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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Kenyan violence and running

A tragic situation in Kenya and its impact on Kenyan and world running

I am sure that by now, most of you, perhaps all of you, will have heard about the volatile, tragic situation in Kenya. Kenya is now in its second week of civil unrest, with violence that has claimed the lives of between 500 and 1000 people, with more than 250 000 forced to flee their homes in what is threatening to become a humanitarian disaster to rival Rwanda, according to experts in the area.

Eldoret - home to the world's best long distance runners and the most violent clashes

The "epicentre" for much of the violence is a town called Eldoret, which is in the western part of Kenya. One week ago, one of the most violent reported episodes so far, the burning of a church where families had taken shelter from the violence, leaving almost 50 people dead, took place in Eldoret.

Now, Eldoret is probably not a town many will have heard of before this violence, but for some, it is a name that will be well-known because Eldoret is the cradle or birthplace of Kenyan long-distance running. Eldoret and the surrounding towns are home to the Kalenjin people, who are caught up in the tribal conflict surrounding Kenya's recently elected president (a member of the Kikuyu tribe) in a disputed election.

Many of the elite athletes have their training camps in Eldoret or nearby Iten. Iten is the home town of St Patrick's school, made famous by the story of Brother Colm O'Connel, who began coaching in St Patrick's and created the first of the Kenyan champions. A tree is planted for any ex-pupil who becomes world or Olympic Champion - but apparently, they've switched to shrubs now because of lack of space! And to this day, most of the elite Kenyan runners base themselves in the Eldoret region, making it the town with the most Olympic and world champions in the world. Unfortunately, many of these athletes have been caught up directly in the violence.

Last week, Lucas Sang, a Kenyan Olympic athlete in 1988, was stoned to death in Eldoret. His body had to be identified by Noah Ngeny, the Olympic 1500m champion from Sydney.

Other notable athletes caught up in the violence have been John Kibet, the Osaka Marathon World Champion, who was stoned while on his way to the shops last week - he escaped with a deep flesh wound, concussion and orders not to train for three weeks.

No space to train, hiding out of fear for their lives

All other athletes in the area are being affected, simply because they cannot leave their homes to train. The violence has effectively robbed them of space and they cannot run in the afternoons. Those who are seen out running are immediately confronted to join the mob - "If you are healthy, then you should be fighting" is the mentality.

The New York Times has this article describing the situation for the Kenyan runners. It speaks specifically of Lornah Kiplagat, whose training camp in Iten has been hit by the violence. She has had to scrap her afternoon runs, and trains solely in the mornings. Other runners are effectively running in circles near their homes, not straying further than 5 miles away for 90 minute training runs.

Worse still, many of the top athletes are unaccounted for, due to the worsening communication situation. The IAAF has a centre in Eldoret, but has been unable to contact it for three days. So too, Paul Tergat and many of the other well known names have not been heard from for days, and from reports, it may be some time before they are heard from, such is the breakdown in links to the outside world.

Athletes cannot leave their families

The authorities, and the managers and agents of the athletes are doing their best to get those athletes out of the country, but at the moment, that is proving incredibly difficult. For one thing, it's reported that the athletes themselves do not wish to leave their families behind, and obtaining visas for family members is impossible with many roads and embassies closed. Some are able to move more easily, when they do not have families to be concerned for, but for many, they are stuck without possibility to train and move around.

A tragic situation then, and of course, the potential for athletes to lose out on training is a relatively insignificant concern in the grand scheme of things, which has seen the loss of life, thousands at risk and many more fleeing their homes. But for the world of running, Kenya represents a double tragedy and we can only hope that the situation stabilizes and peace is achieved sooner rather than later.



Ryan said...

Wesly Ngetich, two time Grandma's marathon winner was killed.