While it’s true that Kenya has produced its fair share of world-class athletes, the Kalenjin people have garnered a very special status Africa – and in the rest of the world. Renowned both nationally and internationally for their prowess as athletes, the Kalenjin have been nicknamed “Kenya’s running tribe”.
The cultural connections of the Kalenjins are rich and varied. Part of the Nilotic ethnic group that dwelled in western Kenya and eastern Uganda, the Kalenjin was not recognized as a distinct people until the 1950s (prior to that they were referenced as the “Nandi-speaking tribes”). The term Kalenjin, which was a Nandi expression meaning “I say to you” or “I tell you,” was adopted as their common name in the late 1940s. This consolidation of eight distinctive people groups or tribes including the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Marakwet, Keiyo, Pokot, Sabaot and Terik under one name made the Kalenjin into Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group.
From the mid-1960s to the present, the Kalenjins and other Kenyan men have been active participants in various international athletic competitions. The majority have excelled in running events with the Kalenjin producing the majority of the true running stars in the 800 meter dashes and in the longer distance – the marathon. Kalenjin women have also performed very well in distance races.
Many of the most famous runners to come out of Kenya were of Nandi (thus Kalenjin) descent. Among them are athletes like Kipchoge Keino, the first African winner of the gold medal in the 1500 meter race back in 1968. More recent Kalenjin runners , such as Wilson Kipketer, Tegla Loroupe, Moses Tanui, Helen Kimaiyo and Paul Tergat, are also leaving their mark in the running world. This group has collected an impressive resume of respective championships and course records in various marathons, cross-country races, 10,000-meter dashes, and the steeplechase.
While it is true that the Kenyan tribes as a whole have produced many great athletes competing on the world-class level, the Kalenjins have virtually dominated the marathon circuit in nearly every competition they have entered.
Certainly, there are some who suggest that Kalenjin have some genetic adaptations on their side in the form slender bodies, slimmer lower legs, and a capacity for better oxygen consumption rates due to their dwelling in higher altitudes. There could be some merit to such ideas, but no one can dispute their deep personal commitments to excellence on the track!
Written by Shaun C. Kilgore
Photo Credit: Steve Weaver on Flickr