WHO ARE THE KALENJIN PEOPLE?
The Kalenjin people refer to a group of tribes numbering close to 6.5 million people located in East Africa. Most of the members of this tribe live in Kenya, where they form the 3rd largest ethnic group. Recently, this tribe has received global recognition due to the success of its long distance runners in international competitions. The dominance of Kalenjin long distance runners can be seen by considering the results of almost any long distance event.
HOW FAST ARE THE KALENJIN?
In 1990, scientists in the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center tried to understand just how quick the Kalenjin people are compared to athletes from the rest of the world. To do this, they compared Kenyan schoolboys to a Swedish track team which, at the time, was considered to be one of the world’s best.
The study found that the high school track team from Iten in Kenya regularly did better than the professional Swedish runners. Based on this study, the researchers concluded that at least 500 high school students in Iten alone could defeat Sweden’s greatest professional runners in a 2000m race.
IS KALENJIN TRIBE’S SUCCESS INBORN?
A number of reasons have been suggested for the success of the Kalenjin tribe in long distance running. One of the most important factors is likely to be the body build that people are born with. The Kalenjin runners have been described to have a ‘bird-like’ appearance with features that make them ideal for running. These features include longer legs, shorter torsos, thinner ankles, thinner calves and a lower body weight. The thin limbs are especially important in long distance running as the reduced weight near the feet would mean the runners require less energy to move quickly.
IS KALENJIN TRIBE’S SUCCESS DUE TO THEIR UNIQUE ENVIRONMENT?
Apart from their inborn body type, the other major reason that is often used to explain the success of the Kalenjin runners is the environment they grow up in. Most of Kenya’s best runners come from the sunny highlands of the Great Rift Valley located at a height of about 7000ft.
The increased height means less oxygen is available for people to breathe. This means that the lungs of these Kalenjin runners change over time to increase their ability to take up oxygen. As a result, when they go to lowland areas to race, they are able to breathe more easily. This would give them an oxygen boost, meaning they can run for longer without feeling breathless.
WHAT OTHER REASONS MAY ACCOUNT FOR THEIR SUCCESS?
Apart from these reasons, others have suggested that the tribe’s success may be due to mental strength or their diet. For example, the Kalenjin runner Kipchoge Keino was advised against running in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics due to a gallbladder infection. Despite the pain, Keino not only won the race but also set the Olympic record. Together these different factors, along with a tough training regiment, allow Kenya and the Kalenjin to dominate long distance competitions unlike any other nation before!