Category Archives: Sports

Why you only ever see the backs of Kenyans when you run a marathon.

On 28 September 2014 Dennis Kimetto won the Berlin Marathon in a jaw-dropping world record time of 2:02:57. For many sports fans, the least surprising aspect of Kimetto’s incredible performance was his nationality: Kimetto is a Kenyan, and Kenyans have come to dominate middle and long distance running in a way that few nationalities have ever ruled over a sport. Of the ten fastest male marathoners since 2004, eight are from Kenya (the other two are from neighbouring Ethiopia). Of the ten fastest female marathoners since 2004, three are from Kenya (including two of the top four). In the year 2011, the twenty fastest marathon times around the globe were run by Kenyan men and there were seventy Kenyans who ran faster marathons than the fastest European runner. Nineteen of the last twenty-four male winners of the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan, as were eleven of the last fifteen female winners of that race. At Olympic Games and World Championships during the last 25 years, Kenyans have been heavily represented on the podium in races from 800m all the way up to the marathon. How a relatively poor country that has fewer than 46 million of the world’s 7 billion people could be so remarkably over-represented among the world’s greatest runners provides something of a mystery.

It is a mystery that English writer Adharanand Finn seeks to shed light on in his Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth. Out of a desire to realize his full potential as a runner as well as to unlock the secrets to Kenyan distance running greatness, Finn convinces his rather tolerant wife and three small children to uproot themselves and move to Iten, Kenya, for six months. During this time he wrote a blog and contributed articles about the experience to the Guardian. Iten is a small town of around 4,000 people, about 1,000 of whom are dedicated full-time athletes. Many of these athletes live in camps where they dedicate themselves completely to running. Here Finn forms a team of runners who train together for the challenging Lewa Marathon, a race that takes place in the high elevation and heat of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. During his training Finn interviews athletes, coaches, and locals to find out more about the lives of Kenyan runners. The reasons that Kenya is able to produce such a large number of great athletes are numerous and complex. Social, economic and environmental factors predispose many Kenyans to have running talent, while a pervasive running culture, the presence of many role models, and a well-developed training and coaching infrastructure helps and encourages focused and dedicated runners to make the most of their abilities.

In his discussion with athletes and coaches, Finn finds that a high proportion of the top Kenyan runners come from poor, rural backgrounds. From a very early age they are engaged in hard work for their families, running and walking everywhere, usually at high altitudes. Describing 5000m great Mercy Cherono, Finn argues that “simply from the inherent physical toughness of her daily life had come a talent to outrun the world.” Another runner told Finn of his childhood “We were training already without knowing it.” Kenyan children grow up eating diets of ugali (a doughy substance made with maize flour and dipped into sauces or stew), beans, rice and vegetables, and very little of the fatty foods that make up so much of the western diet. Finn also makes much of the fact that many Kenyan children run barefoot, teaching them to strike the ground lightly and develop beautiful forefoot-first running form. Kenyan runners get far fewer of the stress injuries that plague western runners. Although as they get older many Kenyan runners opt to train in bulky running shoes, by this point they have already developed the good habits of barefoot running.

The presence of so many great runners and the existence of a culture of admiration for running provides ample incentives for children to build upon these talents. During his stay in Iten or while running on its running trails, Finn continually runs into world champions and famous marathoners. The presence of so many running role models, individuals whose prize money provided a better life for themselves and their communities, gives young runners something to strive for and the confidence that they can win. Finn interviews Brother Colm, who through his St. Patrick’s Boarding School has coached and mentored a great many future champions. Runners who can run fast enough might get signed by a manager, which will enable them to live at one of the many training camps. At these training camps, room and board are provided and the athletes dedicate themselves completely and absolutely to training, pushing each other to work harder. In Kenya, for the most part running is not a simple hobby, but something that athletes devote their lives to with an intense focus.

Finn describes the joys and struggles of training and racing in a way that will be very familiar to many runners. I especially enjoyed his account of the physical and emotional roller coaster that is running a marathon. Finn is a very good runner, but he describes experiences to which runners at every level can relate. In one passage Finn captures perfectly how runners talk ourselves into running, and how at the end we are always glad we did:

Right before you head out running, it can be hard to remember exactly why
you’re doing it. You often have to overcome a nagging sense of futility,
lacing up your shoes, telling yourself that no matter how unlikely it seems,
after you finish you will be glad you went. It’s only afterwards that
it makes sense, although even then its hard to rationalise why. You just
feel right. After a run, you feel at one with the world, as though some
unspecified, innate need has been fulfilled.

My main critique of the book is that at times it was a bit uncomfortable to read about a privileged and wealthy white man who takes a vacation to run alongside people who are in the most literal way desperately running away from poverty. Throughout the book there are moments when Finn acknowledges feeling awkward about his privileged position and the extraordinary amount of deference and respect that he and his family receive because of the whiteness of their skin. A freelance journalist, Finn is continually treated like a visiting dignitary in Kenya. This could have been addressed more directly, and perhaps greater acknowledgement made of the terrible legacies of colonialism that created many of the underlying conditions in Kenya. He points out that many Kenyan runners train with such focus and determination in part because they see racing as a potential way out of poor economic circumstances. This might be a recipe for creating elite athletes, but it is hardly a model other nations would wish to emulate. That said, this is a book that nearly all runners will enjoy reading.

Christopher Frank will be participating in his first Boston Marathon this April, but he certainly won’t be running with the Kenyans.

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Is the NFL the one that’s slow?

The NFL has fallen on hard times. Well, they’ve fallen on the kind of hard times you have when you’re still a billion dollar entertainment industry that holds the hearts of minds of the country and is arguably the most successful professional sports league ever.[1] Despite the massive appeal of the league, and the fact that most individual NFL franchises are valued at well over a billion dollars, the NFL seems, very suddenly, to be on shaky public relations ground. A racist franchise name and a recalcitrant owner who refuses to change it here, a player beating up his girlfriend in an elevator and a far too casual suspension on the part of the league there, and a growing scandal about concussions and what the league brass knew and when and what they did to cover it up that just won’t go away, and suddenly people are talking pretty seriously about whether the League—or even the sport—should exist. Oh, and then there was that whole bullying thing down in Miami, where apparently a lot of NFL players think that appropriate work place behavior can include dialing in threatening calls to a co-worker, threatening calls that included calling the co-worker, well, you know. That didn’t help much. Not at all.

My cards on the table: I like football. I like it a lot. I grew up worshipping Steve Largent, wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. I followed the Seahawks obsessively as a kid, and the very sight of John Elway on television screens still makes me shiver just a bit, knowing that at any minute that mad quarterback from hell might start throwing touchdown passes for the Denver Broncos that will dash Seattle playoffs yet again. For that reason alone I found the Seahawks’ humiliation of Peyton Manning’s Broncos in January’s Superbowl cathartic on some level I didn’t even know existed. I also did eight years of graduate work at the University of Notre Dame, where I succumbed to the propaganda; I still follow the Irish past all reason. At ND football is the religion, and I worshipped shamelessly.

Into this steaming mess of football, scandal, racist and homophobic taunts, raped students, dead undergraduate students, concussions, and fun (?) that makes my extremely confused football fan life, comes Nate Jackson’s football memoir, Slow Getting Up. Jackson played six shaky seasons at tight end for the Denver Broncos, after a brilliant career—of sorts—playing wide receiver at little Menlo College, a Division III NAIA school (to make it from the there to the NFL says something about Jackson’s commitment, luck, and, just possibly, his connections to the Bill Walsh football family through Menlo College). Jackson’s book has been vaunted for its irreverent and honest take on the NFL. Jackson himself has been lauded by any number of people for both his intelligence and his ability to articulate himself on all matters football. His always borderline status on the Broncos certainly gave him a unique perspective; this is a guy who fought to be on the practice squad, fought to be on the team, and fought to stay on the team through six seasons. He got precious few live minutes in actual games, but that very lack let him into the NFL’s exclusive club, while at the same time not allowing him to be completely swallowed up by it.

Perhaps. I enjoyed reading Jackson’s book. The book is lively enough, and is certainly funny enough at times. But I found myself repeatedly questioning if Jackson really was much of a critic of the NFL, at least as much of a critic as I had been lead to believe. Jackson claims at one point, for instance, that NFL players do not, by and large, use steroids or other PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs). As someone who has closely followed a couple of major sports through a couple of major drug scandal blow-ups, I remain completely unconvinced by that claim. Maybe they weren’t using juice around you Nate, but the empirical evidence, human nature, and statistical probability suggests that quite a few people were using something.

Jackson played for the Broncos under the apparently reasonably intelligent and relatively sane Mike Shanahan. After Shanahan left, Jackson found himself trying to get aboard with the hapless Cleveland Browns, then helmed by Eric Mangini, who Jackson portrays as every bad fifth grade teacher rolled into one idiotic, despotic, cliché-chanting body. Passages like this in Jackson’s book are gold; they are smart, and they show signs of being able to get at the heart of what is wrong with the NFL’s culture. It’s not that the league is a one that celebrates an outmoded version of masculinity, complete with a fetish for utterly inappropriate military metaphors; no, at its worst, the NFL is very simply thoughtless, stupid, and cruel. The better coaches have repeatedly shown that they cannot only have success by treating their players like human beings, but that they can be among the most successful coaches to ever be in the sport.

Jackson’s complaint about the Browns—and the NFL—is a simple one, but one that needs to be heard: please, National Football League, quit being so mind-bendingly stupid. A stupid league tolerates domestic abuse. A stupid league allows a stupid, racist owner to make a stupid defense for a stupid racist franchise name. A stupid league fails to acknowledge out that the sport, in its current form, is causing irreversible brain damage, then it does something even dumber by trying to cover that evidence up, then (just to really communicate how idiotic its leadership is) tries to offer brain-injured players an absurdly low compensation package. Unfortunately, for too much of the book, Jackson fails to find this level of criticism and intelligence, settling instead for a celebration of the culture that allowed him to be a NFL player for six years. It’s that, that love of the sport, perhaps, that is at the heart of the problem with American football right now. We all love it a little too much in order to force it to change, even when it needs to change in order to survive. As a reader, and as a football fan, I wanted to read the account of an insider who could be critical. Too often, Jackson seems like just another fan, who just wants to live out the fantasy for one more game, one more quarter, even one more down.

[1] Very arguably, I should add. MLB is older, and the English Premier League’s international appeal makes it a strong contender. I found it difficult to ascribe strict numbers to the leagues as a whole.

Nathan Elliott lives in Newfoundland while teaching in Georgia; the internet allows him to be MAGIC. He quixotically tries to write something himself once in awhile. He still gets both excited and teary-eyed when he hears the Monday Night Football theme. 

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