Editor’s Note: This story was written for the Cornell Chronicle by Anna Carmichael, a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences. It is republished with permission.
ITHACA, NY – It’s a good bet Andy Arnold ’13 will be watching the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. After all, it’s not everyone who is friends with some of the world’s best athletes.
Among Arnold’s friends who will be marching into Maracana Stadium in Rio will be David Rudisha, the current Olympic champion, world champion and world record holder in the 800 meters, and Asbel Kiprop, who won gold in the 1,500-meter race in the 2008 Olympics.
“I’m friends with a few runners,” said Arnold, who has spent six months in Kenya thanks to aNational Geographic Society Young Explorers Grant, which allows him to continue his research on elite runners. “They are incredible, humble and generous people who have welcomed me into their homes and lives as if I were family.”
A longtime runner himself, Arnold seeks to understand how a group of people from a small corner of East Africa could rise to become the most dominant track athletes in the world.
“These men and women have to overcome incredible obstacles just to make it to international racing, and yet for the past 50 years they have consistently found a way to the top of Olympic podiums,” Arnold said.
An anthropology major and member of the Cornell men’s track team, Arnold has combined his passions into an unusual research project.
“As an undergraduate in anthropology, I became fascinated in understanding how this phenomenon was formed and what forces perpetuate it,” he said. Arnold did his honors thesis on the subject of Kenyan distance runner.
Arnold explained that instead of focusing his research on why Kenyan athletes are so fast, he is interested in “understanding the forces that form a space for this phenomenon to manifest,” he said, “and then to understand the psychology, training and faith required for a Kenyan athlete to become exceptional.”
In Kenya, Arnold explained, thousands of athletes wake up every day and train. Many young people who don’t get into university decide to be athletes. “They train in this ritual and get better, and hope to be seen by managers and elite athletes, who can open doors for them into the sport,” he said.
After they finish training for the morning, the athletes rest, taking recovery very seriously. Usually this means sitting by the roadside, talking with other runners and drinking chai, Arnold explained. In the afternoon, they may do another short workout.
In Kenya Arnold trains with the athletes sometimes and observes their workouts. He takes notes and interviews many of the runners, immersing himself in the culture of this running phenomenon.
“I want to find out what motivates these athletes. I like to ask about their background,” he said. “Every elite [Kenyan] athlete has had a tough life, but they overcome it and become one of the world’s greatest.”
“I want to know their story because it holds the clues as to why these men and women are not just amazing athletes, but inspirations,” he said.