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Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
APPLIED SCIENCES: Physical Fitness and Performance

Demographic Characteristics of Elite Ethiopian Endurance Runners

SCOTT, ROBERT A.1; GEORGIADES, EVELINA1; WILSON, RICHARD H.1; GOODWIN, WILL H.2; WOLDE, BEZABHE3; PITSILADIS, YANNIS P.1

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Abstract

SCOTT, R. A., E. GEORGIADES, R. H. WILSON, W. H. GOODWIN, B. WOLDE, and Y. P. PITSILADIS. Demographic Characteristics of Elite Ethiopian Endurance Runners. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 10, pp. 1727–1732, 2003.

Introduction: The dominance of East-African athletes in distance running remains largely unexplained; proposed reasons include favorable genetic endowment and optimal environmental conditions.

Purpose: To compare the demographics of elite Ethiopian athletes with the general Ethiopian population and assess the validity of reports linking running long distances to school with endurance success.

Methods: Questionnaires, administered to 114 members (male and female) of the Ethiopian national athletics team and 111 Ethiopian control subjects (C) obtained information on place of birth, language, distance and method of travel to school. Athletes were separated into three groups according to athletic discipline: marathon (M; N = 34); 5,000–10,000 m (5–10 km; N = 42); and other track and field athletes (TF; N = 38). Frequency differences between groups were assessed using contingency chi-square tests.

Results: Regional distributions of marathon athletes differed from controls (P < 0.001) and track and field athletes (P = 0.013), but not the 5- to 10-km athletes (P = 0.21). The 5- to 10-km athletes also differed from controls (P < 0.001). Marathon athletes exhibited excess from the regions of Arsi and Shewa (M: 73%; 5–10 km: 43%; TF: 29%; C: 15%). The language distribution of marathon athletes differed from all groups (P < 0.001), with a predominance of languages of Cushitic origin (M: 75%, 5–10 km: 52%, TF: 46%, C: 30%). A higher proportion of marathon athletes ran to school (M: 68%; 5-10 km: 31%; TF: 16%; C: 24%) and traveled greater distances.

Conclusion: Elite endurance athletes are of a distinct environmental background in terms of geographical distribution, ethnicity, and also having generally traveled farther to school, often by running. These findings may reflect both environmental and genetic influences on athletic success in Ethiopian endurance athletes.

In the increasingly competitive world of sport, the debate surrounding the predictors of sporting success has intensified, with the question of “nature” versus “nurture” at the fore. The disproportionate success of certain populations in particular events has sustained the belief that genetic endowment has a role in the determination of athletic success. For example, male East-African athletes have enjoyed particular success in endurance athletics and currently hold the majority of distance-running world records.

The unanswered questions surrounding the success of East-African distance runners have generated a plethora of studies attempting to elucidate putative contributory mechanisms. Proposed explanations have included favorable physiological characteristics (1,2,12,13,16,17), which may include favorable genetic endowment (6), advantageous environmental conditions, such as being born and raised at altitude (11,14), running a long way to school each day (11,13), and psychological advantage (6).

In studies comparing groups of black and white athletes, findings have included lower lactate levels at a given exercise intensity (2,13,16), better running economy (13,17), and higher fractional utilization of maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max) in the black athletes (1,2,17). However, these studies have classified groups based primarily on skin color, not accounting for the fact that there is more genetic difference within “race” groups than between (18). The validity of extrapolating such results to account for East-African running dominance is therefore questionable.

A recent study by Schmidt et al. (14) has proposed that chronic altitude exposure and endurance training combine synergistically to induce positive hematological adaptations, accounting for the success of East-African endurance athletes. However, an earlier study by Saltin et al. (13) comparing various physiological variables between Kenyan and Scandinavian distance runners concluded that the superior performance of the Kenyan athletes was not likely to be directly attributable to altitude, although the beneficial effects of altitude on lactate and ammonia metabolism were not excluded. However, the finding that Kenyan boys who traveled a long distance to school by foot had a V̇O2max 30% higher than those who did not (13) supported the belief that the distance traveled to school by African athletes gives them some advantage in endurance athletics.

Ethiopia was selected as the model for the present study, taking into account the fact that Ethiopian athletes boast a recent success record in international distance running second only to Kenya. With a population of 65 million, the third highest in Africa, the Ethiopian population displays a high degree of heterogeneity. Since 2000 B.C., the indigenous Ethiopian population has been classified into three clusters of people (Omotic speakers, Cushites, and Semites), the distribution of which has remained largely unchanged to the present day (9). To our knowledge, no investigation to date has attempted to trace the ethnic origins of Ethiopian distance runners and, by doing so, examine the possibility that they may share a common ethnic background and possibly some form of homogeneity relative to the general Ethiopian population.

The present study, therefore, aimed to determine the ethnic and environmental background of elite Ethiopian distance runners. The findings were then compared with those of the general “nonathlete” Ethiopian population, to assess whether the athletes are of a distinct ethnic or environmental background. Reports that have linked living at altitude and running long distances to school with athletic success of African athletes, particularly in endurance events, were also examined.

©2003The American College of Sports Medicine

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