When typing into Google the beginning of the phrase, “Why are Ethiopians…” or “Why are Kenyans…” some of the finishing options for the phrases that drop down are: “so damn fast” or, “so good at running.” Over the years there has been extensive discussion as to “how” and “why” these East African runners dominate distance events at international competitions.
Speaking very generally, success in sport is usually attributed to hard work. For example, no one questions why Europeans and Americans are so strong in the throwing events or why people from the Americas are such fast sprinters. The assumption is that they work hard, train hard, remain motivated, and subsequently, their work pays off. However, this has not been the case with the perception of East African runners in past decades.
In the summer of 2013 I received an undergraduate grant, The Dean’s Award for Summer Research to spend two months in Ethiopia with the Yaya Girls. I won a subsequent grant after graduation, The Dean’s Award for graduating seniors, to return to the Yaya Girls, and continue developing the ethnography I had begun with the completion of a senior thesis. Ethnographies are an exploration of cultural phenomena from the point of view of the subjects. My ethnography integrates my own perspectives to make the analysis and commentary as honest as possible, while I use the women’s voices in large block quotations to give readers a sense of their cadence and way of speaking.
My reason for going to Ethiopia was to uncover the “truth” about some of the representations I listed above. A runner myself, and a fan of running, I was always struck by the ways long distance African runners were represented. My NYU teammates would often jokingly say, “He’s Ethiopian so he doesn’t count,” or “whatever they do in Africa, it works.” These comments irritated me but I did not have any knowledge to back up how or why they were incorrect. Because of this enormous dismissal of their abilities as simple and “natural” I saw a gap that was created; the western rhetoric was so accustomed to viewing these African athletes as ‘natural’ that no one really sought out to understand how they might view themselves, or wish to represent themselves. And further, there was never a discussion to the particularities of women in these contexts.
The idea of representing “difference” is complicated and has been the center of much scholarly work in recent years. Stuart Hall, in his essay, “The Spectacle of the Other,” breaks down the process of constructing difference in popular media:
Meaning ‘floats.’ It cannot be finally fixed. However, attempting to ‘fix’ it is the work of a representational practice, which intervenes in the many potential meanings of an image in an attempt to privilege one (Hall 1997).
Such has been the case with representations of East African runners, especially during times of major global sporting events when Kenyans and Ethiopians take home most of the medals. Over time, the meaning that has been constructed, that journalists, sportswriters, cultural critics, etc. perpetuate, is that there is a certain naturalness that leads to the athletic success of East African runners.
Thus, I set out; I was eager to begin to understand the ways specifically women constructed their own senses of identity. I wanted to understand the intricacies of being a woman, an Ethiopian, and a runner. I wanted to know what opportunities that created for people, and how it affected their sense of self.
What will follow in this series of blog posts are some of the prevailing themes I have focused on to make sense of my work. I hope to take the full 70-page ethnography I wrote for my senior thesis and expand it in later graduate work. For the time being, these are abbreviated versions of the representations I am trying display.