It’s Kenya’s national sport, the passion of the masses. Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers of the adoring fans that regularly crowd National Stadium in Nairobi. Coaches comb the countryside to find the next generation of potential stars. The most promising are sponsored at special schools. It’s not an exaggeration to call Kenya’s national sport a kind of national religion.

According to conventional wisdom, this is the sure cultural explanation for the phenomenal success of Kenyan distance runners. Kenya, with but 28 million people, holds more than one third of top times in distance races. Including top performances by other East Africans, that domination swells to 50 percent.

Only one problem: the national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channeling — that all speaks to Kenya’s enduring love affair with, not running, but soccer. Despite the enormous success of Kenyan runners, running remains a relative afterthought in this soccer-crazed nation. Unfortunately, Kenyans are among the world’s worst soccer players. Countries in West Africa, home of the last two Olympic gold medal winners, Cameroon and Nigeria, regularly trounce all East African countries, including Kenya. East Africans are also lousy sprinters, which depends on quickness. Indeed, the fastest Kenyan 100-meter time, 10.28, is a half second slower than the best times of West African descended athletes.

What’s going on here? Why is every running record, from the 100 to the 400 meters held by an athlete of West African ancestry, while North and East Africans dominate the longer distances?