When I was a kid in New Zealand taking part in athletics, as we called them (track and field over here), the high school teacher who coached us after school used to tell us that black runners were superb in sprints (after all, Jesse Owens was the best ever sprinter), but they were hopeless at long distance.
There seemed to be some proof in the record of what he said, for while Owens and his many black successors over the 100 metres were pre-eminent, in the longer distance the two great runners of that time were Swedes, Arne Andersson and Gunter Haegg, who had taken the 1500 metre and mile times away down below anyone before them had ever attained.
This makes us to laugh today, because black athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia (and you can throw in Sudan, Namibia, Rwanda, Burundi and other previously unheard of countries) now dominate virtually every long distance race to such an extent that white runners have been virtually cut out altogether.
Last night the CBC screened two interesting documentaries, the first of which, The Perfect Runner, was screened as part of the Nature of Things series, the second, about anxiety, in the Doc Zone series.
I really enjoyed the approach taken by the host of the running movie Niobe Thompson, who set the whole thing in an historical context, went back to the very dawn of civilization when human hunters could outrun the animals they lived on, and suddenly brought it forward to the Ethiopian village of Bekoji, where most of that country’s world-beating distance runners have been spawned, coached by a mere local school teacher, who has shown the world something about human capabilities. Then Thompson actually took part in a 100 kilometre race across three mountains in the Rockies, designed to prove that essentially running is the most natural activity for human beings. He wasn’t unfortunately, able to finish, but a woman ultra marathoner did finish.
I paid more attention to the documentary about running than to Ric Esther Bienstock’s on what the moderator described as “a society living on the edge” of its nerves.
Both took science as providing the final answers, although both might have usefully considered political and social conditions in explanation of their subjects. I mean all these poor people who are suffering from anxiety to the point of being mentally ill are the victims of capitalism, this raw, violent cruel economic system to which we are all subject. And it is a curious fact that only when the African colonies were given their political independence did they emerge as the world’s greatest runners. Although Ethiopia was not a colony, its first international running success came only three years after Ghana was granted its independence, ushering in the new African world. No one ever heard of Kenyan runners while they were still groaning under the colonial yoke. Unless I missed something, capitalism --- either in its brutal North American form, or its colonial form --- wasn’t mentioned in either movie, which would have been better if they had taken this aspect of life into account.
As it happens I have just spent most of my last year writing a book that provides something of relevance to this subject. Sheila Van Bloemen and her late husband Michael were two young Canadians who created in London a remarkable coffee house in the 1950s, a place that became a sort of epicenter for creative people and dreamers during the 1960s. By the 1970s, their café was such a wild success that they felt it was choking them, and they got rid of it (the café is still functioning as a successful business in the Old Brompton road) and went to live in Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1972. Sheila is still living there in the same house she managed to buy when she first went there, and in her description of her life in the book I have helped her write she bears eloquent testimony to the superiority of the lifestyle she found here. No one had any money, so there was no need for anyone to be anxious, she says. People were companionable, shared willingly both their miseries and their contentments, and the collective decision to ensure that everyone was supported by everyone else added another level of what might be called societal contentment, as distinct from the North American society described in the CBC movie last night where so many people are living on the edge of their nerves.
In fact, the failure of these two movies to even mention social and political influences seems to me to suggest that the modern media operate in a miasmic fog of self-censorship that softens the edge of all political criticism in almost everything that is produced. Media practitioners know only too well that to express political and even social dissent does not keep them on a profitable and successful career path.
I worked for long enough in this media world to know that no one is really free from these influences imposed on them from above, all designed to protect the world-view of the wealth-owners and their corporate world. No doubt the producers of these documentaries would refute that hey were responding to any such influences. Which, in itself --- remember, I have experienced all this myself --- is just another aspect of what I am talking about.