Pamela Jelimo and Samuel Wanjiru were on Friday night named Kenya’s top sports performers at a colourful gala in Nairobi.
The annual Safaricom Sports Personality of the Year Awards (Soya) rolled out the red carpet at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre and honoured the 800 metre and marathon champions at the Beijing Olympics in a manner befitting royalty.
By winning the 800m gold medal in Beijing last August, Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
Jelimo, the world junior record holder over the same distance, became the first Kenyan to win the one million dollar IAAF Golden League jackpot last season.
The gala night was presided over by Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Ethiopian distance running star Berhane Adere.
Although Kenyans have dominated big city marathon races in the past, the Olympic marathon title always eluded the country.
That is until the Japan-based Wanjiru pulled away from the leading pack in Beijing to take the Olympic gold medal in a new Games record time finishing ahead of silver medallist, Moroccan Jaouad Gharib.
He clocked two hours, six minutes and 32 seconds smashing the previous record of 2:09:21 set by Carlos Lopes of Portugal at the 1984 Olympics.
Wanjiru had earlier won his first marathon in Fukuoka (2:06:39) and placed second at the London marathon last April. In 2005, he was awarded the Most Promising Sportsman of the Year award and just after three years, he has now clinched the jewel in the crown, living up to the promise.
He beat Wilfred Bungei (Olympic gold medallist 800m), London Marathon champion Martin Lel, steeplechase world and Olympic gold medallist Brimin Kipruto, swimmer Jason Dunford and sevens rugby star Collins Injera.
The Olympic 1,500m champion Nancy Jebet Lagat, Eunice Jepkorir (Olympic silver medallist 3,000m steeplechase), basketball star Caroline Achieng and world 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei, last year’s winner, were also in the race against Jelimo.
Following the vote at the start of year by the members of AIPS, the international sports press association, who declared Yelena Isinbayeva as their Sportswoman of the Year, the European sports press union UEPS have this week declared the Russian World, Olympic and European champion and World record holder in the Pole Vault as their top European Sportswoman of 2008.
Some 31 European national sports press associations participated in the poll.
Isinbayeva topped the earlier AIPS vote along with Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the men’s winner, both athletes having already been acclaimed as the 2008 World Athletes of the Year at the World Athletics Gala in Monaco at the end of November.
Isinbayeva was also declared female European Athlete of the Year by the European Athletics Association in October.
In the UEPS poll, Isinbayeva won with 74 points, a decisive winner ahead of German swimmer Britta Steffen (17) and Belgium’s Olympic High Jump champion Tia Hellebaut (16). The 26-year-old Russian also won the UEPS award in 2005.
The UEPS men’s vote went to Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal.
The Osaka Ladies Marathon is often the venue where future marathon super-stars ventured into the magical distance of 42.195km.
In 1997, Naoko Takahashi a future Olympic marathon champion made her marathon debut in Osaka. She only finished seventh but has learned a lot from her experience in Osaka, for she set a national record in her next marathon in March of 1998.
Takahashi went on to win the 2000 Olympics and recorded the first sub-2:20 marathon in the 2001 Berlin Marathon.
In 2001, Yoko Shibui set a world marathon debut record of 2:23:11. Last year, national 3000m and 5000m record holder Kayoko Fukushi made her marathon debut; the distance humbled her for she was a dismal 19th in 2:40:54.
The most anticipated debutante this year is Yukiko Akaba, a 1:08:11 half marathon runner who ran the 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics.
Akaba, who has a 10,000m best of 31:15.34 and was tenth at the 2008 World Half Marathon Championships, is a rare breed in Japan, for she is not only a world class runner, but also a mother of two years old.
For 34 days, Akaba trained in Tokunoshima, where she ran over “Naoko road,” the course Naoko Takahashi used to train.
Her main goal is to win, not a fast time.
Two other marathon debutantes should not be forgotten. Akane Wakita, a protégée of famed coach Yoshio Koide, who was 11th at the 2005 World Cross Country Championships Junior race, ran the 10,000m in the 2007 World Championships and has the half marathon best of 1:09:57.
Since Koide always thinks about a long range goal for his athletes, he may be thinking this race as a learning experience for Wakita.
Additional reporting by IAAF