Kenyan dreams of Gold: Run for your life

Kenyan athletes are the acknowledged masters of long-distance running. But since the country was plunged into violence by the disputed elections, they have become wanted men. Their crime? Refusing to give up the sport they love. Steve Bloomfield reports from the Rift Valley
Click to follow

Douglas Korir considers himself more a long-distance runner than a sprinter. Dressed in a faded red training top and black shorts, the 20-year-old athlete runs up and down the steep slopes of the town of Iten in the Rift Valley twice a day, every day. His dream is to represent his country and one day to win a gold medal in the world cross-country championships.

He is not the only one. Running alongside his training partners, Mbishei Kipjumba and Kiptum Kapkirong , Korir passes dozens of other athletes every day who have similar dreams. Kenya has a proud record of middle and long-distance running, and the green hills of the Rift Valley are at its heart. Athletes come from all over the world to train in the high altitude and warm climate.

Korir has won local races, but has never reached the national trials. He is fast, but competition is tough. "If you can win in Kenya you can win anywhere," he says. One day last week, he found himself running faster than he'd ever run before. But he wasn't in a race – and when he found himself sprinting he was no longer training.

A group of a hundred or so young men were trying to lead a march through the town of Iten in support of Raila Odinga, the man declared the loser in December's flawed presidential elections. The group jeered when they saw Korir, Kipjumba and Kapkirong running towards them. They started throwing stones, forcing the trio to turn and flee.

But unlike much of the violence that has swept the Rift Valley since President Mwai Kibaki was controversially re-elected on 30 December, the three runners were not targeted because of their tribe, nor for the way they voted. Like the group of protesters all three are Kalenjin and all three voted for Mr Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

But in a sign of how polarised the situation in Rift Valley has become, the athletes were accused of backing the government by not taking part in the protest. It was "you are either with us or against us", Korir recalls.

"They said 'you cannot train when we are fighting for our rights'. They want everyone to participate."

More than 100,000 people have been forced to flee the Rift Valley since violence broke out, within minutes of President Kibaki's swearing-in ceremony on 30 December. Human Rights Watch has claimed some of it was pre-meditated, planned by local opposition leaders, something the opposition denies.

Most of the violence in the Rift Valley has been carried out by mobs of young Kalenjin men burning down homes belonging to Kikuyus, who almost en masse voted for President Kibaki. Those fleeing have been hacked with machetes and shot with arrows. Some Kikuyus are now vowing to fight back.

The election may have been the trigger and tribe is part of the equation, but land is the real issue. The Rift Valley was long populated by Kalenjins and Luos. British settlers took some of it in the 1940s and 1950s before selling to Kikuyus following independence in 1963. Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, encouraged his Kikuyu tribe to buy as much land as possible.

Kenya's athletes have not been spared in the violence which followed the election. At least two have been killed. Lucas Sang, who raced in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was attacked by a gang in Eldoret two weeks ago, who struck him in the head with a rock and then burnt his body. The marathon runner Wesley Ngetich was shot through the chest with a poisoned arrow in the Transmara district earlier this week. Luke Kibet, the marathon world champion,was almost killed on the same day as Sang. He was hit on the back of the head with a rock but was rushed to hospital by friends.

Some have even been accused of taking part in the violence themselves. A group of more than 50 athletes in Eldoret, including the former world steeplechase champion, Moses Kiptanui, this week said they were facing death threats by people accusing them of participating in the burning of homes.

For the 1,000 young runners who train every day in the high altitude of the Rift Valley, simply going for a run has become an act of courage. Training camps have closed down and programmes have been cut short. Running in the forest is no longer considered safe.

The cost of food has risen dramatically, as has the cost of transport, making it impossible for many runners to return to their camps from their homes.

At a time of year when Kenya's best are preparing themselves for national trials ahead of the world championships and the Beijing Olympics many fear the disruption to their training will damage their chances on the world stage.

Ever since the legendary Kipchoge Keino won gold at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, east African runners, mostly Kenyan and in particular from the Rift Valley, have become synonymous with distance running.

In the past 20 years Kenyan athletes have dominated middle and long-distance events at the Olympic Games and world athletic championships. At last year's world championships In Osaka, Kenya's overall medal tally was second only to the United States.

Anthropologists, physiologists, medical experts of all stripes have come to the towns of Eldoret, Kaptagat and Iten in search of the "secret" behind Kenya's success. Other athletes have also come. Irish, Dutch, American and German runners have all set up bases here in the past year.

They are attracted by the altitude – Iten is 8,000 feet above sea level – as well as the warm but not oppressive climate. However, despite following the same training programmes as the local runners, few foreigners have come close to beating them.

Some university studies have suggested the physiology of the small, wiry, Kalenjins has something to do with it. But one of the country's most successful coaches, Brother Colm O'Connell, thinks it is far more simple than that. "Athletics is a sport that suits people who don't have much money. And people here don't have much money. Nobody has put their finger on it yet but it is definitely more nurture than nature."

Brother Colm does not look like the sort of man who has trained more than half a dozen Olympic champions. The small, rotund Irishman from Cork came to Kenya in 1976 to teach geography at St Patrick's boarding school on the outskirts of Iten.

A colleague asked him to help train a few schoolchildren. "I said I know nothing about. He said 'you'll learn'." He developed a training programme by reading coaching books and watching his young stars perform. By the mid-1980s some of his former students had reached the Olympics. The first gold medal came at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Peter Runo won the 1,500-metre race.

Matthew Birir won steeplechase gold at Barcelona in 1992, while Ruben Kosgey won the same event in Sydney in 2000.

Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan-born 800-metre runner who took Danish citizenship, broke Sebastian Coe's world record, while Brother Colm's most recent charges include Janet Jepkosgei and Bremin Kiputo who both won gold at Osaka.

He now trains about 40 young athletes, mostly schoolchildren, just outside Iten. Many of the young athletes he trains run barefoot. Few can afford any proper equipment, nor can they afford the various multivitamins and minerals that professional athletes consume daily.

No matter, says Brother Colm. The simple pastoralist diet of maize, beans, meat and milk is ideal, he believes, for long distance running.

Since the sport became more professional it has also become a way out of povety. Many of the runners in the Rift Valley are sponsored by sportswear giants such as Nike and Adidas who pay for training and travel to Europe for races. "These guys don't come from rich families," says Brother Colm. "They know what hardship is."

His athletes don't benefit from a state-of-the-art training facility. There is not even a running track. "We use the natural environment," he says. "The hills and the pathways are our facilities."

His next big hope is Isaac Songok. The 23-year-old has already been a finalist at the Olympics and hopes to win a medal in Beijing. If, that is, he makes it into the team. "The national trials in Kenya are as competitive as the Olympics," he said as he lounged in the shade outside his house next door to St Patrick's school.

Songok's training schedule has been shortened by the unrest. Instead of running three times a day he has been limited to one long run in the morning. "We are fearing when we go training," he says. "We are always looking over our shoulder for trouble. We don't know if anyone will do anything to us."

But the violence has also underlined for him the importance of Kenyans winning medals at the highest level. "When we race we have a Kenyan flag on our chests, not a Kalenjin symbol. We want to do something good for Kenya, not for Kikuyus or Luos or Kalenjins."

Despite Thursday's meeting between Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga the violence shows no sign of stopping. In the town of Nakuru yesterday, halfway between Nairobi and Eldoret, there was fierce fighting which left at least 12 people dead. The town's main bar was looted, cars were stoned and buildings burned.

Some of the roadblocks which young Kalenjin men set up around Eldoret at the start of the month are still in place. More than a dozen impromptu barriers are still on the 25-mile stretch of road between Eldoret and Iten. At one barrier, drunk men calling themselves "community police" demanded to see identification cards before they removed a rusting iron girder from the centre of the road. Rows of burnt-out kiosks line the road.

But athletes such as Korir, Kipjumba and Kapkirong are hoping for a fresh start today. The first competitive race in Kenya since the election takes place in Iten. The three men will line up alongside up to 100 other athletes in district trials, the first of three steps on the way to representing Kenya at the World Cross Country championships, which are to be held in Edinburgh in March.

"This trouble has made it difficult for us," says Korir, "but we still believe we can do it. I would be very proud if I could represent Kenya. It would be a dream."