Kenya has a population of almost 41 million people. Since 1968 in Mexico, the male Kenyan runners have dominated the middle and long distance events at the Olympic Games and the World Cross Country championships. At the Olympics, they have won 59 medals (nineteen gold medals) in the 800m, 1500m and 3,000m distances.
The center of this success is the town of Eldoret, south of the Cherangani Hills in the Great Rift Valley. It lies in a geographical depression that originates in Syria in southwest Asia and stretches all the way to Mozambique in southeast Africa. This is home to the Nandi tribe and the subset Kalenjin tribe.
Eldoret comes from the Maasai word “eldore” which means “stony river” as the Sosiani River nearby is filled with stones. During the colonial era, the European settlers could not pronounce the town name in Maasai and decided to call it Eldoret. It is here where Kenya’s top runners are concentrated. For a 60 mile radius around the town, you will find 90% of Kenya’s top athletes and yet it only has 1.8% of the country’s population.
At first, the athletic success of this community was thought to be genetic. The town is isolated and their gene pool remains centralized, keeping the natural talent for distance running in the area. But in recent years, the Ethiopians and the North Africans have started to win many distance events, which has led some scientists to believe it may not be genetics that give the Kenyans the 'edge'.
Yannis Pitsiladis, a retired Greek volleyball player and academic led most of this research as he was fascinated to learn more about why certain ethnic groups dominate certain disciplines on the athletics track.
The Kenyan athletes come mostly from high altitudes. This would be an advantage as the thin air increases the body’s oxygen carrying capacity. This gives the athlete the endurance they need to run middle and long distances at a rapid pace. In Eldoret they have a 30% higher intake of oxygen than the average person.
The most interesting of Pitsiladis’s research, showed a very different reason why Kenya produces so many successful athletes and specifically the town of Eldoret. There is virtually no public transport in and around the town and out of necessity the children have to run to school – an excess of 12 miles per day. Running at a pace of just less than 10 miles per hour, the children run for about 80 minutes per day. By their 16th birthday, they have run over 6,000 hours. The further away for the school they live, the more likely they are to become elite athletes.
Pitsiladis decided, that accompanied with national obsession for distance running, this was the perfect mix needed for endurance success. The children have so many role models now, and are desperate to follow in the footsteps of their heroes. Many run barefoot, so this too makes running the cheapest of sports. A diet in the mountains is high in protein and iron – also conducive to athletic success.
Although the town of Eldoret is well known for its cheese factory, university and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)’s High Altitude Training Center - it is also the town that most Kenyan runners call home.