18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–778) asserted that “…nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.”
Rousseau’s beau ideal smacks hard against the doping allegations now coming out of Kenya, and leaves many saddened and disappointed, if not totally surprised by German Hans-Joachim Seppel’s investigation.
The Conventional Wisdom has always been that the talent pool in Kenya is so deep, the altitude benefits so consequential, the agricultural lifestyle so reinforcing, and the poverty level so motivating, that the crest of the wave-form generated by that calculus was naturally and understandably bound to reach the heights we’ve all born witness to these past twenty years.
To a large degree that calculation still holds true. But as a complete theory it stands athwart history and defies Rousseau’s opposite, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) whose “natural condition of mankind” states that all humans are equal, but this equality naturally leads to conflict among individuals for three reasons: competition, distrust, and glory (which is pretty much the definition of racing). It is a theory which I have found in my years of travel to hold great, if unfortunate, merit.
Any time you introduce large sums of money – and in east Africa the money in running is equivalent to major league pro sports in the U.S., and look how drugs have infected those sports – it isn’t a stretch to presume the qualities of avarice and abnegation that mark all men as sons of Cain are as prevalent in Kenya as they are anywhere else. To presume otherwise is to be willfully naïve.
Add to the calculation a Kenyan federation which the athletes do not hold in any regard as working on their behalf, and certain outside elements who view the world through a more relativistic lens where right and wrong in this regard are rendered morally indistinguishable, and the likelihood that the same corrupting influences which have led athletes from all parts of the world to give wing to their darker angels are not just likely here, but inevitable.
It is the very combination of pure talent, augering poverty, but unquestioning servility to authority – a basic requirement in an agriculturally-based society – that provides the combustible requisites for such possible outcomes. These young athletes simply wouldn’t question an authority’s advice, especially not when they yearn to surmount the life they have inherited, and can see how grandly others have done so. And drug use could easily be masked as supplements or vitamins so as to keep a noble mind free of guilt.
These kids are so desperate for an opportunity to race in Europe, the U.S., or Asia that they would agree to almost any terms. I’ve seen it, having made several visits to Ethiopia and Kenya over the years, the last this past June to the Kenyan Olympic Trials. While there I spent time in the town of Iten high atop the Kerio Valley, home to the most concentrated collection of running talent in the world.
“After training here, when I get the good facilities in other countries like in Europe and the U.S., when I eat well and can get a runner’s diet I know I can improve, and you can be a great champion,” one 19 year-old with an 800-meter PR of 1:50 told me after training at the Kamariny Track in Iten.
While there are far too many good east African runners to assume widespread drug abuse, when an individual talent has been identified, signed, and nurtured, drugs can more easily be introduced without intrusive out-of-competition testing, especially when training is conducted miles from nowhere. And though when I first went to Africa there were no cell phones, no internet cafes – when you were away, you were truly isolated – today, modernity has made strides into every corner of the world, including the remote running regions of Kenya. A Friday afternoon rush hour in Eldoret will convince you of that soon enough.
Hopefully, there will be a deeper investigation, as unproven allegations tend to tar all with the same brush. Perhaps someone will come forward and break the omerta which long plagued other sports accused in like manner.
As with most such stories, it is generally only the tip of the iceberg that is originally seen. After all the tribulations track and field has gone through, all the denials that cycling asserted before the fall of Lance Armstrong, nothing comes as a shock anymore. Wealth and fame have a way of corrupting not just poor, striving athletes, but of luring rapacious facilitators, too. And as Hobbes posited, it happens everywhere and anywhere.