Athletics: Noah's chapter in Bushy tales

Andrew Longmore talks to the man behind the Kenyan success camp
Click to follow
THE DEER were out in Bushy Park last Friday, grazing peacefully by the fountain. The Kenyans were there too, as familiar a sight to regular passers-by, dressed in distinctive blue and black tracksuits, stretching their long limbs with such easy grace that the mind channelled the images of animal and human into one athletic blur.

The Kenyans have become part of scenery in this quiet suburb of west London. The local Tesco has seen more world champions and Olympic gold medallists than Crystal Palace and the days when the supplies of brown rice ran out are long gone. They know to stock up in the spring. At the height of the European season, as many as 50 Kenyan athletes will be based in Teddington, housed, coached and funded by Kim McDonald, whose considerable entrepreneurial skills honed by running his own window cleaning business while a schoolboy in Keighley have now been turned on the cutthroat business of sports management. Besides a stable of 100 or so athletes, McDonald has hired Mark Petchey, the former British Davis Cup player, to oversee his growing interests in tennis. He has his eye on football too.

McDonald, by his own admission, wants to broaden his horizons. He has been involved in athletics since running round his home track as a five- year-old. He beat Seb Coe once, in a cross-country race in Gateshead, and was a solid enough athlete to be champion of the north at 5,000m and of the south at 10,000m. "I had the mind to be a champion, not the physique," he says. But his record of 16 Olympic medallists and 19 world champions suggests he can tell a champion from a mile away. The latest in a distinguished line which stretches back to John Walker and Steve Ovett and now includes Daniel Komen, Moses Kiptanui and Sonia O'Sullivan is Noah Ngeny (pronounced "Nien"), the one runner with a realistic chance of upsetting Hicham El Guerrouj in the 1,500m in Seville. "Noah could be world record holder at any distance from 1,000 to 5,000m," says McDonald. "I can see him dominating in the same way as El Guerrouj and, before him, Morceli."

The more pertinent question for Seville is whether the prodigious Kenyan can match relentless strides with El Guerrouj as he did so memorably and unexpectedly in the mile in Rome. That night, the Moroccan broke the world record, but Ngeny's refusal to back down augured well for more prominent contests later in the season. There was a crackling anticipation to the start of the 1,500metres in Zurich last Wednesday, a feeling of revolution comprehensively quelled when the champion left Ngeny trailing with a devastating burst on the final lap. In part, McDonald blamed himself for the lacklustre performance by Ngeny. His philosophy has always been that training should be as hard, if not harder, than racing, but McDonald believes that Ngeny's final full-out training session before Zurich tipped the balance between fine tuning and exhaustion.

"The damage can be done so quickly in a training session and it's hard to stop it," McDonald said. "The other side is that because it's always been my interest to push back the barriers, I like to see those hard work- outs as well. So it's a fine line. The only way to set new standards when it comes to racing is to do it in training as well. The defeat is still frustrating, but it makes it slightly easier when you can rationalise the result. That's not to say if he hadn't trained as hard on Friday that he was going to win. It was always going to be a close race, but it would have been closer than it was."

Finding such a plausible reason for defeat is all part of the art of repairing morale, but outsiders detected a look of weary acceptance on the face of Ngeny as his great rival slipped inexorably away. McDonald denies that his athlete has developed a mental block about beating El Guerrouj. Kenyans, he says, view defeat as unpretentiously as they accept victory. "I remember Paul Bitok coming into the stadium at Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics and to him it was just another stadium, a few more spectators perhaps, but no big deal, and he said to me, "The training is really hard, but the Games are easy'. We're brought up dreaming of being Olympic champions so when we get there enormous pressures have built up, but the Kenyans don't really look at it that way.

"The year before in Rome, after he had been pacemaker to El Guerrouj, I'd said to Noah there was no doubt he could be the world record holder, the world and Olympic champion, it was just a matter of belief and doing the hard work. There are some athletes who on a perfect day have a chance of winning a medal at a world championships, someone like Bob Kennedy. But others, people like Sonia, Peter Elliott and Noah you can genuinely say: `you can be number one'. Judgments like that can't be learned at college, they're instinctive."

McDonald's own Kenyan connection began haphazardly in 1979 when he trained in Eldoret where many of the great Kenyan athletes have come from and returned home marvelling at the talent. If they ever get themselves organised, he thought. Then came a call from Mike Boit, the sports commissioner in Nairobi, asking McDonald for help. The first Kenyans began to colonise Teddington in the early Eighties with such success that the trickle has become a steady stream and McDonald's fledgling management company has developed worldwide pretensions. Not that the man himself has changed much. He still conducts much of his business in recognisably Keighley tones from the far corner of the Italian restaurant in Teddington High Street. They still make an odd couple, the blunt Yorkshireman and his troupe of itinerant Kenyans, and it seems only a matter of time before Noah Ngeny becomes the next champion to graze in the tranquility of Bushy Park.