Home from home in the long run

Kenyans are taking the high road from Teddington to Gothenburg with help from a British coach. Owen Slot reports
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IF, by some misfortune, Christie, Edwards and Co are not the merchants of success at the world championships, disappointed British athletics fans may like to make merry in Middlesex. For pieces of Gothenburg gold could well be Teddington bound.

Last week, behind the net curtains of a semi-detached house in the south- west London suburb, the final touches were being applied to a very promising campaign. After a heavy morning's training, William Sigei, the former world 10,000 metres record-holder, was labouring over a stove, preparing lunch for Julius Kariuki, the Olympic steeplechase gold medallist. They were half expecting Moses Kiptanui, the world record-breaking steeplechaser, to pop in for the meal, but in his absence, there was enough for Simon Chemoiywo, the silver medallist in last year's world cross- country championship.

These are the cream of Kenyan middle- and long-distance running and Teddington is their second home. So much their home, in fact, that Kiptanui, the most successful of them, has bought his own flat just around the corner. Occasionally in the peak summer months, the house is so overflowing with international athletes that they spill over into the halls of residence of St Mary's College up the road. Sonia O'Sullivan and Elana Meyer, it turns out, also spend a considerable amount of time in Teddington. This bastion of commuter country is clearly something of an Olympic village.

It is, though, primarily the Kenyans' camp. They shop at the local Tesco, they eat out at the local pizza restaurants and they train in the local park. "The people here are very friendly," Kariuki said. "When they are walking their dogs in the park and they see us coming, they always give us the path."

The road to Teddington is one on which all these athletes have been set by Kim McDonald, a former long-distance runner, who works as their coach and agent. McDonald makes seven or eight trips a year to Kenya in search of the fastest legs in the world but only those who run 800m or further have a chance of being taken on, as it is distance running that is his field. Clearly he is quite at home in it as the half a dozen or so new athletes who join his stable each year in Teddington - which they use as a base for attending European competitions - tend to return home after the summer season with the sort of spending capacity that has resulted in McDonald being seen as something of a salvation. "Europeans have more opportunities of making money, but for most of the Kenyans, this is their one chance in life," McDonald said, explaining that he gets numerous letters from young hopefuls looking for a lifeline. "They see their friends coming back from London with wealth that enables them to buy cars or land. So they are continually badgering them: 'Can you ask Kim to give me a chance?'"

He has been giving Kenyans a chance for five years now, ever since the Kenyan Commissioner of Sport invited him to. He was keen to accept: having spent nine weeks training in Kenya in 1979 when his own athletics career was at its peak, he knew the talent was there for the tapping. "I said to myself then that if the Kenyans ever got organised, the rest of us could get packing," he said. "And even better, the first thing that struck me when I started working with them was that they develop into champions far quicker than anything I'd ever seen before in Europe, America or anywhere. They can be an average athlete one year and a champion the next."

His first group of runners came to London in June 1990, the seven of them including William Tanui and Sampson Katua who went on to win gold and bronze respectively in Barcelona two years later. Not bad judgement from Mr McDonald? His eighth Kenyan, an 18-year-old Kiptanui, soon joined them, and was probably the best of the lot. He was flown in from the world junior championships in Bulgaria and made an instant impression. "His first race was in the mile, at Gateshead, and I am unlikely to forget it," McDonald said. "He didn't win - he was beaten by Peter Elliott - but I could see from the way he ran and applied himself that he had it. I commented then that he could be a champion."

By no means do they all reveal their talent with the flourish of Kiptanui. Sigei, McDonald recalled, was shy, unconfident of his grasp of English and unsuccessful on the track when he first joined the Teddington stable. McDonald stuck with him, though, and invited him back a few months later. "All of a sudden, he was a new athlete altogether. He had clearly gone home and trained extremely hard. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw him again." Sigei has already broken one world record. "I'm sure he is going to take one, if not two, more this year."

Where Sigei's progress was helped was in the atmosphere of the Teddington residency. He and his colleagues eat together, train together and, in between, watch hours of athletics on television together. "We really try to encourage and help each other," Kariuki said. "It's very good for us to be here like this."

The likes of Sigei, Kariuki and Kiptanui will continue to trip off the McDonald production line since he has a contact list in Kenyan athletics that is ever growing. For instance, there is an Irish priest who runs a school high up in the Rift Valley who has a particularly sharp eye for talent.

Does McDonald have young champions waiting in the wings? "I have two or three that might be worth looking at for the future," he said modestly. Take note, Teddington. You will certainly see them first.