Are black athletes inherently better at endurance running? On the eve of the London marathon, Jennifer Currie reports on a controversial theory.
When Matthew Birir, Patrick Sang and William Muturol stepped up on to the winners' rostrum after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics' 3,000m steeplechase, the world watched in astonishment. For while Olympic officials notched Kenya's medal tally up by three places, a tiny village in the western highlands of Kenya was celebrating the triple victory of its sons.
The odds against a remote village in the Rift Valley clinching gold, silver and bronze in a single Olympic event were astronomical. Statistically, it is highly unlikely that a small corner of Kenya, no bigger than Wales, could be capable of producing just over a quarter of the world's best endurance athletes. But as scientists from the Sports Science Institute of South Africa told delegates yesterday at a London conference, the ability to run and win long-distance races is not something you can simply train for, it is something you are born with.
The fact that of the world's 50 fastest long-distance times belong to African runners, and that 14 of those athletes come from Kenya sparked the interest of Mike Lambert, an associate professor in the Sports Science Institute, and Timothy Noakes, his research partner and the institute's director. Although it is well documented that distance events such as the steeplechase have been dominated by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners for many years, the emergence of a group of world champions from one geographical pocket was unheard of.
Lambert says: "There is a small area on the east coast of Kenya from which many long-distance runners come. The odds of this happening (at random) are almost unacceptably high, and no other country comes close to it. We think there is a link between the genetic predisposition of families in the region and long-distance running."
Lambert knows he is plunging into dangerous water. Only recently, a book called Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It by Jon Entine, sparked an explosive "race science" debate in the United States because it claimed to expose sport's real racial divide. According to Entine: "In almost every sport, blacks have a decided advantage: they are better at sprinting, endurance running and jumping - the skills required for success in most major sports."
Noakes and Lambert are resigned to the fact that their research may provoke controversy. "There will be sceptics who say we are being racist. But our evidence is strong. Sporting records and science suggest that elite black long-distance runners are more efficient athletes because they can resist fatigue for longer periods," says Lambert.
For years, sports physiologists have been convinced that the key to beating exhaustion lies in an athlete's ability to run on a higher oxygen capacity (when blood carries more oxygen). Tests show that black marathon runners can perform at 89 per cent of their oxygen capacity, while the optimum capacity for white runners is often 10 per cent less.
But Lambert and Noakes believe the real explanation for fatigue-resistance is linked to an elastic component found in the muscles of Kenyan athletes. They think that this elasticity is genetically inherited. "These runners can absorb the force from the impact of each stride to convert it into energy. That tiny change in efficiency makes an enormous difference over a half-marathon," Noakes says.
When researchers from the of Sports Science Institute of South African carried out a study in a secondary school near Eldoret, in Kenya, they found that 18 of the top 25 high-school athletes had first relations who were high-profile, sometimes elite, long-distance runners. Yet of 25 non-athletic children they interviewed, only two had first-degree links to a relative with a talent for running.
Lambert says: "It appears that all the talented distance runners come from the eastern regions in Africa (mostly Kenya, but also Ethiopia, Tanzania, Diboutji) and the talented sprinters from the western regions (Nigeria, Ghana). This strongly suggests that there are inherited traits (for endurance running in the east and sprinting in the west) that are more common in these regions. Should we find that the elasticity in the muscle is the factor that explains superior endurance running, then I believe that it will be shown that this trait is inherited."
Convinced that the creation of this supergroup of long-distance runners can be explained by genetic rather than cultural factors, the South African scientists are now embarking on a research programme to establish the gene's exact identity.
"You can find other countries with the same kinds of conditions, yet they do not have a group with such a clear advantage within their population," Lambert says. "For our research purposes, we are fortunate to have an elite right here."
Marathon Medicine 2000, is at the Royal Society of Medicine, April 13-15, in association with the London Marathon. More information at: www.roysocmed.ac.uk