Friday, August 16, 2013

Why Western Marathon Times are not Improving

Reading through the book "The Sports Gene" by David Epstein, one of the points that has really stood out to me were some of the statistics about the marathon.  Going back just 50 years, the United States, England and Finland were the major long distance powers.

Presently, you would be hard pressed to find a great marathon time not run by someone from Kenya or Ethiopia.  Its as if these two countries just decided to dominate one day.  No doubt they are very talented to run the times they run for the marathon, but consider these statistics.

1983-1998 the number of US athletes that run under 2:20 marathon decreased from 227 to 35.
England dropped from 137 to 17.  Finland was a powerhouse of distance running during both World Wars and didn't qualify a single marathon athlete in the 2000 Olympics.

Now consider the same time period,  Kenya had one sub 2:20 in 1986 to 541 in 2006.

The age old debate of nature/nurture and talent/hard work comes back to rear its head.  Where do you look for answers, which is what I find very intriguing about this book.

It's hard not to make some conclusions when you see some statistics like this.  Perhaps as the rise of talent in Kenya/Ethiopia that the other countries athletes tend to pursue other events or decide not to compete at all.

That the talent for long distance dried up in these three countries.

These countries athletes got fatter and didn't want to put in the work to be an elite distance runner.

An amalgam of all three.

Negative feedback loops are a deadly thing.  A makes B worse, B makes C worse, C makes A worse.  It's a cycle.  You can try to get at one of them, but they all have to be addressed.

Perhaps that is where are distance situation is at.  As affluence improved in the US, England and Finland so did our physical weight perhaps.  The hunger and desire to put yourself through the rigors of that type of training decreased.  Other sports become better options.  You fall prey to the notion that the Kenyans and Ethiopians are way more talented, so why try.  You look around and your notions are proved correct.  You don't see anyone coming close to competitive times.  The cycle keeps repeating itself every generation to a greater extent.

What can be a negative feedback loop can also be positive.  Just flip the coin.  I have talent, look where I'm from.  My brother, friend, friend of a friend is doing it, I can do it as well.  Work extremely hard because of the belief and are rewarded.  The next generation does the same.

Both fulfill a type of self prophecy.

If 100 kids come out to race and 10 are talented and one is very talented we would say there is a 1% chance that we will find a champion.  If that champion becomes famous perhaps the next years race draws 150 kids.  Now we find 15 talented kids.  Now kids see these talented kids competing and a culture of racing becomes a new norm.  Next year 300 kids come out and we have kids that have been training for the race.  Without training, we would find 30 talented kids, perhaps with training we find 50-60.  5 kids that can become champions.  The culture of racing exists and just keeps perpetuating itself.

On the flip side, if only 50 kids come out we find 5 kids with talent.  Perhaps we don't find the champion because he just didn't show up.  Next year, you get 30 kids.  Depleted resources and enthusiasm.  The culture of racing is dying.  It keeps perpetuating itself.

Belief in both systems perpetuates the system.  My thoughts only.   Thoughts on my thoughts?

1 comment:

Sifter said...

I realize this is heresy, but I can't help but wonder if all the emphasis on weight training and other 'peripheral' activities allegedly to increase performance actually detract from it. Maybe all those Kenyan runners
Not a slam against weights, I train myself. But there is something to be said for concentrating just on sports specific stuff, to the extreme.