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 per cent of all the 150 street races of worldwide significance.
For the women this proportion is a bit lower at about 45 per cent. 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,
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 kilometres long. As he would
run home for lunch and then back to school, he ran twelve kilometres
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 metres. 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 metres 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