Rift Valley of Gold

Review of the week: 24 – 30 August 2015

David Rudisha Beijing 2015

Just as the first humans poured out of Africa to populate the world, it seemed that the flow of medallists from Kenya kept on coming at the World Athletics Championships.

Peking Man was a long way behind, as was everybody else, with the sprightly exception of Jamaica, which equalled the Kenyan tally of 7 golds. Kenya’s usual dominance of the distance events was supplemented by victories in the men’s 400m hurdles and javelin.

Just as prolific are the theories used to explain it, many of which are reducible to one or two words: genetics, running camps, a “Kenyan style” of running or training, or doping.

The final explanation received some weak support this week as two Kenyan sprinters were suspended, having failed tests at their team hotel, before the competition began.

But more than two words are required. Running camps, for example, are typically run by American or European agents as profit-making businesses. They often receive no state support and are funded by a cut of the prize money won by athletes in city marathons.

There is almost no prize money in the 800m or 400m hurdles and Kenya’s track stars are part of a different system altogether. They have nothing to do with the famous Kenyan running camps, and so most of them are employed by the government in some capacity.

For example, David Rudisha, the 800m world champion (above), is a police officer, who represents the police team in domestic meets. However, it would be fair to say that he does not spend very much time fighting crime. It is a mechanism for paying him a salary.

There is little centralised training. Just as British athletes are given lottery funding but are free to choose their own coaches, Kenyan runners have a similar level of autonomy. Rudisha continues to be trained by his mentor, the Irish priest, Brother Colm O’Connell.

The independence of these training groups means that no generalisations can be drawn between them. As with athletes in the United States or Europe, there is no good reason to assume that a method which is being used in one group will be replicated elsewhere.

The secret of Kenyan athletics is that it has lots of secrets. A simple explanation cannot account for them all. Anybody who says that it can doesn’t understand Kenyan athletics.

Teddy Riner

The other headlines were an 11th gold medal for Usain Bolt, and a 9th for Allyson Felix in the 400m. Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands took the 200m in a European record.

Two countries won their first medals, both of them finishing behind Kenyans. Amel Tuka of Bosnia-Herzegovina came third to Rudisha, and Ihab El-Sayed of Egypt claimed silver in the javelin event won by Julius Yego. El-Sayed and Yego have the same Finnish coach.

Teddy Riner of France (above) won an eighth title at the World Judo Championships, a record, and Japan had its most dominant performance since 2010, winning 8 of the 16 events. It won only one gold at London 2012 but it may have peaked just right for Rio.

The Netherlands continued its equestrian successes from last week into EuroHockey, where it won the men’s tournament, but its women suffered a shock defeat to the hosts, England, in the final. Ireland reached the semi-finals of the men’s event for the first time.

There was more surprises in the Blind Football European Championships, where Turkey defeated the favourites Spain on the way to the title, and in AfroBasket, where Nigeria beat perennial winners Angola in the final. Not even Kenyan running will reign forever.

Next week: Rowing, women’s volleyball, Asian boxing and basketball, and mountain bike

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