A while back I wrote a blog entry that examined the Village Voice's article about African immigrants running in the local scene, and the bitterness of many American runners toward the dominance of Kenyan and Ethopian distance runners both here in NYC and throughout the world scene. I often refer people to it when they speak of how the Africans have eclipsed "us" because of all their natural talent and gifts, as if their work ethic and implausibly hard training had nothing to do with it. I also often send people to read a piece called Less is Less that quotes author and elite runner Jim Hage as he discusses the fact that the demise of American distance running is not due to the great competition as much as it is due to the failure of elite American runners to keep up with their counterparts from 20-30 years ago, let alone the rest of the world today.
For those who doubt that the failures of American distance running are no one's fault but our own, take a look at these charts, taken from My Two Cents on Coaching.
The first shows that in 1983 there were 267 sub 2:20 marathon performances by Americans. By 2005 that was down to 22. This despite the improvements in nutrition, training technology, sports medicine, etc. Contrast that with the relatively steady performance exhibited by Japanese marathoners, and the rise of Kenyan runners.
So the next time you hear someone refer to the genetic gifts of African runners, or suggest that they must be doing drugs, point out that if we were even as good as we were in the 1980's, there would be far more Americans on podiums at major marathons. Perhaps the scarcity of world class Americans is due to our failings rather than any unfair advantages that anyone else has. Remind them that on the whole, American marathoners run fewer miles as kids and fewer miles in their prime than their world class counterparts and fewer miles than their American counterparts from a generation ago.