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Athletics in Africa: the power of running 0

The latest celebrity is the young South African teenager Caster Semenya, who won the women’s world 800 meters title, a victory darkened by charges and doubts on her real gender that have been strongly condemned both by South African authorities and public opinion.

However, she is not the only star shining in the firmament of African athletics, which during the last World Championship in Berlin won 23 medals, more than the U.S.

Three Kenyan runners and the Moroccan El Guerrouj did their job to mark the race for the platform with an African sign, winning during the same night the 3000m steeplechase and the 1500m.

But what is the secret of this hegemony? To find the answer, you need to go to the Rift Valley, Kenya, a land of great champions and an opportunity to discover how running helps improving social status.

In Eldoret, a city in the Rift Valley, every morning runners take the red ground paths. They leave in small groups, start with relaxed rhythms, and then break out in an infernal fight on high rhythms.

365 days per year, the ritual is always the same.

Eldoret, Iten and Nyahururu seem banal Kenyans cities, but here, more than everywhere else, the density of world championship and Olympics medals is stunning. The pioneer was Kipchoge Keino, who started his career at the end of the 60s running trough the lands of Kalenjin ethnic group, the most prolific in terms of champions. Kip Keino, John Ngugi, Moses Kiptanui, Paul Tergat or Wilson Kipketer, now Danish, are from this group.

Running pays

Not far from Eldoret, in Iten, lives pastor Colm O’Connell, who came in Kenya from Ireland as a teacher at the end of the 70s and has followed the transformation of Kenya from ex British colony to land of champions.

He has met and trained dozens of champions, but also seen many trainers and scientists coming in Ethiopia in search for explanations.

“Morphology surely has a role, but it is impossible to assert that genetic is the only reason for their domination,” says Colm.

“Researchers of the Copenhagen University have compared calf’s dimension of young Kenyans with the Danish one. They have made many tests on red corpuscle and the capacity of absorbing oxygen. But nobody found a decisive factor.”

In Colm’s opinion, success is not a mystery: training pays, and that’s all.

“They win because of the hard work,” the Irish priest says.

“Conditions are not easy but they are ideal for long running, particularly because of the altitude – 2 100 metres.”

Emulation push some of them become record and victories machines. The International Association of Athletics Federation has a training centre in Eldoret, and Qatar has promised to build a synthetic track asking for the naturalization of a Kenyan runner.

Work hard, extreme relax

The monthly salary in Kenya is around 50 dollars. During a competition, in Europe or in the U.S., an athlete and his manager could win more than ten times this amount.

In the Rift Valley, many young people, who are used to running since childhood, never stop training.

They often run more than 200 km every week, in two or three daily session, but then, the athletes come back in their rooms to eat and sleep. Not only they train more their Western colleagues, but they rest in a more intensive way too.

Running, eating, sleeping, seven days a week. Nothing scares them and no limit can be fixed.

The 27 Tanzanian Baha, vice world champion for the semi-marathon in 2000, is a runner since 1993.

However, he feels ready to run for ten years on. He has many projects in his mind and counts the money he could gain from the marathon.

I want to build a school for children. I have a land of 10 hectares, but I still do not have enough money. My mother lives alone and she has to walk 10 km to have some water. I want my village to have water! But it is all about money.”

Some athletes have become enormously rich.

Gebreselassie leads a colossal empire, which employs hundreds of Ethiopians. Now, he is thinking about going into politics. The majority of them want to help friends, relatives or the original region.

Tegla Loroupe, record woman for the marathon ten years ago, has financed her sisters’ studies in the U.S. and launched a foundation whose aim is at searching funds to build orphanages and schools in her native region.

By Arnaud BébienSyfia Info, Kenya

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