There are 302 Olympic events, but only one gets a prime-time billing during the closing ceremony itself. That would be the men’s marathon, which is good news for Africa because it gives us a chance to share in a little Olympic glory, too little of which came Africa’s way. But if there’s one thing we know we are good at, it’s running very far, very fast. By SIMON ALLISON.
In the Olympic Games, not all events are created equal. A medal is a medal, sure, and no matter what the discipline it takes extraordinary skill and dedication to earn one. But where winning the shot put earns you an ovation and the respect of your colleagues, crossing the line first in the men’s 100 metres guarantees a lifetime of fame and fortune. And the equestrian champion of the dressage is unlikely to receive the same attention as the stars of the swimming pool.
Then there’s the men’s marathon. It doesn’t have the glamour of the pool or the track, and it certainly doesn’t have the superstars, at least since Haile Gebrselassie hung up his running shoes. It is unique, however, and its winners are given a special place in the Olympic story.
By tradition—the same traditional that sees the Greek national anthem gratuitously played at the end of each Olympics—the medal presentation for the marathon is not done at the same time or place as the race itself. In recognition of the event’s historic significance, and of the remarkable physical endurance it requires, the medallists in the marathon are honoured at the closing ceremony in front of a packed stadium, a huge TV audience and all of the other Olympic athletes. As a country, if you’re only going to win one event, the marathon is the one to aim for. It’s a singular honour that guarantees the marathon winner more than his fair share of the limelight.
On Sunday night, the man in that limelight was Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich. Nobody expected him to be there, not even the great Gebrselassie, who predicted a tough fight between the Ethiopian and Kenyan teams. Kiprotich himself looked a bit shocked. When he finally got his gold medal, the Kenyans on alongside him on the podium had to help him put it the right way round.
It was a nice end to the tournament for Africa; while we are the worst-performing continent, at least we dominate the blue ribbon event.
For Uganda, which had waited 40 years since its last gold medal, Kiprotich’s victory was even sweeter. The country needed a good news story. It’s been a rough year for Uganda: thrust into the spotlight with the Kony 2012 campaign, fighting a difficult war in Somalia and dealing with a deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus.
Reactions were ecstatic. “In a feat now already etched in Uganda's sporting history, an achievement that will be talked about for generations to come, a success that catapulted an entire nation from a dead silence to the highest scales of ecstasy, Stephen Kiprotich ran the race of his life to win GOLD in the marathon on the closing day of the London 2012 Olympics,” wrote the Observer in Kampala (their caps, not mine).
The Daily Monitor was even more excited, describing the win as a “national salvation”: “Magnificent, fabulous and astounding genius.…It was the most surreal moment. It was beyond unimaginable. Put simply, words don’t do justice to Kiprotich’s feat achieved on a beautiful early summer afternoon. The boy-wonder is now a Greek god. Kiprotich stands tallest in the world of athletics today morning.”
The other major paper, the New Vision, has already started a prize fund for Kiprotich, raising $100,000 for him in less than 24 hours. “My appeal to the Minister of Finance is to exempt Kiprotich's cash prize from being taxed,” said a representative of the paper. They hope to raise $500,000 in total.
Chances are Kiprotich won’t be all that worried about a little tax. In fact, he probably won’t have to worry about money for a long time. He’s already a national hero, and he can expect the endorsements to come rolling in, as well as a lifetime of adulation in his native land.
Kiprotich left his native land to prepare for these Olympics, however, training instead in Eldoret in Kenya, the region that produces most of Kenya’s top runners. His coach was one of them, Eliud Kipchoge, a 5000 metre specialist with a bronze from Athens and a silver from Beijing.
Whisper this in Uganda, but perhaps Kiprotich’s Kenyan connection is the secret to his success. Kenya is, after all, the powerhouse of long distance running. “The statistics are hard to ignore,” wrote Max Fisher in The Atlantic. “This medium-size country of 41-million dominates the world in competitive running. Pick any long-distance race. You'll often find that up to about 70 or 80% of its winners since the late 1980s, when East African nutrition and technology started catching up with the West, have been from Kenya.”
Fisher reels off the impressive statistics: Since 1988, 20 of the 25 winners of the men’s Boston Marathon have been Kenyan. Kenyan women have won nine of the last 13. Seven of the last eight London Marathons were won by Kenyans. Of the top 25 male record holders for the 3,000-meter steeplechase, 18 are Kenyan.
When it’s not a Kenyan breaking the tape, chances are it will be someone from their northern neighbours Ethiopia, who specialize in taking home Olympic medals despite a much smaller pool of top-class runners than Kenya. Three of the last four gold medals in the women’s 5,000-metres were won by an Ethiopian; same in the women’s 10,000-metres. Ethiopian women had a particularly good year this year, going home with gold in the women’s 5000-metre, 10,000-metre and marathon. The men’s record isn’t quite as good, but it’s not far off, with two of the last four golds in the 5,000 and four of the last five in the 10,000.
East African dominance of long and middle-distance running is unquestioned. Less certain are the reasons for it. There is plenty of speculation, of course. Most of the runners come from a relatively small geographical area in the Great Rift Valley, which indicates that physical environment plays a role. Most likely, the extreme altitude makes it easier for these athletes to compete elsewhere in the world. Some suggest it’s an ethnic thing, that some gene prevalent in East Africa and particularly among specific ethnic groups codes for distance running. Or maybe it’s about upbringing—kids that run miles to and from school every day are in constant training, whether they know it or not.
Few rigorous scientific studies have explored the phenomenon, however, and the supremacy of East African runners remains an enigma. In the meantime, all we can do is celebrate their success—and expect more Africans to grace the prestigious medal presentation during the closing ceremony in Rio 2016. DM
- Kiprotich saves best for last with Uganda’s first gold medal in 40 years, in Uganda’s Observer;
- The Ethiopian town that’s home to the world’s greatest runners, in the Guardian;
- Why Kenyans make such great runners: a story of genes and cultures; in the Atlantic.
Photo: Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich celebrates with his national flag as he approaches the finish line to win the men's marathon in the London 2012 Olympic Games at The Mall August 12, 2012. REUTERS/Max Rossi