerians, Somalians the pain future secret, they might just push the track records further out of reach.

Nov. 03 2013 06:45 PM
Harlan

Interesting points, but why not go on to confirm whether champion Kenyan runners actually have thinner ankles and higher tolerances to pain? These are measurable things!

Nov. 03 2013 07:49 AM
Kamau from Boston

I am a longtime listener, Kenyan-American and physician. I was thrilled to hear the topic and was looking forward to a scientifically based presentation on this fascinating subject. Unfortunately I ended up being pretty horrified by this show. In my opinion you did little other than endorse Western stereotypes of African savagery, and feed into its fascination with African genitalia.
Kamau

Nov. 03 2013 07:36 AM
Kurren

You should really have done your homework before talking about circumcision (even the hospital one) and particularly female genital mutilation. Just stick to American pop culture, guys - it should be easier.

Nov. 03 2013 04:47 AM
Meh from Silver Spring, MD

I was disappointed in this story. It sort of bummed me out. I thought that at some point the program would address that terrible side effects and life-long issues that people who have been subjected to this mutilation can experience. However, the program remained virtually silent on that part of the subject. Here's hoping that the next episode is more lively.

Nov. 02 2013 10:01 PM
Martin from North Pole

I find the whole 'why are East Africans better at this' a kind of silly. And I think the multitude of possible answers and only weak conclusions as in this article is one of the best examples of how similar we all really are despite minor differences in skin color, economical development etc. Hard work, determination and culture are the single topic in any way of looking at why are those or those better at this or that. There is no gene for success in anything and only attitude matters. Unless there is a gene for jealousy.

Nov. 02 2013 04:09 PM
Matthew Greenacre from Ontario

This story reminded me of my experiences planting trees in the Canadian boreal forest. This is considered one of the most physically and mentally exhausting jobs in the world, because you spend 60-80 hours a week doing nothing but planting seedlings at a rate of 3-20 trees per minute marching through swamps, climbing over rock, freezing in cold rain or sleet, or being roasted by the sun, and all the while being eaten by clouds of mosquitoes and black flies. After doing this for two months straight, my pain tolerance had grown enormously. After my first summer of planting, I started to take up long distance running which I was useless at before. I started to actually enjoy breaking through pain barriers. Though this Canadian rite of passage doesn't compare to the Kalenjin circumcision process, I could relate and think that the ability to force oneself through pain is an excellent exercise of will that anyone can benefit from. If you are aware of the marshmallow experiment, you will know that discipline is a better predictor of success in life than anything else.

Also, I have heard a theory that millennia of running thirty miles to rustle the neighbouring tribe's cattle and then running back with them straight away has probably helped the evolution of superb runners along. I'm not sure how you would test this empirically, unless there are tribes that are similar to the Kipsigis in that they have fantastic pain rituals but do not have a long history of rustling cattle, in which case one could compare the two as a natural experiment. Anyway, food for thought.

Nov. 02 2013 12:42 PM
Alister

Kip: there's a body of hypotheses suggesting that at some point, the mind is indeed a limiting factor - look at the 'central governor' theories.

Don: Ryun (with a 'U') ascribed his loss in 1968 to the altitude, not to any tripping. The tripping incident you recall occurred in 1972.

Nov. 02 2013 05:12 AM
sarah from las vegas, nv

While I believe there is much to be said about trying and about living through all kinds of stressful and painful ordeals that in the end make you stronger, i believe there is more to it.(e.g. people that have survived destitution and starvation scenarios seem to live longer lives..or is it the survivor that was destined to live longer anyway? hmm?)

In massage therapy school an anatomy teacher discussing flexion and extension of the muscles of the calf told us a very interesting aside that has stuck with me longer then the names of all those muscles. She said there is newer evidence that shows some of the Elite African Track athletes e.g. the Kenyan distance runners, have been found to be able to contract connective tissue in addition to muscle tissue which gives them an advantage when it comes to efficient o2 burning and subsequent muscle fatigue management, key components of distance running. In short the connective tissue of the back of the calf is more stretchy in these runners and has the ability to contract.

For the record this is amazing and I have not heard of this ability in any other athlete group.

I wonder if it plays any contributing factor.

Nov. 02 2013 01:53 AM
Don Cruser from Little River, CA

Perhaps my memory is failing me but I was a contemporary runner in Jim Ryan's time and I was eager to watch the two greatest middle distance runners in the world meet in the olympics of 1968. What i remember is that the match up failed to develop because Ryan was tripped and fell down in the middle of the race. Your video did not show this and your radio podcast did not mention it and lead everyone to believe that Kip beat Ryan in a way that proved his superiority. Unfortunately, since Ryan was tripped the race did not establish who was the best in the world. Jim Ryan was probably the greatest middle distance runner in the history of our country and you have insulted him and his fans with this omission.

Other than that it was a fascinating report and confirmed much of what my Kenyan friends have told me. If you want to witness the role of genetics in the ability to run, I would encourage you to go to the greyhound races sometime. You will see that some dogs, and humans, are designed to run. I also think that the Kenyan diet of white corn polenta and collard greens is an important asset.

Nov. 02 2013 01:41 AM
Kip

If middle distance and distance running were only a matter of trying harder than the competition, success would not be confined to one tribe in East Africa. The limiting factor is physical talent. Most elites train to the threshold of injury.

The limitations in a running event are not just confined to the bodies feedback telling you to back off, but are also concrete physiological limitations such as muscle fatigue due to lack of oxygen and innate speed. This are things that can't be overcome by "pushing through the pain".

I believe its about time we acknowledge and appreciate the physical differences between groups of people and stop chalking up performance differences to social reasons.

Watching the elite African distance runners race on the track is one of the most a beautiful example of human movement.

Nov. 01 2013 09:43 PM
Tom Batts

Wow we should start forcing our children through pain and agony all the time.

Nov. 01 2013 09:01 PM

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