Kenya's marathon man strides towards Olympics

LOCAL HEROES: Cosmas Ndeti
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Long-distance runners are to Kenya what tulips are to Holland or kangaroos to Australia. It could be something in the blood or it could be something in the soil. But, whatever it is, they flourish in the heat and high altitudes of their East African homeland.

The first four past the tape in this year's prestigious Boston Marathon were all Kenyans. Despite leading the field for much of the race, Cosmas Ndeti only managed to finish in third place behind Tanui and Bitok. Had Ndeti won - as many expected him to - he would have done so for an unprecedented fourth time.

His finishing in third place, however, did nothing to reduce him in the estimation of his huge Kenyan fan club. There are high hopes he will win a medal in this summer's Olympic Marathon in Atlanta.

Ndeti is a national institution in Kenya. But nowhere is he more famous than in his home district near Machakos, south east of the capital, Nairobi. Large numbers of youngsters, including not a few street boys, have taken up athletics and can be seen panting their way up the surrounding hills. Ask them what they are doing and they will tell you in Swahili: "Nienda kusemba ta Ndeti" ("I want to run like Ndeti").

The product of a simple rural family, Ndeti is now a millionaire with a punishing international travel schedule. He has gone jogging with President Bill Clinton and has been a breakfast guest at the White House after his Boston victories.

A born-again Christian, Ndeti has built a church out of his winnings and has equipped several church choirs. Known for his generosity and humility, he is said to be putting three local Machakos children from poor families through school. "You don't eat alone", he says. "It doesn't hurt to share the little you have with brothers."

Ndeti runs between 20 and 30 kilometres a day. To fuel him, he prefers traditional Kenyan fare. Like most Kenyans, he has no great taste for fancy European food. His staple diet is maize meal with vegetables and tea. When travelling to London, where he does a good deal of his training, his wife always brings those foodstuffs which cannot be had outside Kenya.

Ndeti sometimes comes across as the Cliff Richard of Kenyan athletics, a little sanctimonious and almost cleaner than clean. But he is not above admitting his own weaknesses.

Of fellow runners who competed with him in the 1990 World Junior Athletics Championships (in which he won a gold medal), he says: "Unfortunately some of the athletes became complacent after making some money. Some took to drinking and today they are broke and burnt out. Alcohol has ruined many athletes in this country. At one time I fell victim, until March 1993 when I sought Jesus Christ to be my saviour."

If he has one complaint, it is the way athletes are regarded in Kenya. "I believe this country does not know how to treat its heroes", he says.