History of Kenya’s Medals at the Olympics
“To live among people who don’t think that running is ridiculous, no matter how hard their lives are, but who value running and the opportunity it brings, who revere it, almost. Even if you never become an Olympic champion, or even manage to race abroad, just being an athlete here seems to lift you above the chaos of daily life. It marks you out as one of the special people, who’ve chosen a path of dedication and commitment. You can see it in the runners’ eyes when they talk to you. Even the slowest of the runners talk about their training with an almost religious devotion. […] Running matters.” – A. Finn, Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.
Brief Overview of Kenya at the Olympic Games
According to Statista, Kenya is ranked 30th on the all-time Olympic Games medal table (from 1896 to 2016) with a total of 100 medals. The highest of any African nation. The USA has been the most successful nation of all times at the Summer Olympic Games, having amassed a total of 2,520 medals since the first Olympics in 1896. The dominance of the USA can be shown in the fact that only two other nations, Russia and Germany, have reached a combined medal tally of 1,000. Even so, Kenya has excelled at the games considering that most of her medals have been bagged in five events. Of these medals won, 85% have been in athletics alone. The most gainful athletics events include 3000m steeplechase, 800m, 5000m and 10,000m. On top of that, it’s rather impressive if yourself consider that 70% of all titlist athletes including the top-25 world marathon performers since 1990 come from one cultural community – The Kalenjins. Put differently, the Kalenjin, who live in the midwest area of Kenya, have produced about 62% of all distance-running world champions. A record breaking triumph from a community which accounts for only 0.0004% of the world’s population.
Ethnic assignment in Kenya is based primarily on linguistic and geographical factors, with the Kalenjin fortunate to live in the fertile high-altitude area. Their emergence and dominance is only bettered by an increase in the contribution of men in the top-20 all-time performances in the track distance events (800-m and upward) from 13.3% in 1986 to 55.8% in 2003. The improvement has been impressive, as cited in the journal Analysis of the Kenyan Distance-Running Phenomenon: “Kenyan men (by birth) have bagged 43 out of the possible 108 medals (41%) in distance events at the Olympic Games since 1990 and have claimed the team title at 24 of the last 27 world cross-country championships dating back to 1986: From their first medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo to the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) World Athletics Championships in 2019”. The domination of Kenya in long-distance running has oftentimes been attributed to a unique genetic explanation, which is overtly premature. In contrast, hard work, lifestyle and cultural factors would better explain the topping results, as well as the collective knowledge of the close knit and linguistically linked Kalenjin Community. Research has yet to give away a gene or even a combination of genes that is conclusively linked to performance.
Long Distance Running in Kenya
Long-distance running is becoming a fashionable prospect for athletes from all corners of the world – even in the United States of America. Not too long ago, the dominance of African nations, particularly Kenya, in competitive distance-running was the subject of much fascination. Kenya throws its hat in the ring of virtually all long-distance events, from the two-laps 800m up to the genteel 42 km marathon. The only track races still elusive to the Kenyans are the sprints, yet, the appraising work in the 400m affair, that waltz on an unhesitating pace, reflects the enthusiasm in athletics. If there’s a race that convincingly conjures images of Kenya’s emergence and dominance of long-distance running, it is the 3,000m steeplechase. You can almost hear the celebrations even before the race begins. Every time Kenya has turned up for the Olympics, it has won gold in the 3,000m steeplechase. An event that has honoured Kenya with endless praise as the ultimate performer in long-distance running. And the 7 lap race crossing 28 barriers and 7 water jumps is a brutal face-off, once described by the legendary Kipchoge Keino as “a race for animals”. The 3,000m steeplechase requires the finishing speed of a miler, stamina of a cross country runner and strength of the 400m hurdler. It was introduced to the Olympics in 1920 as a special event to popularize the games. The winner of that inaugural race was Percy Hodge from Great Britain. In spite of not reaching the podium until 1968, Kenya is now the most successful nation at the 3,000m steeplechase. It has won every men’s title since 1968, excepting 1976 and 1980 when Kenya boycotted. Hitherto, Finland had won four consecutive gold medals (1924, 28, 32, 36), Great Britain had won it twice (1920 and 1956), once to the United States (1952), and Belgium (1964).
- Kenya at the Olympics – An Overview and All-time Medal Table
- 11 Kenyan Gold Medals in the 3,000m Olympic Steeplechase
- Kenya’s Olympic Marathon History – A Long Time in the Waiting
- Kenya’s Performance in the Olympic 5,000m & 10,000m Event
- Kenya’s Heroes and Heroines in the 800m Olympic Events