Global Post: It’s the start of a usual day in a very unusual place. The sky is dark, cold and damp, the mist thick in the mountain air. Lines of children in drab grey uniforms scurry to school along the muddy road. Then suddenly, a group of runners swoops past in brightly colored tracksuits.
These are the world’s best athletes, and this is their home.
The little village of Iten, two kilometres above sea level in Kenya’s Western Province, is where more than 800 Kenyan runners, including world record holders and Olympic favorites, live and train. The tiny mountain town has become almost mythological in running circles, producing world-beaters year after year.
But as Kenya modernizes and villagers move to the city, the country’s famed talent pool is shrinking. Some in Iten now worry that as running looses its appeal as a profession, the country’s dominance in the sport could be waning.
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Kenya has dominated middle- and long-distance running for decades. Over the past 12 months, its runners have won most of the world’s top marathons; the fastest 20 times in 2011 were all clocked by Kenyans. In Boston, one the world’s most competitive marathons, the country’s runners took the top three spots in both the men’s and women’s events. Patrick Makau set a new world record of 2:03:38 at the Berlin Marathon, yet he did not make the Olympic team – such is the depth of Kenya’s talent.
What sets them apart? In the 1990s biological-advantage theories were popular, and Kenya’s “running tribe,” the Kalenjin, which produces most champions, were tested for their physical attributes (long legs, slim ankles, more red blood cells), or ‘genes’ that would give them the running edge. Results were inconclusive and Kenyans themselves are loath to accept such theories.
Johana Kariankei, a 20-year old from Narok in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, has been training in Iten for the past three years, striving to emulate his medal-winning colleagues. As he sat on the grassy bank of Iten’s dirt running track, Olympic hopefuls whizzing by, he said what distinguishes Kenyans is just hard work. “They train so much and they are so very dedicated, and they have very good places to train like here in Iten. It is the best place to train in the world,” he said. “It’s the attitude and the altitude.”