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Athletics: Kenya’s golden opportunities

By By Jackie Lebo in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 30 June 2011 17:06

Despite the pressures lucrative prizes and sponsorship can bring, Kenya’s runners have come a long way since they burst back onto the circuit in the ’80s. This summer may prove their greatest medal haul yet

Training at Kamariny stadium in Iten is at its peak in the last week of March, ahead of the spring marathons in Europe and the USA. There are about a hundred runners on the field doing speed-work intervals, a crucial finishing touch on the three-month intensive training – this is what enables a runner to put on a powerful sprint 41km into a race.

The athletes line up at the 200m mark and take off at the signal of the group ­leader. They run in single file on the inside lane and circle the track two and a half times before coming to a stop on the finish line. They repeat this sequence 12 times. At this point in the training they should be running each kilometre interval in two minutes and 54 seconds – any slower means the training is not going well.

There are also some European athletes on the field: the British team has wintered in Iten, as have the Swedes and a number of German runners. Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the women’s marathon, plans to come to Kenya next year to train for a career-capping win in the 2012 London Olympics.

In the middle of this scene, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when Kenyan runners were less dominant. Kenya’s athletes first came into their own at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, winning 11 medals including a gold. But the country boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Olympics to protest at apartheid South Africa’s participation, and it took time to rebuild its competing strength. Now Kenyans are again dominating the long-distance races. The 2011 London Marathon in April was nearly a Kenyan clean sweep: in the men’s race Emmanuel Mutai raced past compatriots Martin Lel and Patrick Makau Musyoki to break the course record, while Mary Keitany took the women’s title, followed in third place by Edna Kiplagat.

Running as a national sport started out with amateur athletes but has evolved into a professional activity. Brother Colm O’Connell, Kenya’s longest-serving coach, has witnessed this evolution.

He came to Kenya from County Cork in 1976 as a volunteer to teach geography at St Patrick’s High School in Iten. Among the other volunteers was Peter Foster, a Briton who was in charge of the school’s formidable track team. Foster’s brother Brendan won the bronze medal in the 10,000m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Brother Colm was with Peter when the news came over the BBC World Service, and it made an indelible impression on him. Soon after, he took over coaching duties.

“It was mostly trial and error in those days,” he says, smiling ruefully. It was Kenya’s Olympic boycott, he says, that gave him the time and space to perfect the training regimen that is still in use today in Iten.

When Kenya returned to international competition, St Patrick’s again became the training ground for champions. In those days running was a way to get a job after high school with parastatals, the military or the police. If a runner’s grades were good enough, he could get into a US university with a full scholarship. Competition to get into the school became intense, and as it was a boys’ school, female athletes were automatically locked out. Brother Colm set about establishing a system that would take the St Patrick’s method to other schools. In December 1989, aided by a donor from New York, he started a holiday camp for athletes and coaches and soon Sing’ore, Kapkenda and Tambach high schools had strong athletics programmes.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) began to professionalise under the leadership of the entrepreneurial Primo Nebiola. He believed athletes should make a living from the sport. He approached companies, negotiated lucrative television deals and signed sponsorship packages with Adidas, Puma and Nike. This money trickled down to the athletes, and those at the top of their events could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each season. Stars were made, and there was a rejuvenated interest in the sport.

For every big track meet or big marathon there were smaller races that could cater to every tier of runner. Kenyan athletes shifted their focus and instead of looking for jobs and scholarships, their goal was to race on the lucrative European circuit. Since many of them had trained under Brother Colm’s system, when they graduated they set up camps in Iten modelled on the school camp.

The depth of the talent pool remains formidable. Running is the most lucrative opportunity open to many young people. The barriers to entry are low, and all you need are two pairs of shoes and a tracksuit. The champions winning medals and making money are not remote figures, but people from nearby villages and towns.

But the recent death of Samuel Wanjiru, the Olympic Marathon Champion, raises questions on the readiness of young athletes to deal with success and the money that comes with it. In the months leading up to his death, Wanjiru had bouts of violent behaviour. In addition to the incident that made headlines when he was found in possession of an illegal assault rifle and threatened to kill his wife, there were others that were kept out of the news and only emerged after his death.

“They need guidance,” says veteran athlete Moses Tanui. Tanui is a two-time Boston Marathon winner and one of the founders of the Kenya Athletes Welfare Association. Martin Keino of the legendary Keino running family, a professional athlete for ten years and now principal of Keino Sports Marketing, is organising a conference this June that will bring together veteran and young athletes, the National Olympic Committee and money managers from various financial institutions to talk about the issues facing young runners. He tried to do it a couple of years ago but there was little interest. This time, partly owing to the events around Wanjiru’s death, the response has been overwhelming.

But the tragedy has not stopped Kenyans looking foward to this year’s World Championships in Daegu, Korea, from 27 August to 4 September. The country has world-class contenders competing in every category from the 800m to the marathon and they hope to bring back their biggest medal haul ever.

This article was first published in the July 2011 edition of The Africa Report.

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