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Don’t Knock The Kenyans For Excellence

Sat., May 4, 1996, midnight

People who predict these things expect America’s national trade deficit to bloat into the $110 billion range this year.

Wait, don’t leave. You haven’t taken a wrong turn at “The Region” section and found yourself lost in “Business.”

The point is relevant in this corner because we suspect that the giant sucking sound you hear is not just the result of the NAFTA or GATT trade agreements - no matter what Ross Perot would have you believe.

Yes, heavy cash is streaming out to the folks at Sony and Mitsubishi.

But a surprising amount also is being exported by Machuka and Ndeti and Tanui.

Never heard of those firms? You haven’t been watching big-money road-racing events.

In last month’s Boston Marathon, for instance, not a single American finished in the top 20 of the men’s or women’s races. That’s a half-million bucks leaving the country right there.

Sunday’s 20th Bloomsday run should be much the same, at least on the men’s side, where all 14 of those who qualified to compete for the $25,000 first-place prize money in the PRRO World Championship are foreign imports.

This is not a painful development for those of us who advocate open trade in all athletic endeavors and simply want to see the best racers engage in the best possible competition - regardless of the site of their nativity.

But foreign dominance IS pretty weighty to those who live off the sport’s prize money, or those who hope to sustain the fading legacies of Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter and others.

“You look at any top road race and the Kenyans, in particular, have just been spectacular,” said Don Kardong, a former Olympic marathoner and founder of Bloomsday.

Of the 40 possible top-10 places in the last four men’s Bloomsdays, only four have been claimed by Americans - none higher than seventh.

The quick and isolationist response has been to establish American-only races - the Crescent City Classic in New Orleans went to that, Kardong said.

I suggested to Kardong that this sounds like Detroit car makers urging higher tariffs on imports rather than working to build a more competitive product.

“I think there’s a real legitimate analogy there,” Kardong said. “Some of the top American guys run real well, but they are, in my mind, kind of shying away from the top competition on the road. I think the real issue is to get (American runners) into the top competitions and get them up to snuff there.”

Kardong, still in racing shape - as the 34W-36L tag on the back of his jeans attests - is concerned enough about the direction of the sport to take steps.

“I’ve gotten involved with some people and we’re working on what we’re calling the Roads Scholar program,” Kardong said. “We’re trying to develop some grants for post-collegiate runners who demonstrate that they’re not afraid to show up at races like Bloomsday.”

None of which will alter the cultural differences that may be at the taproot of the foreign dominance.

“You look at who they revere in Kenya and it’s people like Henry Rono,” said Jon Sinclair, the last American to win Bloomsday when he added the 1986 title to his 1983 crown. “The great Kenyan runners are their Michael Jordans. Running is their national sport, while out of our entire population pool, only a small number are interested in running.”

A simple diet and early exposure to an aerobic lifestyle also contribute, Sinclair said.

“People always ask if it helps to be born at altitude, or if over the centuries there is some advantage within the population,” Kardong said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence for any of that. But there is evidence that they train awfully hard.”

Sinclair, who has willed himself to success in the sport, understandably bristles a bit at the suggestion that Third World athletes simply work harder than Americans.

“I think it’s really unfair to say Americans aren’t hungry enough and aren’t working that hard; I know a lot of Americans who are running 120 miles a week,” Sinclair said.

But Kardong shares an enlightening story that might bring perspective to this issue.

German Silva, as Kardong recalls, was a member of an extremely large family in an impoverished town in Mexico. Silva trained ceaselessly and eventually won the New York City marathon twice - as well as Bloomsday in 1990.

With the accompanying renown and wealth, Silva was able to go back to his town and finally pressure officials to install electricity.

Greatness in road racing comes only from endless, numbing miles of training. And all novitiates reach a point in training when Vise-grips clamp onto a spot in their abdomen and elephants squat up on their lungs.

Who do you think will be more motivated to power past that barrier of pain: a youth from a poor village in Mexico who sees German Silva as a heroic light-giver, or a kid from Spokane whose alternatives to training include Nintendo, Dairy Queen and cruising Riverside?

Surely, the occasional special athlete will sidestep these generalizations. But the trend is unmistakable. “I know American runners train really hard,” Kardong said. “But it’s hard to evaluate that fire in the belly - who has it and who doesn’t.

“All I know is you definitely have to have it.”

Sunday’s winner certainly will.

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact Dave Boling by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5504.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

You can contact Dave Boling by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5504.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

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