The Nation (Nairobi)

20 October 2011

Kenya: Village Gives the World a Run for Its Money

One village in Nandi has produced all the world beating distance runners since the 1968 Olympic Games.

Kabirirsang, near Nandi Hills Town in the heart of the tea-rich farmlands, stands out as a seedbed of the elite runners who have won everything from the 800m to the 10,000m races.

It has the highest number of Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Africa 800m champions in the race's history.

It is this village and the area around it that produced Kenyan-turned-Dane champion Wilson Kipketer and Sammy Kosgei who dominated the Africa 800m all-time best time for a whole 24 years.

The tiny hilltop hamlet near a main road is an unremarkable place, with evergreen tea plantations, a typically small, rural area that would normally not warrant a second glance.

But Kabirirsang is the rural home of Henry Rono, the man who broke four world records (3,000m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m) in just 81 days in 1978, former world champion Janet Jepkosgei and Wilfred Bungei, the reigning Olympic 800m champion.

Others from there are Ibrahim Kipkemboi Hussein, who was Africa's first man to win the New York City Marathon and Abel Kirui, the Daegu World Championships Marathon winner.

A stone's throw from Bungei's home lives 2004 Athens Olympian Timothy Kiptanui, while a closer look yields more champions in middle distance running.

About two kilometres to the west is the ancestral home of Kipchoge Keino, who won gold in the 1,500m race in the 1968 Olympics.

But Kipchoge lives in Eldoret where he has his businesses; a sportswear shop and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) High Performance Training Centre.

Some three kilometers to the east of Kabirirsang is the home of African 800m record holder Sammy Kosgei and Olympic silver medalists Peter Koech (3,000m steeplechase) and Ben Kogo (10,000m).

It was the legendary Kip Keino who laid the foundation of the Kabirirsang story with a 1,500m gold medal at the 1968 Olympics.

Keino, the father of Kenyan running, is also the chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya.

Bungei has a special bond with his role models. For veteran Henry Rono is a first cousin of his mother, while his grandfather is a brother of Kipketer's grandmother.

Henry Rono's speed on track seemed to Bungei almost as natural as breathing. And he admits to having drawn motivation from the astounding accomplishments of his second cousin.

"Kipchoge Keino and Henry Rono set the pace for us. And we must honour their sacrifice by wresting back the world record from David Rudisha.

"Our young runners, myself included, have put the record on the line and within five years we will have it here. We all emerged from here," Bungei said.

He added: "From the beginning, I thought that if I do not win the World Championships I must win the Olympic Games. Being an 800m runner, you have the challenge to strive for a big title."

Bungei started off as a 200m and 400m sprinter in primary school. His neighbour, Kipketer, influenced him.

"When I was growing up Henry Rono had already finished his career but Wilson Kipketer was running at that time. I would say that it was an inspiration.

"Seeing their brilliant performances made me believe I could be a world class athlete," said Bungei, who is married and has two children.

Did former African record holder Kosgei and Bungei see a lot of Kipketer when he was ripping up the tracks on the European circuit?

"Yes, when I was growing up I used to go to Wilson's place and ask for any shoes he may have," recalled Bungei.

Said Kosgei, the Nandi Athletics Kenya branch secretary: "He was a gentleman and accommodating.

Those days, I used to run only in the morning and my only concern would be to get a T-shirt. Almost everyone aspiring to be an athlete always wanted to be like him."

Kosgei had been the Africa record holder since 1984, at 1 minute 42.28 seconds, before Rudisha broke it at the IAAF Grand Prix meeting in Rieti, Italy, in 2009. To which Kosgei says: "We are proud of the glory. But we need a strategy to maintain it."

Bungei, also the 2001 World 800m champion in Edmonton, Canada, believes there is an athletics nerve in his village where, within a 10km radius, live such other Kenyan track stars, as former Africa 5,000m silver medalist Isaac Songok, former 5,000m Commonwealth champion Augustine Choge, Atlanta Olympics 3,000m champion Joseph Kipketer and world 1,500m silver medalist Bernard Lagat, now an American.

Bungei's younger brother, Samson, the 2008 Cologne Marathon winner, Olympic 800m champion Pamela Jelimo and former 5,000m champion Benjamin Limo are other stars from the area.

"People used to say trekking a long distance to school makes good runners. Many people in the country do so, but we come from the best of the best," he said.

Paralympic athletes from the county also run the shows at the global stage. Triple Beijing Olympics gold medalist Henry Kirwa and double All Africa Games champion Abraham Tarbei hail from the county.

Kirwa has also been nominated as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ambassador for Africa.

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