World’s elite 800m runners come from a village in Nandi Central that has dotted the global charts since the 1968 Olympic Games. Kabirirsang, in the heart of the tea-rich farmlands, has lived up to its billing as a seedbed of elite sprinters, who reside within a three-kilometre radius of the village.
The village boasts a collection of more than 30 medals as the globe’s best 800m talents have established a strong empire here, turning the two-lap race into Kenya’s number one track specialty. It has the highest number of Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Africa 800m champions in the race’s history.
For 13 years, Kabirirsang basked in the world record – then held by Kenyan-turned-Dane Wilson Kipketer – as Sammy Kosgei dominated the Africa 800m all-time best time for a whole 24 years.
So keen has been their enthusiasm to sweep the 800m title that it has made the world wonder what makes the village’s athletes claim a bigger stake to the glory. Their victory has been so consistent that it elicits a closer – even suspicious – look.
The tiny hilltop hamlet near a main road is an unremarkable place in the highlands with evergreen tea plantations, a typically small, rural area that would normally not warrant a second glance. But Kabirirsang stands out naturally special, spawning not one, not two, but a bulk of 800m champions that would be the envy of most nations.
This is the birthplace of Henry Rono, the man who broke four world records (3,000m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m) in just 81 days in 1978, former world champion Janeth Jepkosgei and Wilfred Bungei, the reigning Olympic 800m champion.
A stone’s throw distance from Bungei’s home lives 2004 Athens Olympian Timothy Kiptanui, while a closer look yields more champions in middle distance running.
About two kilometres to the west is the ancestral home of former world 800m record holder Wilson Kipketer and Kipchoge Keino, the first man to break the 3,000m steeplechase record in 1965.
Laid foundation of Kabirirsang fort
Some three kilometers to the east is home of African 800m record holder Sammy Kosgei and Olympic silver medallists Peter Koech (3,000m steeplechase) and Ben Kogo (10,000m).
Inspired by track stars, it was legendary Kipchoge Keino who laid the foundation of the Kabirirsang fort with a 1,500m gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games. The father of Kenyan running is the currently the National Olympic Committee of Kenya chairman.
Bungei has a special bond with his role models, the popular runner even more closely bound to this extraordinary collection of running talent by blood. Veteran Henry Rono is a first cousin of his mother while his grandfather is a brother of Kipketer’s grandmother.
In the footsteps of Kipchoge Keino was Henry Rono, whose track prowess, especially on the global stage, seemed to Bungei almost as natural as breathing. And he admits to having drawn motivation from the astounding accomplishments of his second cousin.
“Kipchoge Keino and Henry Rono set the pace for us. And we must honour their sacrifice by wresting back the world record from David Rudisha. Our young runners, myself included, have put the record on the line and within five years we will have it here,” Bungei told the Nation at his home in Kabirirsang on Wednesday. “We all emerged from here.”
He added: “From the beginning, I thought that if I do not win the World Championships I must win the Olympic Games. Being an 800m runner, you have the challenge to strive for a big title. I intend to defend my title but I know making the team is a tall order. I will just give this year’s Worlds a shot.”
Interestingly, Bungei started off as a 200m and 400m sprinter in primary school and was even an accomplished performer in the decathlon. His neighbour, Kipketer, influenced him.
“When I was growing up Henry Rono had already finished his career but Wilson Kipketer was running at that time. I would say that it was an inspiration. Seeing their brilliant performances made me believe I could be a world class athlete,” said Bungei, a husband and father of two.
Ask for any shoes, T-shirts
Did former African record holder Kosgei and Bungei see a lot of Kipketer when he was ripping up the tracks on the European circuit.
“Yes, I knew him well because in Kalenjin we have close ties with our relatives and we always visit our homes. So when I was growing up I used to go to Wilson’s place and ask for any shoes he may have,” said Bungei.
Said Kosgei, who is Nandi Athletics Kenya Secretary: “He was a gentleman and accommodating. Those days, I used to run only in the morning and my only concern would be to get a T-shirt. Almost everyone aspiring to be an athlete always wanted to be him.”
Kosgei had been the Africa record holder since 1984, at 1 minute 42.28 seconds, before Rudisha broke it at the IAAF Grand Prix meeting in Rieti, Italy, in 2009. To which Kosgey says: “We are proud of the glory. But we need a strategy to maintain it.”
Bungei, also the 2001 World 800m champion in Edmonton, Canada, believes there is an athletics nerve in his village where, within a 10km radius, reside Kenya’s global track stars, among them former Africa 5,000m silver medallist Isaac Songok, former 5,000m Commonwealth champion Augustine Choge, Atlanta Olympics 3,000m champion Joseph Kipketer and world 1,500m silver medallist Bernard Lagat, now an American.
Bungei’s younger brother, Samson, the 2008 Cologne Marathon winner, Olympic 800m champion Pamela Jelimo and former 5,000m champion Benjamin Limo are other athletics stars from the area.
“People used to say trekking long distances to school makes good runners. Many people in the country do so, but we come from the best of the best,” he said.