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Cut and Run

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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:


David Epstein, Mr. John Manners and Gregory Warner

Comments [11]

Laura Paglia from Marbella, Spain

I am an avid follower of Radiolab, I have started from the very fist podcast in 2008 and am still working my way up. This, as many of your works, is just great, I loved the story and the theories, they are usually food for thought.
Although I wish that, since the subject was raised and since it is something that affects millions of (usually unwilling and very young) people, you would have spoken about female and male genital mutilation.
I understand that it would not have been feasible to go into the subject in this podcast, but why was the issue not addressed in following podcasts?
To me, it seems that the matter of mutilating the sexual organs of many, many people as a cultural ritual, as something that doesn't belong to "us" because it happens in Africa, as something that has been done probably for thousands of years, does not justify simply skipping over it as if it were a footnote, a detail lacking importance in a story about runners and genetics. It might be lacking importance as a central part of THIS story, but again, why was the subject not picked up in later episodes?
Please, please do. And yes, it must be a personal story for Jad and Robert. But I think that both are brave enough to look into it, and Radiolab is followed by too many people to miss this chance.
Thank you for all your work.

Oct. 18 2017 04:41 AM
Jessica from USA

I am sickened that female genital mutilation was brought up in such an off-hand manner. It is by no means equal to male circumcision, unless that involved removing all or part of the penis and possible mutilation of the scrotum. I am disgusted that you would even imply that "oh, slicing and dicing a girl's genitalia will totally make her a better runner"

May. 13 2017 10:10 AM
Suzanne from Sun City AZ

National sports journalists lump all Kenyon marathon winners into one group, Kenyon runners. We don't know how many are from Kalenjun or if they have the most severe tribal rituals?

I don't remember a disclaimer given before the start of the program. NPR has an Ombudsman that handles complaints for "over the line" distasteful program contents. Direct your comments there. She will review your concerns & issue an apology if necessary.

May. 07 2017 06:25 PM
Allen R from Oregon

Another old episode, but I guess when it boils down to it, not all lives are valued where there's still a rigid, laser focus on a particular (often gender-based) attribute. If one can't pass what (at least by Western standards), seems like a narrow, over-the-top test of worth, you are apparently ostracized by the tribe. At least these days, those who remain pain-sensitive despite all the conditioning (no mention of a percentage), could possibly find a place in the wider world, assuming the procedures are rarely badly botched.

And I can understand how the way this segment was presented could offend.

May. 07 2017 04:18 PM
Kathryn Price from Florida

Male circumcision is bad enough--however female "circumcision" is an entirely different situation. With the removal of the clitoris, most females are rendered unable to experience an orgasm (which many cultures believe is a good way to prevent a woman from being unfaithful). In certain cultures, the labia are sewn together and fused! Depending upon the extent of the female genital mutilation, giving birth can be an extremely life-threatening situation for mother and infant. Also, although male circumcision is painful, female circumcision is much more likely to cause extensive hemorrhage, extended (sometimes lifelong) pain, and death! This is not to minimize the painful experience of male circumcision, but to reiterate the fact that female genital mutilation can cause a lifetime of lack of sexual desire or pleasure, and a serious increase in the risk of maternal and infant death.

May. 07 2017 12:16 PM
JMD from Lancaster, PA

What a world of fear we live in, where the obvious is so impossible to believe. These commentators can not believe that these Kenyans are superior in distance running, even though they make the case to explain how their body type is perfect for that. They can't say that because that might sound like "racism." So then they craft this theory they like better... high tolerance for pain due to ritual tortuous rite of passage ceremonies. The commentators self-contradict: they can't accept that the Kenyans are superior, but then they craft a fable that the Kenyan DNA has been affected by the rituals to make them more pain tolerant. If you can't believe the fact that they are superior runners by birth, you somehow CAN believe that they are superior by generations of rituals? It's a schizophrenic mock scientific muddle.

You know, why not just let the statistics ...the race results you quoted....tell you the truth....that the Kenyans are superior distance runners? Would that lead you to fear that others are inferior distance runners? How about if that was really true?

No, we can't go there...

May. 07 2017 12:14 AM
MMP from New York

Unless there is a medically necessary reason, regardless of the form circumcision takes or at what age it is performed, it is genital mutilation. I'm still stunned and disheartened by the cavalier way in which American journalists (who are 90%+ circumcised) approach this topic and display nearly uniform apathy to a practice which is considered barbaric in most of the Western world, not to mention in China, India, Japan and all other non-Muslim & non-Jewish cultures. Though this segment was focused on pain tolerance, it's more than troubling that the journalist mentions holding his nephew's legs down during an infant circumcision as if it were completely acceptable and absent of the cruelty of a circumcision performed at 13. Please wake up and realize our American cultural bias and blindness to this scientifically unjustified procedure that is nothing more than institutionalized child abuse.

May. 06 2017 12:49 PM
Daniel Wright from Massachussetts

What is this reference to circumcision? Routine Infant Circumcision is one thing, with a whole slew of its own human rights violations, but this is not circumcision. This is 13 year old children - boys and girls - being intentionally and specifically tortured before not just having their genitals cut off, but having them sliced apart, played with, tied in a bow, and finally scraped off with a sharpened stick. All with the specific aim of causing children torturous pain, violating their bodily integrity, and controlling their sexuality and reproductive rights. This is an atrocity and a crime against humanity. That the narrator would talk about it so glibly - laughing - with only a nod to it being 'cultural questionable' is obscene. And to cap it off by referring to it as circumcision and FGM is an absolute abortion of the producers' humanity. This is Male Genital Mutilation and Female Genital Mutilation. To minimize that is beyond disgusting. It's especially so knowing that the majority of the men and boys in your audience will have themselves been the victims of genital cutting and be dealing with the violation, physical harm, and psychological damage that comes with it.

May. 05 2017 12:24 PM
Pete Johnson from New York

Referring to the Kenyans, whose world-class runners may owe some of their success to unusually high pain tolerance as a result of enduring painful rituals over generations, I am reminded of parallels elsewhere- the Huns, for example. Some of the most feared warriors of Antiquity, the Huns were said to have routinely self-mutilated in order to teach their bodies to better endure pain. Barbaric? Certainly... yet at the same time, would this practice have actually given Hun warriors a mental or genetic edge later in ignoring pain on the battlefield?

Mar. 31 2015 02:55 AM
Autumn from Virginia

I can tell you that the cultural courage mentioned in reference to circumcision and FGM is, like running to school or living at altitude, also not unique to the Kalenjin. I'd imagine every ethnicity from Kenya to Brazil that practiced initiation rites has at least historically placed value on strength and stoicism, even to the extent of denying adult status to those who fail. Religious rites done to indicate adherence are one thing, but rites meant to prove someone a worthy adult involve tests of bravery, and those can be found across the globe.

Given high altitude is an environmental stressor like any other that humans have adapted to, I'd think genetics had a lot to do with it. I read about them in reference to high altitude adaptations a few years ago and it seems that they have a uniquely efficient one compared with other high altitude groups in the Andes and Alps that allows them to maintain high oxygen saturation. Seems like a distinct advantage.

Mar. 30 2015 12:06 PM
Mary-Ellen Pon from United States

What is wrong with you people? What portion of your listeners do you think actually enjoyed hearing about 13 year-old boys having their foreskin cut and tied into a bow? There was no need for that type of graphic detail. Just sickening.

Mar. 29 2015 02:09 PM

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