Sorry about the lack of posts this week. I have a couple substantial posts in the works but I made an impromptu trip (culminating in the PAC-10 Track and Field Championships!) and haven't had much internet access.
“I have searched and searched and searched and I haven’t found a genetic explanation. So far, there is no compelling genetic evidence that there are race-related genes to explain this phenomenon. My feeling is that there are more compelling sociological and cultural explanations."
--Dr. Yannis Pitsiladis, speaking on East African runners' dominance in distance running.
A couple things. First, the implicit assumption in a research center like this makes total sense given our inclination as a society to associate talent (genetics) with success. If African runners are the best, it must be genetic, right?
I'm not surprised they haven't found a genetic explanation. I doubt that they will. I don't believe there is one. I do believe elite athletes are different from average people. They do have natural talents, of course. But those natural talents are no more common in East African runners than in American runners, Japanese runners and Mexican runners.
The article lists some sociological and cultural reasons why more East African runners become better than those from other countries, and I think they make a lot more sense: athletes can make a living in these sports, more runners grow up at altitude, children run to school from a young age, a running culture has developed, there are fewer opportunities to pursue other sports, etc.
The systems in these countries is set up to produce great distance runners. So those with the talent and, more importantly, the drive to become great have a better opportunity. There is a high probability that the most talented East African runners will give distance running a try.
America's system is set up to produce athletes in any number of different sports, especially baseball, football, and basketball players. And running in America is closely tied to the education system. Don't do well there and you don't get many other opportunities.
As a result, for all we know, our best distance running hopefuls aren't even running. And those that are running tend to get a later start, with worse guidance, and fewer opportunities. Those who do have talent, do get an early start, do get good guidance, and do get good opportunities (see also: Galen Rupp) do just fine.
Well, that's my rant for the day. I'd love to hear your comments.