Fact or fiction? In this piece by guest writer Professor Ross Tucker looks at the running culture in Kenya and what lessons we can learn from them to apply in the business world.

white men can't run, running, jogging

St Patrick’s High School is located in the small village of Iten, at an altitude of about 2,400m, and with a population of around 40,000.  A boys school, with around 500 students, it is one of the region’s best schools, but there’s nothing outwardly spectacular about it.

Walk around the school to the garden, however, and something remarkable exists.  A forest of trees has been planted here, and the story behind these trees stands as testament to one of sport’s most fascinating topics, the dominance of Kenya in distance running events.

Each of those trees represents an Olympic athlete or world record holder from the school, and there are dozens of them – this small school has produced more Olympic champions and world record holders than South Africa over the period of its existence. 

More evidence of Kenya’s remarkable dominance can be found in the school hall, where a “Wall of Fame’ shows photographs of the school’s champion alumni, and the school athletics records, listed on a rudimentary honours board, are, in the distance events, faster than most country’s national records.

St Patrick’s is but one example of Kenya’s dominance.  This is a country that since 1980, has won more Olympic and World Championship medals than every other continent, excluding Africa, combined.  That is, the sum medal tally of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Oceania, does not match that of Kenya.  The rest belong to other African nations, particularly Ethiopia, showing clearly that east Africa is the world’s running hotbed.

There’s a similarly remarkable phenomenon at the other end of the running spectrum, the sprint events.  Scroll down the list of the fastest men in history, and you’ll keep going, and going, and going, until eventually, you come across the name Christophe Lemaitre.  He holds the distinction of being the fastest white man ever, and he’s down in 351st place!

It’s true then, that whether in short sprints, or long distance events, white men can’t run.  Or at least, they don’t run anything like as fast as the Jamaican and African American sprinters, or the Kenyan distance runners. 

This unprecedented concentration of success is a source of fascination because it asks us to weigh up the relative contribution of nature and nurture to success.  Is sporting success determined by our genes, or can we pull certain strings and control the environment to create pockets of exceptional performers like Kenya and Jamaica have done?  

There’s no lack of controversy in the phenomenon either, because any debate about genetics that happens to include race invites what are false applications to relative superiority and inferiority in other spheres of life.  The physiologist in me recognizes that different does not imply unequal, in that two people can be endowed with different gifts, but this does not need to mean an entire population is inferior in other areas. 

I am, for instance, 100% convinced that no amount of training was ever going to make me competitive against Usain Bolt – we are simply too different, so I concede that in that specific task, he is vastly superior to me!  It makes him a superior sprinter, but that is all, and this is how the discussion should be framed.

Hierarchies in sport are of course easily measured on scoreboards and stopwatches, and in the running events, Africa is a long, long way ahead!  Without getting caught up in the minefield of genetic predeterminism, the African dominance is so fascinating that it compels us to ask whether Kenya and Jamaica offer lessons that we can all use to help understand, and then construct, our own pockets of excellence? 

There is no short answer to this question – a complex outcome has complex explanations, and our desire to reduce it to simple factors will always deceive us.  For instance, when people decide that Kenyans are great runners because they are born and live at high altitude in the Great Rift Valley, which gives them lungs, a heart and blood perfectly formulated for the demands of long-distance running, you should question why the Andes or Himalayas have produced no great runners.

Or when people say that relative poverty creates an economic incentive for Kenyans and Jamaicans to run, you might reasonably wonder why India, with more impoverished people than the entire population of the USA, has an historical medal haul of zero?

That’s not to say either of these don’t matter – remove them, or provide ‘luxury items’ like cars, TVs, computer games and other technology to Kenya, for example, and perhaps their success would wane.  Every factor matters, it’s just that a single one cannot explain it.  Rather, it took the confluence of many ingredients to produce the perfect runners. 

However, if I were pressed, I would distill this complex list of ingredients into one factor, which does have applications for how we process and pursue success.  That factor is culture, and it can be seen in the collection of attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the people concerning their specific sphere of success. 

The first point about culture is that it only exists because the right types of individuals existed in the first place.  You cannot force a certain predisposition or a set of attitudes on people when there is no inclination for them to have it.  In the relatively simple case of making fast runners, there is a list of “hardware” requirements that had to be in place to even build a training, running and winning culture.  These include physiology of the heart, lungs and muscle, the unseen biochemistry that allows them to produce energy at high rates or for long periods without fatigue, and their body types.

what executives can learn from Kenya's running culture

For instance, in Kenya, most people have long, skinny legs and tendons that make them the world’s most efficient runners.  These physical qualities developed over many generations because of the altitude and their proximity to the equator, where having long limbs and being skinny helped them cope with the heat (think of Inuit people at the North Pole for a comparison). 

It also helped them win medals, though it was not always this way.  Until 1964, Kenyans hadn’t won any Olympic medals.  A single silver was the first indication, and then in 1968, the Olympic Games went to the altitude of Mexico City, and the Kenyans, who were accustomed to the thin air, cashed in.  That created, in a relatively small geographical area, a culture of running, where people aspired to emulate those before them.  Their attitude had been set, but only because the “right stuff” existed.  It was not contrived, but emerged.

The same happened in Jamaica, where an accelerated “survival of the fittest” may have occurred due to the slave trade, which left only the strongest as survivors.  Speed was effectively filtered until a population remained that had more of it than anywhere else.  In the case of Jamaica, the ‘culture’ today is most evident in their national school championships, by far the biggest sporting event on the island.

It is the place to be, for a weekend where 80,000 people gather to watch teenagers in athletics events.  The prized champions are obviously the 100m and 200m sprinters, and the likes of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, all Olympic champions or world record holders, are on hand to award the medals.

The commonality between these two hotbeds, then, is the presence of individuals with the capability to succeed.  This is why business leaders seek people with intelligence, work ethic and passion, because only those individuals can buy into, and deliver, on the broader elements of a vision or purpose, and thus culture.  This is the talent part of success, and it is absolutely critical to recognize.  Talent may be defined differently – in Kenya or Ethiopia, it is perhaps measurable in laboratories, while in the real world, it’s a predisposition to cognitive skill or perhaps even a set of personality traits, but it’s the first ingredient of culture.

The next step, something both Kenya and Jamaica also show clearly, is that success must be reinvested for future success.  In both cases, those first tentative steps to victory were followed by others, and soon a flood of people wished to emulate their heroes.  This is where the socio-economic factor starts to add fuel to the first – if Usain Bolt can achieve riches, why not me?  In Kenya, it is common to see young boys, barely in high school, running to class with Olympic champions. 

They are not only inspired by those ahead of them, but also learn from them, and there is a type of ‘institutional memory’ that benefits all those coming through.  People become experts through experience, and they learn what works.  In the same way, business leaders can create a) aspirational environments by seeking to show pathways to success, motivating people to work hard for achievable goals, and b) environments where information becomes knowledge and wisdom, and keeping that wisdom close, rather than letting it escape.

The culture then, which looks like fanaticism when you see literally hundreds of people running around a dirt track in Iten near St Patricks, or out on the dusty roads before sunrise, or performing training drills in basic facilities in Jamaica, is the result of these ingredients – the people, aspiration and re-invested knowledge.  Sure, genes, altitude, diet, economics, all play a role, but what emerges is a system with such ‘inertia’ that the next champion is just around the corner.  There’s a lesson in that for all leaders!

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