Nature or Nurture?

2016-08-16 19:34

I’ll never forget a lunch I had with Paul Tergat, who at the time held the World Record for the marathon in 2:04:55. That record stood for four years until it was broken by none other than the great Haile Gebrselassie. (2:04:26) One of sport’s great rivalries, Tergat and Gebrselassie, was the stuff of legend! Who can forget the 10,000m final of the Sydney Olympics? (Haille won the 10k by nine tenths of a second).

The marathon has moved on since then. A lot. Tergat’s old record is now “only” the 44th fastest time in history. And these days if you aren’t a sub-2:05 runner, you might not get a mention at a big City marathon. To put that in perspective – head down to your local Virgin Active, set the treadmill speed on 21, (yes, that’s twenty-one) and stay on for 2 hours!

Several things stand out about Paul Tergat. Firstly, Tergat is pure class. A fierce competitor no doubt, but a true gentleman. He had nothing but praise for his rivals. When one of my colleagues offered to make a contribution to his charity foundation if he beat South Africa’s Hendrik Ramaala in the 2005 New York marathon, which Ramaala had won the year before, he said he’d give it a go, but that beating a runner of Ramaala’s calibre would be very very tough. Again, who can forget the end to that race? Tergat beat Ramaala by a second! My colleague paid.

The other thing he said that day was that the East Africans were only going to get better. Now this might not be true of the 5000m and 10000m. Since the retirement of Kenenisa Bekele, who’s last 7 major championship race times over 10000m were faster than Farah’s lifetime best, we haven’t seen any great East Africans emerge. The marathon on the hand is a different story. Only 5 of the fastest 100 marathons of all time are not Kenyan or Ethiopian, none in the top 50, and most in the last 10 years!

Is it genetic? Is it geographical? We’ll get to genes shortly, but by geographical I mean vertical, as in altitude. Brother Colm, Kenya’s favourite Irish priest, who has coached 25 World Champions (which must be a record) and currently coaches David Rudisha reckons his athletes train at the perfect altitude. Not too high to negatively impact the quality of a workout, but high enough to boost the red blood cell count enough to make a significant difference. But altitude is accessible to everyone – in fact most Tour de France riders and elite American marathoners sleep in special tents that simulate living at altitude. Think of it as a little natural EPO-like boost in sports that are won on the margins of human performance potential. And why not? It’s not cheating.

Or is it simply the culture of the place. Tergat was unequivocal. The standard of running is so high in Western Kenya and the Highlands of Ethiopia that if you aren’t running world class times in your teens, you better run some more or choose something else to do. Everyone trains twice a day. Everyone runs 200+ kilometres a week. Everyone has no choice but to accept very high standards. Call it a culture of excellence.

Is there a lesson in all this? If we look at institutions that consistently produce measurably high-performance on the sports field, how do corporates learn from this? I mean why do the same schools in South Africa consistently produce some of the world’s best rugby players? It’s obviously not a result of chance.

If it’s a simple East African genes discussion, then one might expect a similar medal tally between Kenya and Ethiopia in the 3000m Steeplechase. Yet, Kenyan men have only ‘relinquished’ four of the last 15 (gold, silver and bronze) total medals on offer in the last 5 Olympics. None of which went to Ethiopia. Kenyans have won 12 out of 15 medals in the last 5 World Champs. Is there no culture of Steeplechasing in Ethiopia? They clearly have the legs.

Another example of a tendency to resort to genetic ‘superhumanization’ as a factor in sporting dominance is Jamaican sprinting. Many theories abound, but the one I hear often is that it is no coincidence that the decedents of West African slaves that were strong enough to survive the brutality of 18-Century trans-Atlantic human trafficking are, as a result, more predisposed to sprinting. Even the great Michael Johnson produced a fascinating, and controversial, documentary about what he called a ‘superior athletic gene’ in Afro-Caribbean and African Americans. He wondered why all eight of the 2008 100m Olympic finalists were decendents of slaves, and set off to trace his own West African ancestry. In the documentary, the Jamaican team doctor even suggests that, Jamaica, the last stop on the old slave trading routes, often received the most ‘troublesome’ slaves that no one else wanted; a factor that contributes to today’s sprinting prowess. (Wow, we’re talking about human beings here, just typing these words makes me uncomfortable – the documentary is called Survival of the Fastest).

But are we not perpetuating stereotypes with this kind of thinking? I think so. Social psychologist Adam Waytz and his team produced a study on Superhumanization Bias; a tendency by whites to attribute superhuman qualities to black people. Like many biases, superhumanization is often unconscious. And wrong. But as humans we need a backstory to make sense of the world around us, we need an explanation, regardless of whether it’s accurate. It categorises people as fundamentally different in which success is attributable to good fortune rather than hard work, and creates space for extrapolating and attributing other skills such as cognitive ability or even morality, none of which has any basis in fact.

For me, superhumanization bias diminishes the fact that every champion: Kenyan, Ethiopian or Jamaican, requires years of blood, sweat and tears to make it to the top. In fact, one could argue that constantly being surrounded by the best in the world means that making to the top in your own back yard requires you work that extraordinary talent you have harder than everyone else. I mean can you imagine pitching up at work every day with Bill Gates on your left and Steve Jobs on your right? You will be better if you work with the best.

Creating a culture of excellence can come about organically: such as in a Cuban boxing ring or a South African Schools cricket pitch. Or it can be manufactured through concerted effort and massive investment like China and Great Britain have done (£350m+). Why are British cyclists so utterly dominant? Why are Chinese table tennis players, Korea's Archers and female golfers, or American female gymnasts so strong? (Though the US men, not so much?) Why are certain countries so good at certain sports?

It would be ridiculous to argue that table tennis, archery and gymnastics require any special genetic advantage, so it must be the culture around these sports that the national federations create. Yes, money plays a big role, which is why I think a country like Nigeria fails to live up to its 'supposed' West African genetic and demographic potential - I'm told many of their athletes had to pay for their own flights to Rio!

The lesson for business leaders must be that a focus on culture makes good people great. Yet the pantomime continues, as corporates remained obsessively focused on nurturing individual talent rather than building a culture into which promising people can flourish. Get the culture right and everyone that is good enough will come along for the ride!

Sports people know this. Wayde went to train in Jamaica, to rub shoulders with the greats. Mo Farah leaves his high-tech, scientific training base, the Nike Oregon project, to go run on a dirt track in Kenya for six weeks before most major events. Lorna Kiplgat’s High Altitude Training Centre in Kenya sure ain’t the Ritz, but if you want to meet the best runners from around the world, that’s the place to do it.

So when we were treated to the greatest Olympic race ever run the other day, Almaz Ayana ran a new WR in the 10,000m. Beating Vivian Cheruiyot, who incidentally only ran the third fastest time in history! How good was that race? No woman had run under 30min for the 10,000m in the past 7 years. On that day four did, and it wasn’t enough for one of them to make the podium! Tirunesh Dibaba (a three-time Olympic Gold medallist and a 5-time World Champion) ran her lifetime best of 29:42 and finished third! Sure Ayana ran much of the race on her own, but I’m willing to bet that Vivian Cheruiyot ran her lifetime best because she was in the company of greatness.

Clearly, I’m not a sport scientist. It’s the culture stuff that interests me. More specifically how do we create cultures of excellence?

But to Ayana & Simone Biles. Thank you! To Gabby Douglas for your dignity. To Wayde for your WR and Usain for being Usain. To Da Silva for clearing 6.03 and Anita hammering 82.29. Magic! As for Rahimov, dude, clean and jerking what the commentators called an ‘impossible’ 214 kg to snatch gold on his last lift! Wow! Farah. Rudisha… and Michael Phelps! Thank you for showing us what’s possible.

All great Olympic Champions! Products of talent, hard work and a culture that we all can create if we put our minds to it!

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