Winter Olympic Games: Kenyans take up the running on the snow trails

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The Independent Online
Following in the tradition of Jamaica's bobsleigh team and Eddie the Eagle, the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, will feature the latest unlikely candidates for glory.

Kenya, the nation which consistently produces middle and long-distance running champions, does not even have a national skiing federation. However, it does has its first cross-country skiing team, featuring Philip Boit, whose uncle Mike won bronze over 800 metres at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "I am very proud, very happy," Boit said from his training base in Nastola, Finland.

The concept behind Boit's Olympic odyssey is simple. In a country with an abundance of running talent, even an average performer could have the edge in other endurance sports. Stick a pair of skis on the runner and Africa could have its first Winter Games gold medallist.

In practice, it has been a little more complicated for Boit and his training partner, Henry Bitok, since they moved north nearly two years ago. For a start, when they stepped off the plane from Nairobi, it was the first time they had seen snow.

After two years and $200,000 (pounds 125,000) of investment by the American shoe company which sponsors the Kenyan track team, some progress has been made. The pair possess the endurance and stamina. Boit, aged 26, has a 1500m best of 3min 46sec. Bitok, 28, is a world-class steeplechaser. However, both have found the techniques difficult.

In 10km events, a distance at which the Kenyans excel on the track, Boit and Bitok have managed to reduce their early efforts by more than 60min, yet they still trail world-class skiers. To qualify for Nagano, Boit had to compete in at least five recognised races. Bitok has managed only four events, but will travel to Nagano in the hope he might be able to compete.

Jussi Lehtinen, the Finnish ski coach who has been working with the Kenyans, believes that while progress has been slow, it is just a matter of time before the Africans begin to challenge the world on the snow trails.

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