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Monday, November 03, 2003

Kenyans and Running

Interesting article on Slate today Why are Kenyans Fast Runners? that summarizes the theories on why Kenyans win so many distance (800m and beyond) races. Whatever the reason there was an interesting statistical analysis done a couple years ago on this same question. The analysis assumed that Kenyans (specifically from the Nandi tribe) are genetically superior and attempted to answer questions about the frequency that Europeans or others might medal in future Olympics. The most interesting quote was this:

"Near the limits of human performance, subtle differences between groups become greatly magnified. In world-class competition, whether for Nobel Prizes or Olympic gold, such small variations in group abilities profoundly influence tribal representation in the winner's circle."

The analysis then goes on to show that even if the abilities of two groups differed by as much as a standard deviation, a randomly selected individual from the inferior group would still have almost a one third chance of beating the individual from the superior group. However, at the far right tail of the distribution (near the limits of human performance) the odds decrease alarmingly quickly. According to the authors of this study and others this accounts for the dominance of Kenyans in distance running, West Africans (or those of West African descent) in sprinting (all of the more than 30 men who have run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds are of West African descent), and even in Ashkenazic Jews in winning Nobel Prizes.

I think most Kenyans and modern westerners like the author of the Slate article would dearly like to attribute the Kenyans success primarily to hard work and cultural differences (nurture over nature). This is especially true of events like marathons that seem to require a greater work ethic and other incalcuables. However, I tend to agree with the authors of the study and conclude that a large portion of the Kenyan's success is likely genetic supported by a culture that is now proud of its success.

So what does it all mean? Ironically, in a culture that prides itself on diversity, Americans shy away from any discussion of genetic differences between groups and label as racist anyone who questions the premise. However, at the limits (and sports seems to show this clearly, whether in team sports like basketball and football or individual sports like track) it seems to me we see those differences and would be better off to acknowledge them than hide our heads in the sand.

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