News - Born to lose
Can an American ever win another Peachtree?
Here's a prediction that may startle: an American-born runner may never again win another Peachtree Road Race.
The elite racers streaming across the finish line each July 4 are almost exclusively from Africa, though runners from Latin America sometimes challenge. But there are no Americans, black or white. The top American finished 23rd in last year's race and 19th in 1999.
What has befallen the great American distance-running tradition, built on the exploits of Jim Ryun, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers?
The world rankings paint a dismal picture, with the top 10 places held by athletes of African ancestry, nine from Kenya. The trend in the women's division is much the same — the top 3 and 7-out-of-10 are Kenyan. However, because of social taboos against women runners in Africa, the playing field is not level, and non-Africans remain competitive.
If you ask media "experts," be prepared for the usual clichés: Americans are soft. They can't match the grueling training regimens of African runners. In recent weeks there has been talk of an American "comeback," after 18-year-old phenom Alan Webb broke Ryun's 1,500-meter scholastic record.
Don't believe it. Webb offers potential but, even if he should emerge as an elite runner, he will be one compared to hundreds from East and North Africa. The American "resurgence" rests almost entirely on the shoulders of two African runners who have emigrated to the U.S.: Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi, who won Peachtree in 1999; and Meb Keflezgihi, a native Eritrean, who crushed the U.S. 10,000-meter record May 4.
Note that Khannouchi is from mountainous sections of North Africa while Keflezgihi is from the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, the home of 40 percent of the world's top distance runners and nine of last year's top 10 Peachtree finishers. Runners from highlands that snake along the western edge of the valley have clocked more than 60 percent of the best times ever run in distance races. Kenyans alone win 40 percent of top international events. The Nandi district of 500,000 people — 1/12,000 of Earth's population - boasts an unfathomable 20 percent, marking the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in sports history.
What's going on? Science certainly does not support the popular notion that Kenyans prevail because they train harder or run to school, myths peddled by the media. "I lived right next door to school," laughs Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, world 800-meter record holder. "I walked, nice and slow."
For every Kenyan monster-miler there are others, like Kipketer, who get along on less than 30. "Training regimens are as varied in Kenya as anywhere in the world," notes Colm O'Connell, coach at St. Patrick's Iten, the famous private school that turned out Kipketer and other Kenyan greats.
The explanation for this phenomenon, it turns out, is in the genes. Why are African-Americans such poor distance runners? Highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency and lung capacity are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors. Though individual success is about opportunity and "fire in the belly," thousands of years of evolution have left a distinct footprint on the world's athletic map.
"Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role," states Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, who outlined his findings in Scientific American. "But we argue based on the data that it is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented. The extent of the environment can always be discussed but it's less than 20, 25 percent."
This is not an issue of black and white, but the consequence of thousands of years of evolution in varying terrains. All the training in the world is unlikely to turn an African-American into an elite marathoner or a Kenyan into a top 100-meter runner. While American blacks and athletes from West Africa are dismal distance runners — there is not one in the world — they hold the top 200 and 494 of the top 500 100-meter times. On the other hand, the fastest Kenyan 100-meter run is 10.28 seconds, ranking 5,000 on the all-time list.
Populations that trace their ancestry to West Africa have an almost perfect bio-mechanical package for sprinting and jumping: small efficient lungs and a naturally high percentage of fast twitch muscles. Whites dominate at neither long nor short distances, but are competitive in the middle distances and the marathon, and shine in "power" sports like weightlifting because of superior upper-body strength.
Is this a racial issue? "Absolutely not," says Saltin. "We need to understand that there are some patterns of differences between populations," agrees Joseph Graves, Jr., an evolutionary biologist and author of The Emperor's New Clothes. "Differences don't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather with geography and climate. Genes play a major role in this."
Could an African-American, white, or Asian ever win the Peachtree? Yes, but it's a long shot. As a result of natural variation and the roulette wheel of the human spirit, there will always be great runners from every part of the globe. But genes do circumscribe possibility, or "innate capacity."
Humans are different, and society pays a large price for not discussing this subject openly, if carefully. Events such as the Peachtree provide an opportunity to broaden our understanding of the genetic revolution now unfolding.