Believe it or not, there was a time when east Africans did not dominate distance running. Nowadays, people often ask, “why are those east Africans so freaking fast?”, whenever they predictably win a marathon or other distance race. It wasn’t always like this. This may shock some, but people used to ask “why are those Finns so freaking fast?”.
In the first half of the 20th century, world records in distance running were regularly set or broken by Finnish runners, who were labeled “The Flying Finns” by the press. Yes, Finns, I kid you not. Finnish athletes like Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Taisto Maiki, and Lasse Viren, were all part of this somewhat forgotten phenomenon. The first Flying Finn, Olympic Gold medalist Hannes Kolehmainen was also a devoted vegetarian.
So how is it that the Finns came to dominate distance running? There are no easy answers. Finland is less than ideal for running long distances with its long, cold, dark winters. Or maybe this is part of the reason why. Running through snow requires a lot of stamina, not to mention running in the cold compared to running at a more mild temperature. Whenever Finnish runners would leave Finland to compete in the Olympics in more pleasant climates, it was easy beating athletes who trained in warmer temperatures. But that’s just my theory.
Of course, the east Africans who now dominate distance running don’t have to deal with snow or ice in their homelands, unless they climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but they do have to deal with heat. And if they come from the highlands, lower oxygen levels. The lungs and blood vessels of people who live at high altitudes show signs of having adapted to lower oxygen levels – the lungs usually grow larger and more capillaries tend to form. At lower altitudes, their powerful lungs would give them an advantage in athletics compared to people whose lungs are adapted to lower altitudes(it is possible that evolution plays a role in this too, assuming their ancestors lived in the hill country for thousands of years). As Slate confirms, many of the fastest Kenyan runners were born and raised in the hilly areas of Kenya.
Most of Finland isn’t that hilly(and the hilly areas are very sparsely populated), but the northern 1/3 of the country is within the arctic circle. Maybe the cold air causes similar adaptations as altitude? It is difficult to say. Cold dry air makes breathing a lot more difficult, and can cause inflammation or possibly damage in a lot of people. However, many people can get used to it. Are nordic type people better adapted to it?
Cultural reasons for Finnish domination of distance running don’t make much sense. Their Swedish neighbors have a similar enough culture(and their population has long been much larger than Finland’s), even if the Finns don’t speak an Indo-European language. Yet the Swedes weren’t as dominant as the Finns.
Why did the Flying Finn phenomenon come to an end? It’s difficult to say, but it’s not so much that the Finns got slower, it’s that everyone else, especially the east Africans, got a lot faster.
This makes me wonder if the current east African supremacy in distance running is permanent or maybe some other group will eventually take over. I’m also hoping the approaching winter will turn me into a Flying Finn kind of runner. Don’t forget that just like the first Flying Finn, I’m a vegetarian.