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Friday, May 11, 2007

Are the Africans really faster than the Americans?

In the 1980’s the first Kenyan runners began entering (and winning) marathons in the USA. The first to win a major city marathon was Jon Nzau at Chicago in 1983. Next was Ibrahim Hussein in 1987 at New York and Boston in 1988, and finally Douglas Wakiihuri won London in 1989.

In the 1990’s the Kenyans and their fellow East Africans seemed to win everywhere. Kenyan runners won Boston from 1991-2000, and five of the last six races. In Chicago they made it six of the past nine, while in New York East African runners have won seven of the last 10 races.

During this time period many in the USA began to speak of a decline in American running performance. The running boom of the late 1970’s produced legends like Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and Dick Beardsley, all of whom won major city marathons and even set a few world records along the way. However the last Americans to win major marathons were Greg Meyer (Boston, 1983), Dick Beardsley (London, 1981), and Alberto Salazar (NYC, 1982). Since then the talk is always about how the Americans cannot run as fast as the Africans, and hence the Africans’ dominance of the marathon circuit.

But if we examine the winning times of the Boston and NYC Marathons, we see something very interesting. Namely, the average winning time has barely changed in the past 30 years. During this period the average winning time is 2:10:05 in NYC and 2:09:50 in Boston. In fact, Rodgers’ average winning time at Boston is 2:10:26, only 43 seconds slower than the average African winning time since 1991 (2:09:43).

In addition, both of these races have been dominated by numerous nationalities since their inceptions. While American runners won the first 13 NYC Marathons, nine different countries have won it since 1983. These include Italy (4), Mexico (4), and South Africa (2, although we should recall Hendrik Ramaala’s near miss in 2005 to Paul Tergat), and Kenya (8).

In Boston the story is similar. While the winner was American or Canadian from 1987-1944, since 1945 the race has been won numerous times by Finland (7), Japan (8), Korea (3), Great Britain, (3), and most recently, Kenya (16).

So the fact that an American runner has not won New York or Boston in many years appears to less likely due to talent and ability, and perhaps more likely a result of other factors that have decreased the number of talented athletes who choose running as a primary sport. In fact if we look at the history of marathon performances, numerous countries have dominated the racing scene, which seems to indicate some degree of parity amongst the competing countries.

Recently there have been some promising performances by Americans such as Meb Keflezhigi (silver medal in Ahtens) and Ryan Hall (2:08:24 in London for 7th overall). Perhaps performances such as these will excite a new generation of talented runners in much the same way the Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar did in the 1970’s and 1980’s. On the other hand, perhaps we (the non-Africans) just need more to learn how to beat the Africans?

Until the late 1990's the Americans absolutely dominated Olympic basketball. The USA regularly sent university athletes to the Olympics. By 1988, however, the rest of the world began to learn how to compete with, and beat these college kids---in Seoul the USA placed third behind the Soviets and the Yugoslavs. In Barcelona in 1992, the Americans sent their best pros to restore dominance, and the Dream Team I (1992) and Dream Team II) did just that, taking home gold in 1992 and 1996 and again in 2000. But this second honeymoon was relatively short lived, and by Athens 2004 the USA again had to settle for bronze. The rest of the world was watching all those years, and learning how to beat the USA. Now there is parity among international teams so that no single country dominated the others. . . yet.

So our prediction is that in time the Africans will meet their match on the road. Sporting performance is a dynamic phenomena, and is the result of a myriad of factors, only one of which is physiological and athletic ability. History, after all, has proven that we are all human.

Come back soon for the women’s and other marathon analyses!