U.S. professional running champion, Bernard Lagat

It is fascinating to me all the places that I hear or see or read glimpses of temple theology, the “scattered fragments” of ritual tradition1.  As Nibley found out, and taught extensively, these remnants are found all around us, everywhere.  My wife was listening to the radio on the way to the grocery store last week, and heard part of a program on Classical 89 that related to the Creation song.  She came home and told me about it, and I was immediately interested, and tracked down the transcription.  I’m still studying that, and will write about it soon.  But today, again, I was reading the February 2010 edition of Runner’s World, of all places, and came across references to ritual initiation and rites of passage. 

The story is about Bernard Lagat2, a Kenyan-born world-class U.S. professional running athlete, who is a two-time Olympic medalist, has several World Championship titles, and several U.S. records in the 1500m, mile, 3000m, and 5000m races.  Just last week, Lagat set a record for number of victories in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in New York, having won the race eight times (last week in 3 minutes 56.34 seconds).  Tonight, Lagat is trying to set a U.S. record in the indoor 5000m at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games, for which he’ll have to beat a time of 13:18.12, and which is also his debut in the indoor event.

The remarkable thing about Bernard Lagat, about which the article focuses, is the longevity of his athletic career.  While most athletes are able to train and compete well during roughly a five year window, Lagat is now in his 12th year of being ranked internationally as a short and middle-distance runner.  He is 35 years old, competing against runners a fraction of his age.  The 5000m indoor U.S. record he is trying to beat tonight was set last year by Galen Rupp, a 23-year-old.  It is almost unheard of to see an athlete who has been training and racing so long, and is still setting records.  The Runner’s World article points to his childhood as one of the integral aspects which projected this runner to a champion.

Bernard Lagat comes from an African tribal culture called the Nandi, in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya.  One of the historical traditions of the people has been their ability to run long distances without tiring.  A century ago, they would go on cattle raids which would take then hundreds of miles from their villages.  But the quality of the people that peaked my interest was their adolescent initiation into adulthood:

To make a man who can run a hundred miles on a bowl of ugali and a spurt of cow’s blood, the Nandi employed powerful means.  The most potent was ritual circumcision.  To come of age in much of East and South Africa, a boy between 12 and 20 must command himself to remain stoic while his foreskin is ceremonially cut away. “The boy’s face is carefully watched by the surrounding crowd of warriors and old men to see whether he blinks or makes a sign of pain,” Manners relates.  “Should he in any way betray his feelings, he is dubbed a coward and receives the name kipitet.” This is such a disgrace he may never be allowed to marry and set up his own household.

Boys are prepared with weeks of seclusion and instruction in the ways of the tribe. “Circumcision parallels what the military does to a draftee,” says 1972 Olympic 800-meter bronze medalist Mike Boit. “The elders shave his head, give him a new name, and subject him to rigorous discipline, all to remove his individuality and replace it with a new identity of toughness and obedience.” The result is men who do not shrink from the discomfort of running or much else.3

Bernard Lagat followed the rituals of the Nandi:

… he was circumcised at 14.  “It is very true,” Lagat says, “that being Nandi was vital to what I became, and that has to do with being a man.  I went through my rite of passage in 1988.  Before that, I was a boy.  Before that, I was Bernard Kipchirchir.  After that time, men looked at me as a man.  After that, I could add ’son of Lagat’ to my name. When you are no longer a boy, you have to be tough.  No matter how painful something is, you have to take it.  I saw that in both my parents.  I only had to observe them to learn toughness.  But the essential thing in Nandi society is not simply enduring.  It is also always finding a solution.”  One does not simply suffer in silence.  “You seek help from the elders.  A society with elders is healthy.  It’s not always that way in the West.“ 4

These kinds of traditions among tribal people in all parts of the world are very similar.  An initiation, or rite of passage, takes place to pass from adolescence into adulthood.  While some aspects of these initiations can appear quite brutal, there are other elements which are profound, and ancient, including:

  • they take a long time in preparation
  • they are taught the Law of the people and of the religion
  • they are sworn to rigorous discipline, virtue, and obedience
  • they undergo physical changes in appearance
  • they receive a new name
  • they pass from one phase of life into another
  • they become a full-fledged member of the society, and allowed to enter into marriage and other social orders
  • they venerate the spirits of their ancestors

The Romanian historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade has added other interesting traits of these initiations:

  • “this real valuation of ritual death finally led to conquest of the fear of real death.”
  • “[initiation's] function is to reveal the deep meaning of existence to the new generations and to help them assume the responsibility of being truly men and hence of participating in culture.”
  • “it reveals a world open to the trans-human, a world that, in our philosophical terminology, we should call transcendental.”
  • “to make [the initiand] open to spiritual values.”5

These initiations represent “above all the revelation of the sacred,” “by virtue of which adolescents gain access to the sacred, to knowledge, and to sexuality– by which, in short, they become human beings,” and in some cases, “in order to transcend their human condition and become proteges of the Supernatural Beings or even their equals”6.

Just a few minutes ago Bernard Lagat set a new U.S. record in the men’s indoor 5000m race, with a time of 13:11.50, beating the previous record by 7 seconds7.

Running Champion Bernard Lagat and Nandi Initiation

  1. Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, xxvii
  2. Bernard Lagat is Not Done Yet,” Runner’s World, February 2010, pg. 74-82, 100-101.
  3. ibid., pg. 77-78
  4. ibid., pg. 78
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiation
  6. ibid.
  7. http://www.bostonindoorgames.com/events-results/mens-5000-meters/. It will be televised tomorrow, February 7th, on ESPN2 from 2-4pm EST

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