Duncan Mackay

John BicourtClearly, Ethiopians, Kenyans (and perhaps Kalenjin tribe in particular because they predominate) have a natural propensity towards running. But whether this can be attributed solely to a specific genetic advantage, is questionable.

What seems to often be implied is that non Africans can train as hard as they possible can (assuming that it is also the most effective training) but they can never achieve the same level as an athlete from the Kenya or Ethiopia, who currently hold all the distance records (except the 1500 metres) from 800m to the marathon, because they do not have the same genetic make-up!

Rather than a suggested specific genetic advantage it is more likely a combination of ideal running environment, socio-economic background, diet and economic motivation. No Kenyan or Ethiopian world-class athlete to my knowledge has come from a middle-class, born and raised city background where life opportunities are considerably different.

Ethiopian and Kenyan runners grow up in poor agricultural communities. They live at altitude. They walk and run almost everywhere they need to go. As children they invariably have to walk or run to and from school sometimes as much as 10 kilometres away.

Sport in school is limited to basic ball games, basic gymnastics and running due to the lack of facilities and equipment. Their diet is mainly home grown, basic and natural. Those that show high enough athletic ability in their last school years are offered the opportunity to join and train with the athletics teams of Government bodies such as the Post Office, the Armed Forces, Railways or Prison Services and provided with keep and a salary.

Today with the success and substantial financial rewards seen of so many of their compatriots others are motivated and inspired to try and follow suit.

Training camps have been set up and financed by top athletes and their agents with support from running shoe companies  to attract new talent of which there is a large pool where only those with the ability and the talent to train to the limit of human potential will survive and succeed, which is simply why they are so good.

For talented non Africans to succeed at the same level it takes a committed mind set, the right environment and the same level of training rather than some specific African gene. Paula Radcliffe and a few others non-Africans prove the case.

John Bicourt represented Britain at the 3,000 metres steeplechase in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics before becoming a successful coach and agent


I agree.  There's no magic gene.  It's environmental.
By Mark Boen

29 April 2009 at 16:58pm
Meseret Defar grew up in Addis Ababa; she never lived in the
By Geoff Smith

29 April 2009 at 17:06pm
 John Bicourt, and many so-called experts don't touch one major
factor in track and field: speed!  If coaches could actually make
the athletes faster their times would reflect that.
Ralph Mann, the Las Vegas bimechanics guru, lectured in a recent
clinic that if a 10-flat sprinter could improve each step in the
100m by .01 of a second (45 steps) that sprinter would break
Usain Bolt's world record.
But, how would coaches improve speed?  Coaches design workouts to
improve endurance but not speed.  They mainly attempt to make the
athlete slow down less in the critical zone which is the last
quarter of a race - whatever distance.
Alberto Salazar has the backing of mighty Nike and its
innovations, and he still has made only modest gains.
Everybody talks about the Kenyans and Ethiopians growing up
walking and running everywhere; well, walking and running long
and slow gets athletes nowhere.  If the rest of the world really
wants to beat the East Africans the key has to be speed
Not high altitude training, not computerized anything, not PEDs,
not running 200 miles per week, not two-a-day workouts, not
eating chicken nuggets, etc.  To imrove speed athletes have to
start with figuring out how to run faster each step starting with
the first one.
And, just maybe, before we start with talking about making an
athlete run faster we need to figure out how to measure an
athlete's speed on a regular workout as opposed to time.  A stop
watch can not measure speed!
And, maybe, some obscure inventor already has all that figured
By Sol Wroclawsky

29 April 2009 at 18:19pm
Up until 1967, the superior runners, especially down under in New
Zealand and wherever the quality of coaching was excellent, the
African running community was virtually non-existent. When Arthur
Lydiard brought his marathon training methods to East Africa from
New Zealand, all of that changed. The Mexico Olympic games
brought the first wave and at every subsequent Summer games until
Beijing their excellence in training, diet, and environment have
helped them stay that way. Watch things shift now as Western
runners return to their 1960's and 1950's dominance due to
environmental and coaching enhancements.
By name

29 April 2009 at 19:30pm
Sol is wrong. It isn't speed per se in the distance events, as in
point of fact, many if not most European athletes generally have
faster PR's over 400 meters (and shorter) than E. Africans. This
has been noted countless times in studies. What you have are
populations in E. Africa that have a fairly high percentage (in
comparison with other groups) of people with the genetic make-up
to excel in middle and long distance running. And a high number
of these people give this sport their full attention as a way to
make some money. In the West, in fact in most areas of the world,
very small groups of people from other populations give these
events this kind of attention and focus. There are simply too
many other sports and activities. So, yes there are Europeans or
Americans or others who probably have as much potential to run at
the very top of the world level, but they either aren't involved
in the sport at all (most likely) or don't have the necessary
desire to put in the type of training top level success requires
because it just "isn't worth it" to them. Of course, the effect
of the press which seems to take some glee in running down
certain people and over-blowing the talents and the
accomplishments of others can't be ignored.
By Jimbo

29 April 2009 at 19:44pm
 This is an old debate; is it nature (genes) or is it nurture
(environment).  The answer is its both and we should be
interested in finding out about the right mix.
No one argues that the ability to read and write are the result
of genetic factors or environental factors alone.  Almost all
humans have the capacity to do both (that's genetic) yet in some
parts of the world only half of all adults can do both (that's
environment).  So to read and write you need both.  When it comes
to being a 1 in 10,000,000 phenom in running is it so
unreasonable to think that both very special genes and a very
special environment are critical?  Is it unreasonable to think
that small groups of people who's ancesstors have lived in
relative isolation for many generations are more likely to have
the right genes to have a unique set of genes to make them fast
distance runners? I think the answer to both of these questions
is no.  Although it makes the world a more complicated place, we
are not all created equal in every way.
By oldcolonial

29 April 2009 at 20:53pm
Since humans originated in the Ethiopia and Kenya area the people
there are probably closer to a founder population. Founder
populations have more genetic variability.  Statistically
speaking this would mean that Kenyans and Ethiopians would have
more people at both ends of the normal curve.  So instead of a
"genetic advantage" they would have a higher number of great
runners and a higher number of poor runners.  We never see the
poor runners, but the great ones are very evident. Obviously the
other environmental conditions help.  This also explains why
non-Kenyans and Ethiopians can perform at those levels, but the
number of people with those talents is few and far between.  The
real superiority of the Kenyans and Ethiopinas isn't that one or
two are faster, but that they have hundreds as good as a handful
of Europeans.
By davidr

30 April 2009 at 00:19am
 This is a very well behaved website, isn't it. All these messages
and not one has accused John Bicourt of being a racist. Miracles
do happen.
By Astonished

30 April 2009 at 00:52am
 Strange, after reading the above article, I didn't notice any
racial undertones.  Are you fishing for something?
By Mark Boen

30 April 2009 at 02:23am
 To Mark - no, exactly the opposite. I'm saying that it is good to
be able to have this kind of debate without it descending into
accusations of racial sterotyping. I am impressed. Sorry if you
were offended.
By Astonished

30 April 2009 at 13:28pm
I tend to agree with Davidr, and his comments about genetic
variability. Of course environment is also important; in fact, it
folds into one's physiology and genetics at some point. This
Bicourt argument is balderdash as a distance-running success
explanation: "Ethiopian and Kenyan runners grow up in poor
agricultural communities. They live at altitude. They walk and
run almost everywhere they need to go." What about Peruvians and
the rest of the world's people who grow up at 7000 feet, don't
own cars, and must walk-run everywhere? Why aren't they also
winning gold medals in the Olympic distance events?
By Peru

3 May 2009 at 20:50pm
There is one more observation that I believe also argues in favor
of nurture.  If the genetics were the sole factor, presumably
countries all along the Rift Valley would be equally represented.
 But in fact, they are not.  Aside from Tadese (Eritrea) and
Ramaala (South Africa), you don't see nearly the representation
from countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.  In
fact, it seems like the countries have to be poor, but not too
poor, and also have somewhat stable governments.

Also, anyone have any ideas as to what happened to Mexican distance prowess?  In the mid-90s, there was Silva, Vera, Espinosa, and even Barrios, but since the new millenium, I haven't heard of a world class Mexican marathoner. I would be interested if anyone had any theories about this.
By Serendipitous

4 May 2009 at 17:31pm
Mr. Bicourt raises a very interesting point that I have
personally been struggling with for a while.

I am a Kenyan and was born close to the very area where a lot of world class distance runners come from. We moved to the city (Nairobi) when I was 2 yrs old,  I am an ‘average runner’ and despite all my efforts in high school and college, I was never able to ascend to levels of running performance of some of my relatives. 
By Kenyan

4 May 2009 at 21:24pm
The mexican community no longer is prominent in distance running
because the boarder patrol has increased their efforts. The
mexicans are now better swimmers than runners and look to field a
pretty dominant team in the next summer olympics. ;)
By Funny