Sports geographers point to many crucial ingredients in Kenya's competitive surge but no single overriding factor. High-altitude training and mild year-round climate are critical, but equally important is a deeply ingrained culture of asceticism - the postponement of gratification - and an overriding preference for individual over team sports. (Soccer, the overwhelming Kenyan favorite, is all but ignored among the Kalenjin; running is all.) In testing, psychologists discovered a particularly strong cultural "achievement orientation," defined as the inclination to seek new challenges, attain competence, and strive to outdo others. And then there was the built-in necessity as virtue: as Keino mentioned, Kalenjin kids tend to run long distances as a practical matter, an average of eight to twelve kilometers per day from age seven.
Joke among elite athlete: How can the rest of the world defuse Kenyan running superiority? Answer: Buy them school buses.
With the prospect of international prize money, running in Kenya has also become a rare economic opportunity to catapult oneself into Western-level education and wealth. Five thousand dollars in prize money is a very nice perk for an American; for a Kenyan, it is instant life-changing wealth. Over time, a strong culture of success has also bred even more success. The high performance benchmark has stoked higher and higher levels of achievement - a positive feedback loop analogous to technological innovation in Silicon Valley, combat skills among Navy SEALs, and talents in other highly successful microcultures. In any competitive arena, the single best way to inspire better performance is to be surrounded by the fiercest possible competitors and a culture of extreme excellence. Success begets success.
There is also an apparent sacrificial quality particular to Kenyan training, wherein coaches can afford to push their athletes to extreme limits in a way that coaches in other parts of the world cannot. Sport's Illustrated's Alexander Wolff writes that with a million Kenyan schoolboys running so enthusiastically, "coaches in Kenya can train their athletes to the outer limits of endurance - up to 150 miles a week - without worrying that their pool of talent will be meaningfully depleted. Even if four out of every five runners break down, the fifth will convert that training into performance."
...These are not superhumans with rare super-genes. They are participants in a culture of the extreme, willing to devote more, to ache more, and to risk more in order to do better. Most of us will understandably want nothing to do with that culture of the extreme. But that is our choice.
- The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (pp. 104-111)
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Posted by Boris at 8:00 PM