Give Iten top prize as we fete Kipchoge and Kosgei

Friday October 18 2019

Men's elite race winner Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge (left) and Women's elite race winner Kenya's Brigid Kosgei pose with the trophy during the London Marathon winners' photocall at Tower Bridge in central London on April 29, 2019. PHOTO | BEN STANSALL |

By Austin Bukenya

Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei are, deservedly, the names on the lips of anyone proud of Kenya and of human achievement.

In this season of prizes and awards, we should be thinking of what appropriate honours we should bestow upon them. All I can think of now for these incredible Kenyans is: “they went, they ran, they won.”

These Kenyan bullet trains hit the tracks, the brother in Vienna, Austria and the sister in Chicago, and within the space of two days, they had propelled us to historic attention and glory.


Brigid Kosgei’s record-shattering marathon was in some context for me, as I recalled Paula Radcliffe, the former women’s marathon record-holder, as the British athlete who crashed out of the 2004 Athens Olympics marathon, collapsing by the road in a pathetic flood of tears.

As for Eliud Kipchoge, there is just no compare. But who would expect less of man with a name like “Kipchoge”? Few of us are likely to forget Eliud’s dictum that there are no limits to human beings. Or is it the way he said it, and of course proved it practically on the marathon trail. Forget the knockers whining that Kipchoge’s record is not “official”. Kipchoge the doer did the marathon in sub-2-hour time.


Most importantly, however, Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Koskei have won our hearts. I can hardly remember a recent event in Kenya that has united us more, both in anxious anticipation and in exhilarated celebration, as Kipchoge’s adventure.

Then Brigid Kosgei goes and does her own thing in Chicago! They both emphatically underlined Kenyan power on and off the track.

Most significantly, our celebration raised us above all the fissures of difference, class, ethnicity, politics, religion and all that, uniting us, however briefly, in the pride of a nation.


Since Eliud and Brigid dazzled us during the week that the Nobel Prizes were being dished out, I could not help wishing that there were Nobel Prizes for athletic performance or general physical fitness. Our choices this year would have been obvious.

But then, the Nobel Prizes are notoriously unpredictable, and they seem to be getting increasingly so.

I can tell you honestly, for example, that I had never heard of the two joint winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

Indeed, the first time I heard of Mr Peter Handke, one of the winners, was when the American PEN chapter was complaining to the Nobel Awards Committee about the award to “a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succour to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.” I know many who would like a Kenyan to win the Nobel for Literature but, surely, not in such company.

Anyway, regarding the Nobel and physical fitness, it reminded me of our dear neighbour, Dr Abiy Ahmed, who has honoured us by bringing the Peace Prize to Addis Ababa. Do you remember the occasion some disgruntled senior officers called on him at his office?

It is said that he invited them to a session of push-ups, and the meeting ended on a friendly and amicable note. There certainly is more to peacemaking than engaging Eritrea and trying to reconcile the many Sudanese interest parties.


I am celebrating my joy at the fleet-footed runners with two hypotheses, or assumptions, as scholars are required to do. The first is that an approach to development through cultural skills, like sports or drama, is more likely to earn us goodwill, unity and progress than all the much-touted scientific, economic and political Initiatives that have failed us over the decades.

If the confidence, pride and oneness that Kipchoge and Kosgei have bestowed on us over the past week could be systemised and sustained, they could make a real difference in the way we see and conduct ourselves.

My second hypothesis tries to connect the dots between Eliud Kipchoge, Brigid Kosgei and the whole distinguished line of our athletes, back to Kipchoge Keino and beyond. Many studies have been made of the Kenyan athletic phenomenon. One of the oft-mentioned aspects is the efficient “intake and utilisation of oxygen” of our athletes.

What is not sufficiently emphasised is that the air that our athletes take in as they grow up, train and practise in the highlands of the Rift is strikingly clean. If the air around our athletes were dirty and polluted, our heroes, or any other sensible people, would not want to live in it, let alone train in it.

The Iten area in Elgeyo-Marakwet County is internationally recognised as the cradle, or even “factory”, of Kenyan athletic prowess.

What I most clearly remember of it on my only visit in the late 1990s is its emerald hillsides that sparkle with the first rays of the sun on the dewdrops, and the keen, sharp air that pierces you to the bottom of the chest as you step out in the misty chill of the morning. I would like to believe that Iten is still as beautiful and as clean as this today.


Moreover, there are many other Iten-like places in Kenya, where an unpolluted atmosphere can, and does, produce such spectacular performers as our athletic world-beaters. Think of the foothills and slopes of Mount Kenya, or Kilimanjaro. There are also the elevations around Mount Elgon, where the Ugandans are setting up their own high altitude training centres (HATCs) on their side of the border.

We will not delve today into the very desirable project of keeping the whole Republic so pollution-free that it would become an international high-performance training centre.

In the meantime, we should seriously consider giving all our wananchi, opportunities to spend training stints in our centres of excellence, like Iten. If they can enhance the performance of athletes, why should they not do the same for our police officers, politicians, publishers and professors?

Never underestimate the power of a breath of fresh air. I propose Iten for an award.

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