Don’t you think it’s odd how different countries specialise in different sports? In a world that is increasingly homogenised, unified and globally televised it’s quite striking that sports still define us in the weird way that they do along national lines.
Some sports are, it’s true, pretty much universal. That’s why the Olympics and the World Athletics finals are as big as they are: Everybody runs and jumps. But that said, even within that broad church there are some very tightly defined areas of excellence. Think Kenyans and distance running, think Jamaicans and sprinting, think New Zealanders and rugby – some nations just stand out as sporting specialists.
Why should that be?
It’s a question that weaves all sorts of social, historical and cultural threads together. But those historical roots only reach so far back – the Greeks don’t win as much at the Olympic games as they used to, the Japanese don’t have things their own way when it comes to Judo, and the English are happily hapless at cricket, barely respectable at rugby and full-time flops at football. History only counts for so much of the story.
Of course what we call history today would have been called politics back in the day. And politics plays a large part in how much importance is attached to national sporting success. The national Socialists in 1930 Germany are routinely held up as the first to really appreciate the propaganda potential in national sporting achievement. Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics were more about his political ambitions than anything else – which is what makes Jesse Owens’ victory in the flagship 100 metres the defining image of those games.
The totalitarian use of sport by governments across Eastern Europe and Asia throughout the Cold War certainly took up where Hitler and his publicity conscious regime left off. The proxy war staged between the USSR and the USA with the bit-part players of a divided Germany throughout undoubtedly added a dramatic backdrop to the sporting achievements of athletes like 400 metre hurdler Ed Moses, who went an astonishing 107 consecutive finals between 1977 and 1987 – winning gold medals at the 1976 and 1984 Olympic finals.
Draped in the Stars and Stripes, Moses was a poster boy for Western resistance to the industrial sporting factories of the former East Germany and Russia. It has since been revealed that the incredible prominence enjoyed by East German Athletes in the 1970s and 1980s was as much to do with chemical engineering and a systematic, and quite brutal, athletic training regime as it was any natural expression of sporting talent.
It is notable, in hindsight that the East German sporting miracle was established largely on the basis of individual sports, rather than team games where the degree of competition is as much tactical as it is physical. You can’t take a drug that will make you tactically sharper than your opponent.
Of course the American side of the great divide brought pressures to bear on its athletes in a different way. Commercial pressures that were not part of the Eastern orthodoxy inevitably lead athletes to cross the line in terms of what they could use to sustain their bodies. There is no shortage of Western names in the list of athletes caught cheating over the years.
But the cheats are the easy explanation. The more fascinating tale is in those cases where for reasons of culture, climate, accident and intent, a country or region has carved out a place for itself in the sporting firmament: Brazil and football, Cuba and boxing, the USA and basketball, Australia and Rugby League…
In demographic terms, size is important. Bigger countries have more people to choose from. The simple maths of the equation favours bigger countries. At the same time, wealthier countries are at a massive advantage. Wealth equates to health but it also maps onto body size, just as it affords the means to engage in dedicated sports training. The fact that the world’s wealthiest nation is especially good at a sport that requires tall athletes is hardly a surprise. America are always a good bet at international basketball events or Australia are more than handy in rugby union.
Of course climate also plays a part. Cricket only works if you have grass and sunshine; ice hockey needs sub-zero conditions, and, as FIFA are discovering slightly later in the day than they might have, football is really not suited to temperatures above 30 degrees. And if climate plays a part perhaps we can start to factor in altitude as well. Long distance athletes from all across the world now head to altitude to train in a way that boosts the oxygen carrying capacity of their blood. But it turns out this is not why the Kenyans are so dominant. After all, on this logic the people of the High Andes or the Himalayas should be equally impressive long distance runners, but of course they aren’t.
So, what makes the Kenyans such great runners?
It turns out that the answer to that is as much cultural as it is to do with altitude. The majority of kids in Kenya grow up in what the Western world would view as poverty. No shoes, a largely fat-free diet and the requirement to help out with the physical tasks associated with family life mean kids grow up active. It turns out that along with a well-established route to comparative riches through running these are the perfect ingredients for producing distance runners. And running is just how a young person gets from A to B in Kenya.
It’s more about the day-to-day than it is about the DNA.
The low-fat diet speaks for itself, but growing up barefoot encourages the growth of stronger feet and lower leg muscles and tendons – perfect for a running athlete. The fact that they often have the added advantage of growing up at altitude is a bonus, but it is not so much of one that it accounts solely for their competitive prominence as a nation.
Dr Yannis Pitsiladis of Glasgow University, who has spent over a decade studying Kenyan athletes, admits that all of the above are key ingredients but that none of them alone holds the key. When pushed, it turns out the key driver that he identifies is as old as sport itself. It is the determination to make a better life that growing up in a poor or disadvantaged environment provokes.
It is this same drive that perhaps also accounts for Brazilians’ prominence in the footballing world, or Cubans’ stereotypical hunger for success in the boxing ring. More and more Africans are turning to sport as a way to escape lives of hardship, and the rise of the African Nations in the footballing world is testament to this.
It is in the nature of kids to follow the examples that are set for them. And it is even more in their nature to aim to replicate success. All it takes is one local ‘boy-makes-good’ story for a whole region’s – or even a whole nation’s – youth to start to believe that they can follow the path to success. What is more, it is only to be expected that, at a national level, resources will be directed towards those sports likely to deliver success. Sport and propaganda still make for an uneasy partnership. On this basis the cycles of culture, nature, nurture and political input can all be seen to feed into the peculiarities of sporting hot spots. And as the Kenyans, and the Brazilians and the Cubans – to name but three – have shown, once that pattern of conspicuous success starts to be repeated it makes for an entirely virtuous cycle.