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Secret to Kenya Success is Elusive

May 17, 1995

ITEN, Kenya (AP) _ At a rickety old stadium in the western highlands, world-class runners glide gracefully around the track, loping stride-for-stride with school children.

Here in the rarified air, high above the Rift Valley on Iten stadium’s cluttered dirt track, Kenyan runners who dominate the sport’s middle- and long-distance events pass the baton from one generation to the next.

Young athletes run alongside champions who, just a few years ago, jogged beside the sports heroes of their day.

Benson Koech, the fastest in the world last year at 800 meters, and Rose Cheruiyot, who set the women’s 5,000-meter world road record in the Carlsbad 5000 last month, learned to run here.

They learned from Olympic gold medalists Kipchoge ``Kip″ Keino, Peter Rono and Matthew Birir, marathoners like Douglas Wakiihuri and Ibrahim Hussein and from former world champion Billy Konchellah.

Now as they train for this year’s World Championships, these still rising stars set the pace for those to follow.

``Athletes of Benson’s caliber in the United States wouldn’t train with kids,″ said their coach, Brother Colm O’Connell. ``They wouldn’t think it was worth their time.

``But it gives us a continuity. It also shows the kids this guy isn’t invincible, that he sweats just like me.″

Kenyans have won 32 Olympic track medals since 1964. They have won many world championships and shattered world records. Kenyans dominate international cross country competitions and the world’s most prestigious marathons, winning six of the last seven at Boston, including the last three by Cosmas Ndeti.

Most of the Kenyan winners come from villages within 50 miles of Iten. The tiny, impoverished town and its famous dirt track now attracts runners and researchers from around the world, all looking for Kenya’s secret.

``There is no magic,″ said Charles Cheruiyot, who along with his twin Kip Cheruiyot, used what they learned on Iten’s track to win athletic scholarships in the United States and become members of the 1984 and 1988 Kenyan Olympic teams.

``Kenyans win because they are willing to do, they are willing to sweat,″ Cheruiyot said.

Kenyans train hard, but then so do athletes all over the world. Kenyans run at high altitude, but if that was the secret, Switzerland would win a lot of Olympic gold.

Keino, winner of two gold and two silver medals at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, said Kenyan success is not a matter of training harder.

``There is no secret here,″ said Keino, a former Kenya national coach and a member of the International Olympic Committee. Kenyans, he said, usually run fewer miles per week than runners from other countries.

``Nobody will give you any one answer,″ O’Connell said. ``It is a combination of factors that all happen to be here. Any one factor can be found in other places. But here, we have the combination of all of them.″

The factors include the high altitude, the high-carbohydrate diet and the nearly perfect year-round climate that affords Kenyans the luxury of never having to make seasonal changes in their training regimen, O’Connell said.

O’Connell and Keino said genetics also must be considered. Most of Kenya’s runners are members of the Kalenjin ethnic group, blessed with the tall, lean frame of a distance runner.

Perhaps the most important factor, O’Connell said, is that running is a way of life in the western highlands.

``Here, running is not something that is taken on,″ he said. ``It is an extension of their life.″

In all, O’Connell, an Irishman and a brother in the Roman Catholic Patrician order who has no previous background in running, has coached 30 Olympians _ 20 from St. Patricks boys school at Iten and 10 from the nearby Singore girls school.

During his 19 years of coaching at the two schools, two of his athletes at St. Patricks, Rono and Birir, have won Olympic gold. Another, Mike Boit, won the bronze in the 800 meters.

Keino credits O’Connell and his program as one factor in Kenya’s success. But O’Connell sees his success as a reflection of the raw talent on the highlands.

Running is not just a sport here, it is THE sport. In the tiny villages and small subsistence farms that dot the landscape, nearly everyone knows an Olympic runner or a world champion.

It has been a generation since Keino won his Olympic medals. Yet, when he walks down the street in nearby Eldoret, his hometown, he can barely move a few paces without having to shake a hand or exchange a greeting. When he pauses for a burger at the Sizzler Cafe, his lunch is constantly interrupted.

``Sports is imitation,″ Keino said. ``Here children see the good life that runners have achieved and they want to become runners.″

``Part of the motivation is to get out of the poverty,″ said O’Connell.

The financial rewards of international track are a tempting lure to young athletes trapped in their tiny villages of conical mud huts and thatched roofs.

``Kenya is a hard life,″ Charles Cheruiyot said. ``When you finish school, there is no job. People who are runners are lucky.″

``Athletics is a relatively cheap sport,″ O’Connell said. ``Individuals who are motivated can go out and succeed on their own.″

Kenya has not done well at sprinting or in field events that require lots of expensive technical assistance. Success there can require a ratio of one coach for every athlete.

``With distance running you don’t need all those things,″ Keino said. ``You don’t need the coaches, the facilities, the weight training.″

Keino and O’Connell believe women will make the next leap forward in Kenyan track.

Kenyan women have been dominant on the junior level, but because of their place in a male-dominated African society, few have had the freedom to go on. Among the exceptions have been Rose Cheruiyot, Delilah Asiago and Tegla Laroupe. Now, largely because of the financial success of Kenyan male runners along with the three women, all of whom are in the top five in the world road racing rankings this year, more parents are willing to let their daughters pursue athletic careers.

``What we are doing now is encouraging women,″ Keino said. ``Now they are training like the men.″

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