In Kenya Running Is Not a Popular Sport but a Necessity and an Opportunity

By Jörg Wenig

Running cannot really be called a popular sport in Kenya. There is no series of races in which the number of participating runners regularly exceeds the ten thousand mark. In contrast to many other countries in the world running is not a hobby as such in Kenya, running is much more. It is a necessity and a great chance as most of the top Kenyan runners come from poor backgrounds. Through their successes they can afford a better life for themselves and their families. In fact, many have earned enough money through starting and winning prizes and do not have to worry about money anymore for the rest of their lives.

Running is Kenya’s biggest export success. Besides its safari tours, nothing else in Kenya makes as many positive headlines and attracts as much international attention as their runners. Last year Kenyans have won 70 percent of all the 150 street races of worldwide significance. For the women this proportion is a bit lower at about 45 percent. An identical picture can be drawn in marathons. At the Berlin Marathon, for instance, all the winners of the past six years have been Kenyans. In the past four years, Kenya’s male runners have taken at least the first three ranks here. In the past fifteen races of the legendary Boston Marathon Kenya has missed a win only twice.

Meanwhile, the runners’ success has gained an economic significance in western Kenya where most of the top runners are from. “Kenyan runners earn money in Europe and America and invest it at home in the western highlands. This has become a significant economic factor there which helps to create new jobs,” says Tom Ratcliffe, the American manager of KIMbia Athletics Management which mainly consists of Kenyans. Many runners invest in farmland. Timothy Cherigat, winner of the 2004 Boston marathon, however, is currently setting up a petrol station in Eldoret, western Kenya.

A typical example of a successful runner’s career is Abraham Chebii’s. He grew up as the third of seven children on a farm in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. In the western highlands he had to run to school every day. “For Kenyan children it is normal to run to school. No one walks, everyone runs,” says Abraham Chebii. The paths to schools are on unsealed roads and are often hilly. The children usually run barefoot. Abraham Chebii’s way to school was three kilometers long. As he would run home for lunch and then back to school, he ran twelve kilometers each day. “We always waited as long as possible before we left. As we were supposed to be on time for the meals we did not really have a choice—we had to run.”

Thereby, Abraham Chebii, like many of his colleagues, has unintentionally laid the foundations for his career. As a child he had always admired the steeplechase runner, Moses Kiptanui. However, he initially had not been very successful at school competitions in middle distance events and in cross country. Others were faster. When he found he did not have enough money to study Abraham Chebii took on running. He was lucky. He showed that he had great talent in long distance races—and of all people it was Moses Kiptanui himself who approached Abraham and invited him to a training camp.

Today, Abraham Chebii is a world class runner at 5,000 meters. And even the Ethiopian world record holder Kenenisa Bekele has a lot of respect of him. Only a few runners have succeeded in beating Bekele on the final stretch—one of them is Abraham Chebii. Anyone who beats Kenenisa Bekele is highly respected in Kenya as the Ethiopians are the Kenyans’ biggest rivals.

However, by far not all Kenyan runners are stars in their home country. But those who win gold medals, break world records, or win one of the big marathon events will be celebrated. “I want to become famous for being a great runner. This is why my name has to enter the record books,” Daniel Komen, one of the greatest Kenyan talents of all times, once said. For nearly ten years his world records at 3,000 meters and two miles have been unchallenged. When Paul Tergat returned to Kenya after setting up a new world record at the 2003 Berlin Marathon, he was driven through the country in an open car for hours.

Even the less famous runners are admired. There are photos which show school children standing along the roads in the highlands. There are no cars which they could admire but instead there are runners training and running past. The children can tell by the clothes that these are professionals.