Why do certain nations excel at certain sports? It’s a complex and hotly debated question. And one that’s sure to crop up again and again this summer.
In the case of Kenyan runners and Brazilian footballers, it’s tempting to get hung up on geography and genetics.
Certainly Brazil’s 190-million-strong population gives the world’s fifth largest country plenty of choice when it comes to picking 11 men. While many point to the fact that Kenyan runners are born and raised at high altitude, meaning they develop greater lung capacities than their competitors.
But what about the cultural and economic factors? What part do these national characteristics play in all those medals and world cups? Here there are some striking similarities between the two countries.
In both Brazil and Kenya, sporting pride has been key in shaping and defining a sense of national pride.
“We recognised football as an opportunity to communicate to the world that we are powerful,” says Brazilian footballer, and 1994 world cup winner, Leonardo.
Similarly, the poet and playwright Wole Soyinka once wrote, “When Douglas Wakiihuri leads the marathon pack in Houston and Tokyo, I feel like he is Kenyan nationalist out of control, and my emotion is running along with him.”
Another shared national experience is economic inequality. Football and running are widely seen as ‘life solutions’ and tickets out of poverty in the two countries. Meaning it’s arguably a necessity for young, impoverished Kenyans and Brazilians to excel at their respective national sports.
On the subject of inequalities, it’s interesting to note that Dutch academic Geert Hofstede regards Brazil and Kenya as having similar ‘power distances’.
In Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions model, power distance relates to equality and how well a nation’s less powerful accept the unequal distribution of power. Brazil and Kenya have high PDIs (power distance indexes) of 69 and 64 – scores that are indicative of deep class divisions. So perhaps similar inequalities have inspired similar attachments to sport, ‘the great equaliser’.
Then there are national personality traits to consider. Here it’s hard to avoid an element of national stereotyping. But maybe there’s some truth in the argument that the Kalenjin people, where three-quarters of Kenya’s elite runners come from, are traditionally ascetic, serious and diligent and therefore attracted to intensely individual sports. While in contrast the innate flamboyance of the Brazilians, who dance in the team bus before world cup finals, helps them to produce more creative, expressive footballers.
What is clear is that there’s no definitive answers or explanations. Multiple factors – from the physiological to the psychological –combine to make Brazil and Kenya great sporting achievers.
But what is equally true is that these factors are not set in stone. They are in a constant state of flux. Will, for example, Brazil’s rapid emergence as an economic power be to the detriment of its footballing culture and success? All will be revealed in Rio in 2014.
Spikes – The New Heroes of Athletes, Why Kenyan endurance runners rule the world, 2009
BBC Sport, Why are Brazil so good, 2007