From Tradition to the Olympics: Running Cultures in Mexico and Kenya
10.11.2002By Dirk Lund Christensen
In the 1920's, a marathon race was organised in Kansas, USA. The organisers invited some runners from the legendary Tarahumara Indians of Mexico to participate in the race.
The local Tarahumara governor decided to send three women to run in it. Needless to say, the meet organisers were surprised to see the Tarahumara women show up for the race, and disappointed when one of them failed to win. A message was extended to the responsible Tarahumara governor, asking him why he had sent three women. He responded that a race of a mere 42 kilometres was just a race for women.
Another story dating back to the 1890's goes that the Tarahumaras were being used as mail messengers by the Mexican government.
Every week a specific Tarahumara messenger was bringing thirty to forty pounds of mail and provisions on foot into villages in the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, home of the Tarahumaras, and back to the main city of Chihuahua. It was a total distance of 800 to 900 kilometres, which he covered in just six days Monday to Saturday. On Sundays he stayed in Chihuahua City to rest and watch the bullfight.
Around the same time, yet another Tarahumara runner covered an enormous distance as he was asked and paid to deliver a letter some 500 kilometres from Chihuahua City and return. He carried out his mailman task and returned within five days.
The Tarahumaras: long distance runners with little international success
These anecdotes capture the abilities and the spirit of the Tarahumaras, today numbering 86.000, and easily the most famous distance runners of North America. They call themselves Rarmuri, which loosely translated means, something like "the foot runners". This name implies how important running is to their very identity.
Since the 17th century and maybe for a longer time they have been ardent competitive runners, running local kick-ball races (males) and hoop-stick races (women). Before the 17th century the Tarahumaras most certainly covered long distances on foot as a means of transportation, but their main sport at that time was the famed rubber ball game known from the pre-Spanish cultures of the Aztecs and the Mayas. That game is no longer part of the Tarahumara pass-time activities.
Today, the men's most important kick-ball races typically last 24 to 36 hours or longer in which the runners cover a distance of approximately 200 to 300 kilometres non-stop. In comparison, the women's hoop-stick race seems like a recreational jog as they normally cover about 50 kilometres in five to six hours. All runners either run in sandals made from old car tires and leather strings, or they run bare footed.
The races which are often being held at an altitude of 2.000 metres or more attract big crowds. The competition is between two teams from neighbouring villages, and the spectators engage in heavy betting.
It has been said that a Tarahumara will bet anything in connection with a kick-ball race except for his wife and children. The competing runners will also bet on the outcome of the race.
The winner is the team that covers a pre-set distance first or the team that lasts the longest in an open-distance race. The longest open-distance race that has been recorded went on for at least 700 kilometres. At that point only one runner was able to continue, making his team the winner.
By now it should be obvious that the Tarahumaras especially the men are so-called ultra-distance runners of the finest calibre and that they have always been professional athletes at least while they have been competitive runners.
After their exceptional running abilities were "discovered" by the Mexican government in the 19th century, they were used not only as mail carriers but also to run wild horses into the corral.
In the 1920'es the Tarahumaras were invited to run in many different races. The most prominent race was the Olympic marathon competition in the 1928 Amsterdam Games. However, for a male Tarahumara runner a race seems to have just begun at 42 kilometres. For that reason alone, success was impossible for "the foot runners". The story goes that when the Tarahumaras crossed the finish line in the Amsterdam marathon race in the 32nd and 35th positions, respectively, they loudly complained to the officials that the race was too short.
After Amsterdam the Tarahumaras were lost to the modern world of sports for many decades. Only recently have they successfully re-emerged in ultra-distance races in the USA and Europe. In 1994, for example, a young Tarahumara named Juan Herrera won the Leadville 100 miles race in Colorado, which by many is regarded as the toughest of all 100 miles competitions. In his traditional sandals he crossed the finish line of the altitude race in 17 hours and 30 minutes, which is still a course record today.
Running success in Africa based on cattle raiding
In East Africa, more specifically in the western part of Kenya, lives a group of some 3.5 million people who call themselves Kalenjin. During pre-colonial times (before 1895) their so-called traditional sport par excellence was cattle raiding. This was a sport exclusively for young men, and it was dangerous business as one could get killed since, potentially, cattle raiding was also war.
Cattle raiding was important as a way of regulating the local economy of the different Kalenjin sub-groups especially during times of cattle plaque and drought. It was also important in social matters as cattle was used to accumulate wealth, for paying dowries, for ceremonial purposes and seen as a way of climbing the social ladder if one owned many cows. The more cattle a man owned, the more wives he could have.
The most fierce and dreaded of all the Kalenjin cattle raiders were the Nandi, the second largest of the Kalenjin sub-groups. As opposed to most other cattle raiders, they were night runners, and they would often cover long distances such as 50 to 60 kilometres before striking at dawn. As running abilities was a prerequisite for being a successful cattle thief, the most successful cattle thieves were obviously the best runners.
The colonialisation of Kalenjin runners
After the British officially colonised Kenya in 1895, the Kalenjins relatively quickly became part of the colonial institutions such as the military (K.A.R.) and schools, both of which offered modern sports. The British brought with them the European sport culture that they played among themselves and introduced to the Kenyans including the Kalenjin. Probably no other European colonial power put so much emphasis on sport, as did the British.
The male Kalenjins started to win many national championships in the late 1930'es and onwards, especially in the middle- and long distance events. Part of the reason for their success was the fact that the colonial administration to a large extent succeeded in transforming potential cattle raiders into athletes chasing the clock.
The colonial authorities, among other reasons, introduced athletics as a surrogate for cattle raiding. However, this transformation was not an easy task as cattle raiding was a very important aspect in traditional Kalenjin culture, and essential as part of the warrior identity among young male Kalenjins.
In those days, being a track runner was not as glorious as it is today and it certainly did not entail the potentially enormous economic rewards of modern day athletics. Cattle raiding still continued even though athletics stepped in as a substitute, but large scale raiding parties became rare. Today, cattle raiding is still a factor but to a lesser extent.
Nevertheless, in retrospect this important cultural transformation paved the way for the Kalenjin runners, who also turned out to be exceptionally gifted athletes. During the main part of the colonial days, they were not exposed to proper training and the necessary high-standard competition. It was not until the 1950'es that a colonial sports officer, Archie Evans, began to organise the training of Kenyan athletics and the first international results of notice were achieved.
One can say that at the time of independence, Kalenjin athletes had been exposed to global sports for decades, and that this exposure was becoming more ambitious towards the end of the colonial days.
Based on the above, it should come as no surprise that it was a Kalenjin who won the first Olympic medal for Kenya in 1964 shortly after independence, even though talented runners emerged from other Kenyan peoples as well, most notably the Gusii. But for the past three decades, approximately 70% of all elite Kenyan runners have been Kalenjin, even though they make out only about 11% of the total Kenyan population. For the past ten years, female Kalenjin runners have also begun to show their strength internationally albeit not with the same overwhelming success as their male counterparts.
Since 1964, Kenyan and especially Kalenjin running success in the Olympics and other international championships have become legendary and many of the famous runners have become international household names as well. One of them, the outstanding Kipchoge Keino has had the same impact on African running as Pelé has had on Latin American football.
Should Tarahumaras aspire to partake in modern sport?
As for the Tarahumaras, they live a very traditional way of life rarely seen among Indians in North America today. It includes running as an integrated part of their life style, which was formerly common among several other Indian peoples in the American Southwest.
It is quite obvious that based on their tradition, the Tarahumaras will never be successful Olympians unless races of 100 km or more (for men) or 50 km or more (for women) one day become part of the Olympic programme. However, I would like to ask the question: Is it important that they become permanent participants of the Olympic Games and other modern sports competitions?
Certainly the economically deprived Tarahumaras would get an opportunity of earning money, which would make life a little easier for some them. Potentially, they would also get exposure in the international press, which indirectly could create hard-needed income and maybe attention to other problems in their home area. The "foot runners" are after all professional runners for whom winning some extra belongings through their sport is a main motivation for competing.
However, their running culture is much more complex than trying to win a race. Kick-ball races go hand in hand with major drinking parties and smoking cigarettes. The latter is often part of the pre-race preparations. If a goal-directed effort will be made to train Tarahumara runners for the Olympic-type sport events, the social complexity of their running culture and everything that is connected with it will most probably disintegrate and serious problems will arise. Then they would make gains on one hand, but loose much more on the other hand.
It is not because I have a wish to keep the Tarahumaras from developing their culture and standard of living. But I am afraid that creating a "muscle market" as in Kenya will not make the runners happier for the following reasons.
Systematic exploitation of Kalenjin runners
For the last three decades, Kalenjin runners have been systematically recruited from primary to secondary schools, and again from secondary schools to American universities, Kenyan government athletics teams and since the mid-1980'es to mainly European agents.
The latest development has created many private training camps in which young hopeful runners are being exposed to extremely harsh training. If you get injured tough luck. There are enough talents to compensate for the ones who do not make it and keep the agents happy and rich. The training camps are athletic "meat factories" with nothing else to do but to run, eat and answer nature's call.
For the few lucky ones who make it to the international athletics circuit abroad, there might be money to gain if their agent has enough money and influence to get them into the right races. Competition is so harsh among the agents that some will offer their runners in a group to meet organisers for as little as a few hundred Euros.
Unrestrained capitalism is the order of the day in this business, and only few agents seem willing to consider the athletic future and well-being of their athletes instead of short-term economic gain. The morale seems to be that if one athlete cannot make it, there's always another Kalenjin talent ready to worship the golden calf on the European circuit. Poverty and lack of job opportunities make the Kalenjin athletes willing to run the risk in the professional sports business almost at all costs. And the agents manipulate that.
Of course there are Kalenjin runners who earn a lot of money, and many of them invest their income in real estate or businesses in Kenya. To some degree the home area of the Kalenjin have gained from their running success. But even in professional sports there ought to exist codes of good conduct and ethics, no matter how much an athlete earns.
After having studied the running cultures of the Tarahumaras and the Kalenjins for more than a decade, I believe that they each in their own way have respectively contributed greatly to the worlds of traditional and modern sports. This contribution is likely to continue for many years.
The Tarahumaras still perform traditional running competitions, but remain relatively unknown to the modern world of sport. The Kalenjins, on the other hand, have become the dominating runners in international middle and long distance running including cross-country and the road races up to the marathon.
Being part of the international world of sport can be quite problematic, especially if one is naturally gifted for top class performance. Hopefully the Tarahumaras will never experience the exploitation mentality that the Kalenjins have been exposed to for many years, and hopefully the Kalenjins will soon wake up and claim their rights. After all, there would be far fewer agents without the many talented Kalenjins, but it takes courage and co-operation among the athletes to win such a race. It is doubtful that they will ever get to that point.