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Literary Review, September 2015

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon

By Ed Caesar

(Viking 242pp £16.99)

The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory

By Richard Moore

(Yellow Jersey 321pp £18.99)

Before we get to the doping – and we will, sadly but inevitably, get there – it’s worth trying to put this current moment in athletics into some sort of historical-statistical context. Take Linford Christie, the current British 100-metre record holder: since his zenith, five men representing Jamaica have surpassed his best time a total of sixty-seven times (a number that will almost certainly have risen by the time you read this). That’s not counting the Canadians Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey, both of whom were born in Jamaica – as was Christie himself. Or take the marathoner Steve Jones, a former world and current British record holder: his best time has now been bettered by forty-eight different men whose middle or last names start with ‘Kip’.

Such are the prodigious depths of Jamaican sprinting and Kenyan marathoning that Richard Moore and Ed Caesar respectively grapple with in their compelling new books. Explaining such pockets of excellence has emerged as an important area of enquiry among non-fiction writers, including Matthew Syed, Daniel Coyle, Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin, in the past decade. The common thread that runs through their books is the uplifting claim that it’s not what you think: these athletes are not born better than us, they just become that way thanks to a blend of culture, history, opportunity and luck. That so few books bother to argue the opposite view (David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, despite the title, splits the difference between nature and nurture) reveals just how entrenched our assumptions about the origins of sporting success are.

But what happens when you take a deeper dive into one of these pockets? Caesar frames his narrative (billed by his publisher as ‘the first major work about marathon running’) around the quest to break the two-hour barrier for 26.2 miles, an idea that seemed delusional until just a few years ago. Along the way, he delves into the marathon’s murky and often-misunderstood classical origins, the distance’s modern revival and its transformation into a professional sport, unearthing anecdotes that will be fresh even to those who have read previous ‘minor’ books on the topic. He also tackles the science and psychology of human limits. Beneath this cladding, though, what Caesar has actually written is a biography.

At the Boston Marathon in 2011, Geoffrey Mutai (middle name Kiprono; ‘Kip’ is a common prefix among the Kalenjin, the tribal group that produces most of Kenya’s best runners) ran a wind-aided unofficial world best of 2:03:02, almost a minute faster than the world record at the time. Mutai’s breakthrough, more than any other, sparked talk of a two-hour marathon, and also kindled Caesar’s interest. But who the heck was he? Glancing at the start line of any major marathon, you see ‘a parade of gaunt, lithe black men’, Caesar writes. ‘Their names are as good as indistinguishable, and their stories mysterious.’ To seek the universal by studying the particular, Caesar sets out to shadow the softly spoken runner at his training base in Kenya and at races around the world. This portrait of Mutai, from the eighteen-year-old breaking rocks with a sledgehammer for ten shillings per coffin of gravel to the inscrutable racer whose merciless accelerations are revealed only by the inclination of his head – ‘cast down and bent forward as if at the prow of a clipper’ – reveals far more about the Kenyan mystique and the prospects for a two-hour marathon than any bird’s-eye survey could.

Moore’s approach in The Bolt Supremacy is a near-perfect mirror image: the cover screams biography, but the book turns out to be a thoughtful and wide-ranging exploration of the Jamaican sprinting phenomenon. He doesn’t even get an interview with Usain Bolt – and, in truth, we don’t miss it. Rare is the prodigy in any field who can explain his or her own greatness; just because you’re a bird doesn’t mean you’re an ornithologist, as David Epstein puts it.

Drugs are an ever-present undercurrent for Moore, a former elite cyclist and a prolific sports journalist whose previous athletics book was The Dirtiest Race in History, about the heavily asterisked 1988 Olympic 100-metre final. It was the jarring contrast between the toxic, drug-obsessed atmosphere in the press corps at the 2012 Tour de France and the blissful and perhaps wilful naivety at the London Olympics in the same year – ‘like stepping from a sewer into a golden meadow’ – that launched Moore’s project. With reluctant suspicion, he heads to the rutted dirt tracks and shantytowns of Jamaica and tugs at all the usual explanations for the island’s domination, from boiled yams to the supposed eugenic benefits of slavery. He also delves deeply into the Jamaican anti-doping system, an initiative seemingly designed to make the country’s bobsleigh team look ruthlessly efficient. But the story Moore ends up telling is a surprising one – even, one senses, to himself.

In most accounts of Kenyan or Jamaican athletic success, the protagonists are passive actors, buffeted by large and impersonal socioeconomic, evolutionary or environmental forces. In The Bolt Supremacy, by contrast, Moore unearths a focus on sprinting technique and training that stretches back to Herb McKenley, a medallist at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics who subsequently became an influential coach. The annual secondary-school athletics championships, a raucous four-day carnival universally known as Champs, is justifiably famous as a proving ground for sprint talent. These aren’t untutored hacks flailing towards the finish line on natural talent alone: every school from every corner of the island must have a coach trained at G C Foster College of Physical Education and Sport, a post-secondary-school institution established thanks to a gift from Fidel Castro in 1980. Sprinting is a skill, Moore comes to believe, and promising Jamaican kids begin learning good form and technique from a young age.

Of course, no single explanation can capture such complex stories. Compare the typical stature and proportions of the Kenyan and Jamaican populations and try to convince yourself that their respective athletic specialities are purely a matter of culture. Given recent doping disclosures – investigations into Mo Farah’s coach, a leaked archive of suspicious blood tests, hidden-camera footage of Kenyan doctors selling the blood-boosting drug EPO – it’s inevitable that extraordinary performances will continue to draw intense scrutiny. But the stories behind these two pockets of athletic success are far richer and more nuanced than they appear from a distance. ‘Can we dare to hope?’ Moore asks in his prologue. Both of these books leave you feeling optimistic about the answer.