Nature vs. Nurture

“Talent is something that is not only for Africans … For me, there are talented athletes like Africans in both [Italy and America]. The problem is, it’s difficult to find them. In Africa everybody goes running. Because if you become good, it is something for your life. And here everybody goes to do something else. But it is not that there is no talent.”

I enjoy reading about the best athletes and coaches in every event and sport. Even though the marathon and the hammer throw are worlds apart, you’d be surprised at how much they have in common. Last month I stumbled upon a great Running Times profile of legendarian Italian coach Renato Canova from several years ago. The above quote comes from that article, where he discussed a range of topics including why Western runners can’t seem to keep up with Africans. His words immediately made me think of the throwing events too.

We all know that American and European distance runners have been pushed off the podium by Africans over the past few decades. Coach Canova knows this first hand, having been on both sides of the change while coaching some of the top Italian and Kenyan runners. But after coaching both groups of athletes, he concludes that the main reason Africans are better is because everybody runs in Africa. When a culture creates a large talent pool and a greater incentive to succeed, then they will develop more stars. It’s a simple formula: east Africans dominate the running events because running is central to their culture. Jamaicans outperform other nations in the sprints for similar reasons. And the former Soviet nations lead the hammer throw because they learn the event younger and in greater numbers.


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5 replies
  1. Bruce Tharp
    Bruce Tharp says:

    It seems that,at least for the young, America has become a street culture. If it is not NBA or NFL related most young kids are not interested. In most high schools cross country and track are thought of as conditioning sports for basket ball and football. Most high school boys want to run the sprints or not run at all and many high school track coaches are football coaches who have only basic knowledge of training for distance running.

  2. Glenn McAtee
    Glenn McAtee says:

    I continue to enjoy reading your blog posts and articles. Your point about mass participation fueling results is on the money. Look at the shot put. Almost every boy in America has had an opportunity to be exposed to the shot, so that explains why the US is great at this event. If you put a hammer into everyone’s hand a couple of times when they were younger, some would get hooked and we would be able to compete consistently with everyone else. It isn’t about the coaching, as some would have us believe. There are lots of smart people in the US, and many have been able to figure out how to get results under the current system. If the system were different, those same smart people would figure out how to get results in a new system.

  3. Martin
    Martin says:

    @Glenn McAtee – Thanks. I agree. If the US had twice as many youth hammer throwers, it would be much more successful even without a change in coaching. It is a bigger pool of talent, so it’s more likely that we’ll get another Lance Deal to rise out of it. But the next step after that is coaching. While there are good coaches in the U.S., if we have even more good coaches and more athletes, then we can better develop that talent.

    @ Bruce Tharp – The numbers are not necessarily the problem in running. The U.S. has millions of recreational runners. But it is a hobby to stay in shape, just like the high school kid that comes out to cross country to get in shape for basketball. Getting true competitive runners with the same mentality as the East Africans is what will change things even more.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] After I last wrote about culture, I received an email from an American track coach saying that he had the key to overcoming the cultural disadvantage we have to Jamaicans in the sprints: he has created the Riksha Runner, a new training device that utilizes the “coefficient of restitution.” Before the email, I thought that restitution was just an obscure legal term. But apparently it is can help sprinters more than steroids can. According to this coach: “I can improve every sprinter’s maximum speed by at least 11% in a couple of weeks! I do that with everybody – no exceptions … Maybe Switzerland would be interested in my services in view of the upcoming world championships and London Olympics.” […]

  2. […] exchanges with him over the past month that have us both thinking about what is needed to create a successful throwing culture. This one question popped out to me as especially interesting, and I hope to most more of our […]

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