Runners from Africa don’t have the luxury of a ride to their school
Runners in many African countries do not grow up waiting for a school bus or a parent to drive them to school. In contrast to the African continent, many schools in developed countries, such as the United States, have a lineup of autos, SUVs, and vans waiting to pick up a school child at the end of the day, waiting a few feet from the school door. If a parent or guardian comes a little late, the child must walk past the lineup of vehicles and show disapproval of the long journey from school to vehicle.
In many equatorial countries, a parent would be considered wealthy to even have a car. The contrasting lifestyle was most evident in the Olympic runners of 2012. Any observer would show no surprise watching the many runners from Ethiopia and Kenya that appear at every Olympics. We tend to just shrug our shoulders and are not surprised how well runners from the African continent perform in long distance races.
Most likely, many factors play a part in the success of runners from Ethiopia and Kenya. The first factor is the location of the school. Many children go to a school that is quite a distance from home. It is not unusual for the student to run to school, thus starting to run when still young.
In Ethiopia and Kenya, most run- ners come from three mountainous regions, including Bekoji that is 10,500 feet above sea level. Studies have revealed that living at an elevated level may cause the body to manufacture more red blood cells to carry the lower amount of available oxygen. At high altitudes, the body gradually adjusts to the lower air pressure and decreased oxygen intake by elevating heart and breathing rates. It takes a visitor at least two to three days to adjust to life high above sea level.
There is a difference between Kenya and Ethiopia for running and winning races. In Kenya, there are many entries and that country wins almost every marathon in the world. However, since 1993, Ethiopians have won all but one of the world and Olympic 10,000 meter titles. The difference between the two countries is the training and the number of applicants. Kenya has many applicants; Ethiopia has few. Ethiopia has fewer coaches and fewer athletes, a smaller talent pool than Kenya. Also, training in Ethiopia is carried out by trained coaches.
In both countries, running and winning long races is a goal from the younger years to adulthood. In Ethiopia 39 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. The winner of an Olympic race would make considerable money on endorsements. When a participant from any country wins a medal, there is nothing more touching than watching that young person stand on the podium, proud and emotional, while the national anthem of that country is played.
There is still uncertainty whether a genetic factor plays a part in Af- rican runners. Although this is unlikely, it will take years to prove. It may end up that upbringing and adjusting to high altitudes are the driving forces. Meanwhile, it is known that exercise is a must for Americans at any age who have satisfactory health.
Ethiopia’s Tiki delana won the marathon in London, 2012, and also set an Olympic record. By five seconds she beat Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo. There were six athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia running the marathon.
Perhaps that line of vehicles waiting for students to come out of school in this country should be replaced with a good pair of walking shoes.
Dr. Milton Friedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.