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Kenya – the distance running powerhouse

Stereotypes sometimes exist with good reason. In the world of distance running, Kenya has produced exceptional athletes to date and has geographically given the region a name in stamina. However, a closer look reveals that most of the athletes have come from the Kalenjin tribe – a minority near the Rift valley, including hardly 11% of the Kenyan population. This has prompted researchers to study nvironmental and psychosocial factors surrounding the Kalenjin.

Research findings are eye openers. Unfavourable living conditions are uppermost in spurring Kenyan and particularly, Kalenjin youngsters towards running, in order to carve out a better future. International Kenyan runners have reportedly gained power, prestige and wealth, being among the few able to buy vast acres of farmland and getting much envied jobs in or being backed by the Kenyan Army and Kenyan Police. Adding to the aforementioned impetus are the favourable genetic components, the fact that running is inherent in the Kenyan way of life, and that the stamina is further developed by the 7,000 feet high altitude, moderate climate and a diet rich in energy giving cereals.

The pace was set for Kenyan supremacy in distance running by Kipchoge Keino who not only defeated the American favourite Jim Ryun in the 1500 m to win a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but also won by the largest winning margin in the history of the event – a record 20m. He went on to win yet another gold medal at the 3000 m steeplechase at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Henry Rono was the next Kenyan to attract international attention when he broke 4 distance running records during the 1978 season. However, he could not make it to the Olympics due to Kenya’s boycott during his peak performance years. He has recently written his autobiography titled Olympic Dream (2007).

Paul Kibii Tergat nicknamed the ‘gentleman’ has dominated the marathon from 2003 – 2007. He has won silver medals for Kenya in the 1996 and the 2000 summer Olympics though he names cross country running as his passion rather than the marathon.

Catherine Ndereba, a marathon runner has a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics while she has won several gold and silver medals at both international and continental championships.

The overall Kenyan picture presents a rags to riches story for most of the athletes
including Kipchoge Keino and Paul Tergat who have done brilliantly for themselves and their communities setting up schools in impoverished regions,
working towards combating malnutrition or even launching their own brand of
designer wear. Others such as Henry Rono have fallen to excesses such as alcoholism and mismanagement of their wealth resulting in penury.

Kenyan runners have maintained a close rivalry with Ethiopia and Morocco, yet
the fact remains – Kenyans have more runners amongst the top ranking lists of
the world than any other country. Paul Tergat (3), Nicholas Kemboi (4), Micah
Cogo (6), Paul Koech (7), Samuel Wanjiru (13), Eliud Kipchoge (14), Moses Masai (15), Sammy Kipketer (16), Moses Mosop (17), Richard Limo (19), Albert
Chepkurui (20), Charles Kamathi (21), William Segei (22), and John Korir (25)
are amongst the top 25 male runners in the 10,000 m race. Edith Masai (18) and
Tegla Loroupe (20) are amongst the top 25 female runners in the 10,000 m race.

Given the previous records of this powerhouse, it was not unusual to expect a Kenyan victory in distance running in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, yet it was a female runner from Ethiopia who clocked a world record at the 2008 Olympics in the 5000 metres. Luke Kibet, winner of the 2007 World Marathon Championship had been a favourite to win an Olympic Gold. However the post election ethnic violence in Kenya spurring a rift between the Kalenjin and the Kikuyus left him with a concussion and five stitches to the head. The wounds healed but the emotional scars did not. Fellow runners Lucas Sang who competed in the 1988 Olympics and Wesley Ngetich were brutally killed during the violence. Several others like Catherine Ndereba, Lucia Kimani (a Kikuyu), and marathoners Robert Cheruiyot and Martin Lel received death threats that disrupted their training schedules.

In spite of it all, the resilience of the runners has proven exemplary during the events leading to the Beijing 2008 Olympics and beyond. As we drift towards the 2012 Olympics observing how some runners have gone so far as to secretly escape to Namibia for training, it remains to be seen whether the lessons learnt from the endurance on the ground prevail on the field.

Image courtesy: http://world-track.org/2010/02/luke-kibet-plus-austrian-record-holders-set-for-vienna-city-marathon/