Sport’s great rivalries: Kenya vs. Ethiopia, and a one-sided battle (at least on the track)
As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, we’re somewhat partial to the endurance sports here at The Science of Sport. And with the Olympics now only 24 days away, we’re starting to turn our attention to what are sure to be 3 weeks of magnificent racing action, especially on the track and roads in the long-distance events.
The Olympic Games tend to cast a spotlight on great rivalries, and I’m sure that if pushed, your best memories and highlights of the Sydney 2000 and Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games will include those two magnificent clashes over 10,000m between Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. In Atlanta, Tergat attacked with 2km to go, throwing in a 60-second lap and a 2:32 km. In Sydney, he waited until 250m, but on both occasions, Gebrselassie was able to respond and win.
Kenya vs. Ethiopia: Battles on the track, road and country
Their clashes form part of one sport’s great rivalries: the battle between Kenya and Ethiopia in the long-distance events. Earlier this year, after the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, I had intended to do a post on the “decline” of Kenyan running, because those championships were one of the worst in recent times for Kenya. They lost every single title, failing to win a single individual race, while Ethiopia cleaned up in both the men and women’s events. It was not the first time either, and Kenya’s once insurmountable dominance has slowly been eroded and few would now argue that Ethiopia, not Kenya, hold sway at the Cross Country events.
But no sooner had I started thinking about a post to discuss the relative demise of Kenya (and the dominance of Ethiopia, of course), and Kenya came back with a huge two weeks of running in the marathon. They won in London, Amsterdam and Boston. On one weekend, six Kenyans broke 2:07! It was a startling reminder that the demise of Kenya had been predicted a little too soon…though admittedly this happened in the marathon, while their status on the track and country continues to slide.
Kenya’s strength in depth is incredible, and they produce far more runners than Ethiopia do, which does help to explain why the marathons are still Kenyan-dominated. Cross country and track, as we shall see, tend to reward excellence in a few athletes, whereas the relative unrestricted boundaries of world marathon running favour the Kenyan system or approach to athletics.
But this post is more about the track, and it is true here that Kenyan athletics seems to move from crisis to crisis. It happens twice a year – after every major championships, track or country, Kenya embarks on a “soul-searching” exercise to find some explanation for the fact that yet again, they’ve seen Ethiopian athletes dominate. But what are the factors contributing to this? And for how long has it persisted without an answer? To understand this, let’s have a look at the last 13 years of major track races.
The track: A distinct upper hand for Ethiopia
The table below shows the Kenyan and Ethiopian results from the last 10 major championship 10,000m races (since 1995). It lists the atheltes who represented the countries, and their finishing position in brackets. I’ve looked only at 10,000m because it’s a profound illustration of what I believe is the key problem for Kenya, though I will admit that this approach lends itself to some bias:
What the table shows is that in the gold medal race, World or Olympic, Ethiopia leads 9 to 1! In fact, if you go back to 1993, then it becomes 10 to 1, because Gebrselassie won the 10,000m title in Stuttgart as well. The sole Kenyan champion since 1995 is Charles Kamathi, who beat Mezgebu and Gebrselassie in Edomton in 2001. The table below shows the medal counts from these races:
A pretty clear dominance for Ethiopia. If one were to arbitralily assign points for the placings, with gold equalling three points, silver two and bronze one, then you can work out that Ethiopia scores 40 points, Kenya only 14! That’s dominance by any definition.
That dominance is however down to basically two men: Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, who have all nine Ethiopian titles between them. Geb owns 5, Bekele 4, though he should add a fifth in a month from now in Beijing.
So, in one respect, Kenya’s problem is that they have failed, since 1995, to discover a runner capable of beating Gebrselassie or Bekele. That’s hardly a disaster, because the two Ethiopians are surely two of the all-time greats.
The problem for Kenya: Absence of consistency, management and development
However, from a Kenyan perspective, one must ask the question “why not?” Why is it that a nation full of athletic potential has only managed to defeat their neighbours ONCE in eleven races over 10,000m (they also haven’t won the World Cross Country title since 1999, remarkably enough!)
The answer to this question is enormously complex, and obviously not down to one single factor. However, I feel that one of the key problems is illustrated by the table above, showing the athletes who have represented the countries since 1995.
Cast your eye down the list of names, and the first thing you’ll notice is that on the Ethiopia side, you recognize most of the names. On the Kenyan side, you’d be hard pressed to recall more than about five of the athletes who have pulled on the Kenyan vest. The table below shows the number of athletes who have represented the two countries, and most tellingly, the number of athletes who’ve only run for their country ONCE, never to be picked again:
The key differences between Kenya and Ethiopia, in my opinion, are the following:
- Kenya has gone through more athletes than Ethiopia, clearly failing to settle on who they believe will be able to dethrone the Ethiopians. Remember that this is despite the fact Ethiopia have been able to select FOUR athletes for most championships, whereas Kenya can pick only THREE.
- Kenya has also picked 11 athletes who have only run in ONE race, never to be picked again. There is a startling lack of continuity in that statistic.
Now, one might easily argue that the reason Kenya has picked so many different athletes is because they have picked men who have failed on the first occasion, and therefore they are constantly trying something new. Ethiopia, on the other hand, never need to change a winning formula.
But this is only part of the problem. Because the races are now so frequent (10 major races in 13 years), it’s very easy to pick a young, upcoming athlete and allow them to run in 3 consecutive races in the space of about 4 years. That athlete, if given a chance, might have the potential to improve to the point where in his third race, he is competitive with the Ethiopians.
Unfortunately, Kenya has never tried this, and the high “churn” or recycling of their chosen athletes has undermined any efforts by young runners to develop. Consider briefly that Kenenisa Bekele was only 21 when he won his first 10,000m world title in 2003. Gebrselassie, in 1993, was only 20 when he took gold. So Ethiopia clearly discovers incredibly talented young athletes, who then go on to dominant for six or seven years. Kenya, having failed to win a title, seem to change their team every time, and so by the time a Kenyan is 25 years old, he’s already been cast aside.
Now, the next problem is that in Kenya, there is little “centralization” of athletic training. I know this because my university is currently in the process of establishing a research collaboration with a university in Kenya, who deal with many of the top runners. Many hours of discussion and strategy have revealed that Kenya’s primary problem is an abundance of talent. That’s right, too MUCH talent. This is only a problem when the talent management systems are not appropriate, and in Kenya, there is such fragmentation that control of the talent pool is virtually impossible.
This creates a scenario where an abundant resource need not be nurtured and looked after as it would if it was scarce, and so a highly talented junior athlete in Kenya is, often times, at the mercy of the environment. That environment, in turn, is often out to “exploit” the athlete – agents and managers descend on Kenya like vultures, picking up the talented young athletes who are then taken off to run in Europe. All good and well, but no long term plan or vision. The result is that a Kenyan who enjoys a very successful season on track often “disappears” the following year, because they are not appropriately managed during the off-season or during the build-up to the following year. How many times have relatively unknown Kenyans emerged to take some big wins at the end of the European season, never to be seen again? Too often, for Kenyan administrators…
Ethiopia, on the other hand, while possessing an array of talent that would make most countries envious, have managed to centralize control of these athletes. That’s been driven in large part by Gebrselassie, who by the force of his personality has developed a winning formula. But the Ethiopian federation, and their coach, Dr Woldemeskel Kostre, have also ensured that the squad of identified champions remains together and trains together.
The Kenyan federation and administration have tried to correct this, instituting training camps ahead of major championships and even before the recent Kenyan Olympic trials. However, their efforts are often roundly criticized, mostly because the camps deny athletes the chance to race in Europe. It would seem then, that control and money are the two conflicting driving forces behind Kenya’s current problems on the track.
Beijing 2008: Kenya’s Olympic team selection highlights the lack of vision
The reason this discussion is particularly contextual, incidentally, is because the Kenyan Olympic trials were held over a week ago, and they have now announced their team for Beijing. And it’s the Men’s 800m event that holds the greatest surprise, and yet another example of how the long-term vision of Kenyan athletics might be questioned.
David Rudisha is perhaps the second best 800m runner in the world. His times suggest this, and his racing performances too. Only Sudan’s Kaki Kamis has been better this year. But the key is this: Rudisha is still a teenager, only 19 years old. Therefore, he is a potential multiple Olympian, possibly multiple gold medalist.
Unfortunately for him, he is Kenyan and he had an injury and a virus when the Kenyan Olympic trials were held. He therefore did not run the 800m event. That is OK, not a disaster, because the Kenyan system is designed to automatically select the first TWO finishers, with the third slot going to a “wildcard”, at the selectors’ discretion.
But, miraculously, instead of selecting a teenager who is CURRENTLY the second best in the world, one of it’s most exciting talents ever, a potential future champion (if not in 2008, then in 2012 and 2016), the Kenyans went instead with the man who finished third in the Kenyan trials. That person was Alfred Kirwa Yego, who is the world champion, so a difficult decision to make. But world champions have been omitted before, and Kirwa Yego was both a surprise champion and has not repeated that form this year.
No matter how you skin it, no matter what criteria you use (development or performance) that third slot should have gone to a teenager who is a potential winner NOW. Yet instead, the Beijing Olympics have to go without Rudisha. It will be interesting to see where Rudisha is in 2010, and beyond. If he fits the classic tale, he’ll be running average times of 1:44. The next question one has to ask: “If David Rudisha was Ethiopian, would they have picked him?” The answer to that question pretty much sums up this post.