Syracuse Online


Dr. J. on Running

Genes or Environment?

Will Wins Over Genes

Published December 18, 2000 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

It is a familiar scene in international competition. Runners of Western African ancestry dominate the sprints, while the East Africans win the distance events.

The Kalenjin of Kenya, with a population of only 3 million, win 40 percent of the top distance races. On the other extreme, athletes from the Indian Subcontinent, with one quarter of the population of the earth, have yet to win a single Olympic medal on the track.

Can science explain with some certainty this phenomenon and attribute it to either genetics or to the environment?

In his book Taboo, Jon Entine argues that this disparity results from a unique confluence of cultural and genetic forces. The decisive variable is in our genes, the inherent differences between populations shaped over many thousands of years of evolution.

A recent documentary on British television, titled "The Difference," examined the findings of Danish researchers who spent 18 months in northwestern Kenya studying the Kalenjin. They reported that they had slow heart rates even when running, and birdlike legs that allowed them to bounce and skip over the ground.

The researchers also tested three groups of schoolboys selected at random: one from Denmark, one from the Kalenjin, and one from a neighboring Kenyan region, all of them with no prior athletic training. After three months of training, the boys raced at 10 kilometers. The Kalejin beat both the Danish runners and their Kenyan compatriots.

At the end of the study, Bengt Saltin, of the Danish Sports Science Institute, reported that the Kalenjin had a clear genetic advantage over other athletes.

Sebastian Coe, one of the best middle-distance runners of all time, disagreed with the findings of the Danish study. In an article titled "Putting the gene genie back in the bottle", Coe argued that socio-economic factors and environmental conditioning play a significant part in the making of an athlete. Until these factors are separated, no study can reliably isolate the genetic component.

Coe enforced his argument by noting that economic circumstances require Kalenjin youths to run upwards of ten miles each day to and from school, at an altitude of 7,000 feet. In addition, the financial impact of winning races in the west more than offsets the sacrifices of training, creating a strong "will to win".

Medical evidence on the role of the environment in disease supports Coe's position. While Japan enjoys a low rate of strokes and breast cancer, Japanese immigrants to California and their descendants suffer the same high rate of disease as Americans. In tabulating risk factors in breast cancer, fewer than one fifth of patients have a prior family history, suggesting strong environmental factors.

What holds for disease certainly holds for health. If genetics play any role in performance, there is a lot more evidence that the "will to win", discipline and hard work eventually determine the winner on race day.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at

Copyright (c) 2000 The Herald Company. All rights reserved. The material on this site may not be reproduced, except for personal, non-commercial use, and may not be distributed, transmitted or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Syracuse OnLine.