Run­ners from Africa don’t have the lux­ury of a ride to their school

Times Chronicle & Public Spirit - - OPINION -

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 tcgn@mont­

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