Athletics: History on the streets of Berlin

Simon Turnbull says Loroupe can break a barrier for women today
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TEGLA LOROUPE will never forget the advice she was given when she took her first steps as a competitive runner. "The men in my tribe told me I was wasting my time," she recalls with a wry smile. "They said, 'Tegla, running is not for women'." It remains accepted Kenyan custom for women beyond the age of 16 to start a family and stay at home. But, then, Loroupe has made a habit of breaking down barriers.

On the streets of Berlin today, from The Reichstag to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the trailblazing little lady from the Bokot tribe will attempt to become the first woman to run a marathon in less than 2hr 20min. It's a barrier the marathon men of the world did not break through until 1953, the year Jim Peters won the Polytechnic marathon, from Windsor to Chiswick, in 2hr 18min 40sec. But, 46 years later, Loroupe is perfectly capable of achieving the landmark on behalf of the female half of the human race.

The organisers of the 18th Berlin marathon certainly think so. They have taken out DM200,000 insurance to cover the bonus they would be obliged to pay the 26-year-old Kenyan. They have also given her a race number to match her predicted time: 219. "It would mean so much to Tegla to become the first woman to break 2:20," Volker Wagner, her coach and manager, says. "She could have made a lot more money by running in one of the other marathons but the 2:20 barrier is the only thing that interests her. The course is fast in Berlin and the atmosphere is good. You need these two things if you are going to break the world record."

It was in Berlin 12 months ago that the Brazilian Ronaldo da Costa broke the men's world record, with a time of 2:06:05. But Loroupe knows how to break world records too. In April last year she won the Rotterdam marathon in 2:20:47, beating the 13-year-old women's record by 19sec. In doing so, she became the first black African woman to set a world record in an Olympic event and the first Kenyan man or woman to hold a marathon world record.

The 2:20 barrier would probably have fallen to her in Rotterdam this year, had the wind not blown her off schedule in the last five miles. But she lines up in Berlin in even better shape, following an outstanding summer track season in which she smashed all of her personal bests (her 3,000m time by 28sec, 5,000m by 8sec, 10,000m by 45sec) and took the world championship 10,000m bronze medal.

"Tegla is much faster than she has ever been," Wagner says. "I don't think the pace, will be a problem." Indeed, as a pacing exercise a week ago, Loroupe ran the Amsterdam half marathon in 1:09:20. And she will be helped until the last two miles today by three male pace-makers. "They are more like bodyguards," Wagner says, mindful of the fuss created by the assistance Loroupe received en route to her world record in Rotterdam last year. "If you are the leading woman in a mixed race it is difficult when you have so many men cutting you up. It is for protection as much as anything."

At 4ft 11in and just a little over six stone, Loroupe cuts a slender figure. But she is no fragile character, as she proved when she won the New York Marathon in 1995, 13 days after the death of her sister, Albina. It had been Albina's final wish that Tegla should fulfil her obligation to defend her title in the Big Apple. "I could see a picture of my sister, smiling, ahead of me," the tearful Loroupe said after her victory.

Loroupe's heart will always be in Kapenguria, her home town on the Ugandan border, though since 1992 she has spent much of her time living and training in Detmold, north Germany. The town of Hamelin, home of the fabled Pied Piper, happens to be close by. And on the streets of Berlin today the little Kenyan will be calling the tune for the marathon women of the world.