- A confluence of several factors — a long athletic tradition that went back to the 1950s, a stable country with institutions from schools to the disciplined forces and professional camps where training could evolve to the highest levels, connections through international athletic managers to races all over the world where there are large sums of money to be won in the face of limited opportunities, and many young people attempting the sport, making competition cut-throat — has kept pushing the boundaries of Kenya’s distance running
I write this from Iten, home of, among many others, Sharon Cherop, winner of the 2012 Boston Marathon.
If one spent any significant amount of time here, it would be hard to believe that Kenyan athletic “success may be innate “ as stated by Max Fisher in his 2012 article in the Atlantic Online titled, Why Kenyans make such great runners: A story of genes and culture.
The article exhibits a complete failure of imagination, research and knowledge. I have spent the last six years interviewing hundreds of runners, coaches, officials in Iten, Eldoret, Kaptagat, Kapsabet, Kisii and Nyahururu.
I have lived with athletes, watched their training and travelled with them to races in the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy the US and Japan, as well as watched many local races here in Kenya. I will give a short history of the sport in Kenya and the context in which the running dominance occurs.
Fisher cannot imagine that, as in many centres of excellence, there exists a system of knowledge, institutional infrastructure, and people that has created and sustained Kenyans’ running dominance.
Fisher did not interview any Kenyan athletes, coaches or administrators, though a good number of them were present at the Boston Marathon, where a sweep of both the men’s and women’s races by Kenyan athletes was the starting point for his article.
Instead, the writer used dated and controversial studies to draw the flawed conclusion that Kenyan runners are dominant because of their genes.
Kenya’s first major international competition was the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, where Nyandika Maiyoro was fourth in the three-mile event, Lazaro Chepkowny was seventh in the six-mile race, and the Kenyan team was fourth in the 4-by-400m relay. At the Olympics in Melbourne two years later, Maiyoro was seventh in the 5,000m race.
By the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where Abebe Bikila won East Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in the marathon event, Maiyoro was sixth in the 5,000m race and Seraphino Antao and Bartonjo Rotich reached the semi-finals of the 100m and 400m hurdles, respectively. At the 1962 Commonwealth Games, Antao won Kenya’s first Club gold medals in the 100 and 220 yard sprints.
The Perth Games also saw the first appearance of Kipchoge Keino, who would go on to become Kenya’s most famous runner of that era. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics saw Kenya’s first Olympic medal, a bronze earned by Wilson Kiprugut in the 800m.
It was at the 1968 Mexico Olympic games that Kenyan athletes came into their own, winning 11 medals, including three gold by Amos Biwott in the steeplechase, Naftali Temu in the 10,000m, Amos Biwott in the steeplechase and Kipchoge Keino in the 1,500m.
From 1954 to 1968 there was a steady progression where Kenyan athletes, coaches and officials were interacting with the best in the world, learning from them, adapting their methods to fit the Kenyan training regime, and creating strategies to beat them.
The late Seraphino Antao told me in an interview he improved his training methods after meeting world leading sprinters like American world record holder and Olympic gold medallist Bob Hayes and Peter Radford, the British world record holder. This led to Antao’s Commonwealth Gold medals.
On learning that altitude may be a factor at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, coach Charles Mukora moved part of the team’s training to Nyahururu, situated at high altitude.
Mukora and his coaching team also devised the strategy of Ben Jipcho going out really fast in the 1,500m so as to confuse the rest of the field, especially the American Jim Ryun, the then world record holder and pre-race favourite. It worked as Kipchoge Keino stormed to victory.
Other breakout athletes of the ’68 Games in the disciplined forces include Jipcho (Kenya Prisons) and Naftali Temu (Kenya Army). The disciplined forces continue that tradition today, hiring young athletes after high school, and, predictably, winning national athletics competitions every year.
Iten is home to more than 1,000 runners from various parts of Kenya. An additional 1,000 runners live and train within a 70-km radius in Eldoret, Kaptagat, Kapsabet and Cherang’any. Further afield in Kisii, Ngong, Nyahururu and Ukambani, there are another 1,000 runners. Some estimates put the figure of runners training in Kenya at 5,000. All running, not for recreation, but targeting excelling at the very highest levels of the sport and doing little else but eating, resting and training.
At the edge of Iten stands St Patrick’s High School. Founded in 1961 by Patrician Brothers, the school held both academic and sporting excellence in equal measure. St Patrick’s teams have been national high school champions in basketball and volleyball numerous times. They have excelled in football and hockey at regional level and produced many world-class runners.
In 1976, a young Irishman named Brother Colm O’Connell came to the school to teach Geography. He found a strong athletic programme run by Peter Forster, the brother of British Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Brendan Forster. Peter Forster was aware of the programme that his brother used, so the training at the school was already at a high level.
A year later, Peter Forster finished his volunteer term at St Patrick’s and Brother Colm became the new coach. He learned from the athletes, read all the material he could get his hands on, and attended coaching seminars in Nairobi.
The school had already produced Olympians such as Mike Boit, the 800m bronze medallist at the Munich Olympics who, by 1976, was in the American collegiate system. But it was the identical Cheruiyot twins running in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics while still high school students that captured the public imagination. At the 1988 Seoul games, Peter Rono became the first Brother Colm-trained athlete to win an Olympic Gold.
In those days running was a way to get a job after high school in state-owned-companies such as Kenya Posts and Telecommunications, Kenya Railways and the disciplined forces — the military, police and prisons. All these organisations provided infrastructure in the form of coaches, training facilities and salaries so the athletes could focus fully on training.
The coaches came to high school championships to scout and recruit the best runners for their teams. And if a runner’s grades were good enough, it was a way to get into American universities with a full scholarship. Competition to get into St Patrick’s became intense and there were many promising athletes who could not secure a place at the school.
Brother Colm set about establishing a system that would take the St Patrick’s method to other schools. In December 1989, he started a holiday youth camp for athletes and coaches from the region, and soon Sing’ore, Kapkenda and Tambach high schools had strong athletic programmes. Kitang, Kapcherop and St Francis Kimuron high schools soon followed, as did primary schools like Mokwo.
What the holiday youth camp in Iten did was to consolidate gains made by Kenyan athletics in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and take that knowledge to a wider and younger pool of potential athletes. In the 30-or-so years that the camp has been in existence, nearly 2,000 athletes have passed through it.
They include David Rudisha (800m world record holder), Wilson Boit Kipketer (former 3,000m steeplechase world record holder), Sally Barsosio (1993 World 10,000m champion), Wilson Kipketer (former 800m world record holder and three-time 800m world champion), Mathew Birir (1992 Olympics 3,000m steeplechase champion, Rose Cheruiyot (1995 All Africa Games 5,000m champion), Stephen Cherono (former 3000m steeplechase world record holder), Janeth Jepkosgei (2007 800m World Championships), Edna Kiplagat (2011 Daegu World marathon champion), Brimin Kipruto (2008 Beijing Olympics 3,000m steeplechase champion), Vivian Cheruiyot (2011 World 5,000m and 10,000m champion), and 2012 Boston Marathon winner Sharon Cherop. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
The late ’80s and early ’90s was also a time of great change at the IAAF. Under the leadership of the entrepreneurial Primo Nebiolo, the Federation’s annual budget grew from $50,000 (Sh5 million) to $40 million (Sh4 billion).