The causes of sporting success are multi-factorial, with no cause being more important than the other since the whole system needs to work in concert to produce the athletic phenotype–call this “causal parity” of athletic success determinants. For a refresher, take what Shenk (2010: 107):
As the search for athletic genes continues, therefore, the overwhelming evidence suggests that researchers will instead locate genes prone to certain types of interactions: gene variant A in combination with gene variant B, provoked into expression by X amount of training + Y altitude + Z will to win + a hundred other life variables (coaching, injuries, etc.), will produce some specific result R. What this means, of course, What this means, of course, is that we need to dispense rhetorically with thick firewall between biology (nature) and training (nurture). The reality of GxE assures that each person’s genes interacts with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, customs and spirituality—everything—to produce unique lifestyle trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint. A seven- or fourteen- or twenty-eight-year-old is not that way merely because of genetic instruction. (Shenk, 2010: 107) [Also read my article Explaining African Running Success Through a Systems View.]
This is how athletic success needs to be looked at; not reducing it to genes or a group of genes that ’cause’ athletic success. Since to be successful in the sport of the athlete’s choice takes more than being born with “the right” genes.
Recently, a Kenyan woman—Joyciline Jepkosgei—won the NYC marathon in here debut (November 3rd, 2019), while Eliud Kipchoge—another Kenyan—became the first human ever to complete a marathon (26.2 miles) in under 2 hours. I recall in the spring reading that he said he would break the 2-hour mark in October. He also attempted to break it in 2017 in Italy but, of course, he failed. His official time in Italy was 2:00:25! While he set the world record in Berlin at 2:01:39. Kipchoge’s official time was 1:59:40—twenty seconds shy of 2 hours—that means his average mile pace was about 4 minutes and 34 seconds. That is insane. (But the IAAF does not accept the time as a new world record since it was not in an open competition—Kipchoge had a slew of Olympic pacesetters following him; an electric car drove just ahead of him and pointed lasers at the ground showing him where to run; so he shaved 2 minutes off his time—2 crucial minutes—according to sport scientist Ross Tucker; and . So he did not set a world record. His feat, though, is still impressive.)
Now, Kipchoge is Kenyan—but what’s his ethnicity? Surprise surprise! He is of the Nandi tribe, more specifically, of the Talai subgroup, born in Kapsisiywa in the Nandi county. Jepkosgei, too, is Nandi, from Cheptil in Nandi county. (Jepkosgei also set the record for the half marathon in 2017. Also, see her regular training regimen and what she does throughout the day. This, of course, is how she is able to be so elite—without hard training, even without “the right genetic makeup”, one will not become an elite athlete.) What a strange coincidence that these two individuals who won recent marathons—and one who set the best time ever in the 26.2 mile race—are both Kenyan, specifically Nandi?
Both of these runners are from the same county in Kenya. Nandi county is elevated about 6,716 ft above sea level. Being born and living at a high elevation means that they have different kinds of physiological adaptations due to being born at such a higher elevation. Living and training at such high elevations means that they have greater lung capacities since they are breathing in thinner air. Those born in highlands like Kipchoge and Jepkosgei have larger lungs and thorax volumes, while oxygen intake is enhanced by increases in lung compliance, pulmonary diffusion, and ventilation (Meer, Heymans, and Zijlstra, 1995).
Those exposed to such elevation develop what is known as “high-altitude hypoxia.” Humans born at high altitudes are able to cope with such a lack of oxygen, since our physiological systems are dynamic—not static—and can respond to environmental changes within seconds of them occurring. Babes born at higher elevations have increased ventilation, and a rise in the alveolar and the pressure of arterial oxygen (Meer, Heymans, and Zjilstra, 1995).
Kenyans have 5 percent longer legs and 12 percent lighter muscles than Scandinavians (Suchy and Waic, 2017). Mooses et al (2014) notes that “upper leg length, total leg length and total leg length to body height ratio were correlated with running performance.” Kong and de Heer (2008) note that:
The slim limbs of Kenyan distance runners may positively contribute to performance by having a low moment of inertia and thus requiring less muscular effort in leg swing. The short ground contact time observed may be related to good running economy since there is less time for the braking force to decelerate forward motion of the body.
An abundance of type I muscle fibers is conducive to success in distance running (Zierath and Hawley, 2004), though Kenyans and Caucasians have no difference in type I muscle fibers (Saltin et al, 1995; Larsen and Sheel, 2015). That, then, throws a wrench in the claim that a whole slew of anatomic and physiologic variables conducive to running success is the cause for Kenyan running success—specifically the type I fibers—right? Wrong. Recall that the appearance of the athletic phenotype is due to nature and nurture—genes and environment—working together in concert. Kenyans are more likely to have slim, long limbs with lower body fat while they lived and trained over 6000 ft high. Their will to win to better themselves and their families’ socioeconomic status, too, plays a part. As I have argued in-depth for years—we cannot understand athletic success and elite athleticism without understanding individual histories, how they grew up, and what they did as a child.
For example, Wilbur and Pitsiladis (2012) espouse a systems view of Kenyan marathon success, writing:
In general, it appears that Kenyan and Ethiopian distance-running success is not based on a unique genetic or physiological characteristic. Rather, it appears to be the result of favorable somatotypical characteristics lending to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency; chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high-intensity training (live high + train high), and a strong psychological motivation to succeed athletically for the purpose of economic and social advancement.
Becoming a successful runner in Kenya can lead to economic opportunities not afforded to those who do not do well in running. This, too, is a factor in Kenyan running success. So, for the ignorant people who would—pushing a false dichotomy of genes and environment—state that Kenyan running success is due to “socioeconomic status”—they are right, to a point (even if they are mocking it and making their genetic determinism seem more palatable). See figure 6 for their hypothetical model:
This is one of the best models I have come across explaining the success of these people. One can see that it is not reductonist; note that there is no appeal to genes (just variables that genes are implicated IN! Which is not the same as reductionism). It’s not as if one can have an endomorphic somatotype with Kenyan training and their psychological reasons for becoming runners. The ecto-dominant somatotype is a necessary factor for success; but all four of these—biomechanical & physiological, training, and psychological—factors explain the success of the running Kenyans and, in turn, the success of Kipchoge and Jepkosgei. African dominance in distance running is, also, dominated by the Nandi subtribe (Tucker, Onywera, and Santos-Concejero, 2015). Knechtle et al (2016) also note that male and female Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are the youngest and fast at the half and full marathons.
The actual environment—climate—on the day of the race, too plays a factor. El Helou et al (2012) note that “Air temperature is the most important factor influencing marathon running performance for runners of all levels.” Nikolaidis et al (2019) note that “race times in the Boston Marathon are influenced by temperature, pressure, precipitations, WBGT, wind coming from the West and wind speed.”
The success of Kenyans—and other groups—shows how the dictum “Athleticism is irreducible to biology” (St. Louis, 2004) is true. How does it make any sense to attempt to reduce athletic success down to one variable and say that that explains the overrepresentation of, say, Kenyans in distance running? A whole slew of factors needs to occur to an individual, along with actually wanting to do something, in order for them to succeed at distance running.
So, what makes Kenyans like Kipchoge and Jepkosgei so good at distance running? It’s due to an interaction with genes and environment, since we take a systems and not a reductionist view of sport success. Even though Kipchoge’s time does not count as an official world record, what he did was still impressive (though not as impressive if he would have done so without all of the help he had). Looking at the system, and not trying to reduce the system to its parts, is how we will explain why some groups are better than others. Genes, of course, play a role in the ontogeny of the athletic phenotype, but they are not the be-all-end-all that genetic reductionists seem to make it out to be. The systems view for Kenyan running success shown here is how and why Kenyans—Kipchoge and Jepkosgei—dominate distance running.