The Hungry Fighter

I’m currently reading the Sports Gene by David Epstein, a fascinating book which, in addressing how genetics affects sports performance, ends up raising interesting, and challenging, questions about gender and race.  I may write more about those topics later but this morning I was reading about the dominance of Kenyan runners at endurance events and was struck by this quote from Peter Matthews, a track and field statistician:

“In these days of computer games, sedentary pursuits, and driving our children to school- it is the ‘hungry’ fighter or the poor peasant who has the endurance background, and the incentive to work on it, who makes the top distance runner.”

3 thoughts on “The Hungry Fighter

  1. I feel like there is so much content to unravel in these few sentences Sean! Did you read the recent NYT profile of West Side Runners? Anyway, sometimes I have fantasies of writing an intellectual history of recreational running in the developed world/global north/whatever it will be called in 20 yrs. It’s fascinating to me that something as fundamental as getting oneself from one place to another, and as arduous as marathoning, has become a “leisure” activity for so many of us. For me, the Matthews comment raises a lot of interesting questions about motivation and sports. The way that he almost redundantly describes the socio-economic conditions of what he considers to make a “good” background for running (“poor peasant” ? “hungry” in quotes but it’s hard for me not to think about both issues of nutrition and famine in east Africa) makes this seem like a borderline romanticization of those conditions, at least to me, but…interesting questions nonetheless.

    • YES! Intellectual history of recreational running!

      I did read the West Side Runners article, and wrote a short thing about it here:

      Perhaps my titling of this post was ill considered. I think the hungry fighter line here is pretty nuanced.

      When I posted this I debated whether to go into why I think “hungry” is in quotes. Perhaps I should have. The chapter this is from talks a lot about how the elite Kenyan runners are almost all not only from a specific group within Kenya, called the Kelengin. But the elite runners are not only Kelengin, they are almost all also from extremely poor rural backgrounds. In fact, the author discusses being asked for food while visiting a training facility. So I think the use “hungry” here is primarily metaphorical but, in some cases, is also literal.

      I also think the statement is meant to at least partially refute the idea that Africans win simply because they’re genetically gifted. Lots of people around the world are gifted, but for a whole host of socio-economic reasons, few have the drive to compete in the marathon to the degree that Kelengin do. I think it is safe to say that some of the elite runners from Africa would not run another step if they could make more money doing something else. In fact, Epstein interviews one such runner. That isn’t romantic, but it does help describe why the lead pack in this weekend New York Marathon will probably be all African runners and why it is likely to stay that way for sometime.

      • Yes, the economics of running for the elites is super interesting! It has the unintended result of the Olympic marathon being a slight joke, in that from what I understand, elites whose governments aren’t going to substantially fund their Olympic training usually just skip it, and instead focus on competitions with prize money, since you can only run X competitive marathons a year. (Two? Three?)

        Also, note to self, I’m thinking the book could be an exploration of the reconceptualization human locomotion in the age of automated movement? So: one chapter on the Situationists and walking, one chapter on American running, one chapter on ________ (modern pilgrimages?).

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