The recent success of Kenyan long-distance running is due to strategic use of resources rather than the "mythical" and widely accepted reasons of culture and genetics, a Victoria University study has found.
With the start of the Commonwealth Games in India just over two weeks away, VU PhD graduate Peter Ochieng said it was time to dispel the myths that genetic inheritance, a higher pain threshold, and high altitude training were the main reasons for the African nation's world domination of endurance running events.
In his study, A Resource-Based View of Elite Kenyan Running Successes, Mr Ochieng says that the 1990 liberalisation of the Kenyan government has been the greatest factor in the country's marathon successes.
"People have been very good at making generalised claims about Kenya's running successes that have not been based on scientific evidence,'' Mr Ochieng said. "Saying Kenyans are good at marathon running because it is part of their culture is like saying Australians are good at swimming because it is part of their culture. It is a very simplistic explanation of success.
"After the Kenyan government removed restrictive barriers in 1990, foreign sporting agents were allowed to enter the country and train local athletes, major international companies built elite training camps, and the athletes were allowed to move around the country and travel overseas freely.
"This thrust of human resources (coaches and agents) as well as physical resources, such as specialised training camps, were found to be the potent fuel for success.''
Although Kenya produced some marathon successes prior to 1990, the number of its world class runners increased from 95 prior to the liberalisation policy to 1154 now. When all the marathon running successes are combined, top 10 Kenyan finishes grew from 17 before 1990 to 412 now – a 2424 per cent increase. The number of marathon training camps in the country also rose from 26 to more than 70.
"The Kenyan government has taken a back seat and allowed the private sector to fund the sport and support the athletes. Previously you could be talented but you were only allowed to run for the national team at events like the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. Now there are many more commercial opportunities,'' Mr Ochieng said.
"Part of my theory is that if you've got the resources like good coaches and training facilities, and use them well strategically, there is much more chance of success than relying on cultural, genetic or geographical factors.''
Mr Ochieng, who has worked, lived and consulted in Kenya and the USA, said there were lessons in Kenya's system of elite sports funding for Australia.
"In Western countries most elite sports are funded by governments but that money can quickly dry up if the world economy takes a dive. The worry is that the Australian government's ability to fund these sports is at the mercy of the world economy. A greater mix of private and public sector funding would be a preferred model.''
For interview: Mr Peter Ochieng, Victoria University, on 0447 387 088
Media contact: Daniel Clarke, Media Officer,
VU Marketing and Communications Department
Ph: 9919 9491 or 0407 771 072