Growing up in Ngong township, Lucia Mwihaki Kimani-Marcetic never thought she would one day be her country’s top star at the Olympic Games.
She wouldn’t have dreamt of travelling first class or carrying her country’s weight of expectations on her slender shoulders, let alone taking up a running career for a decent living.
Never in her wildest dreams would she ever have imagined that she would wear the Bosnian national colours and sing the European country’s anthem at the biggest stage of world sport.
Kimani-Marcetic is among a legion of Kenya-born track stars who have taken up foreign nationalities and who will be representing their adopted nations at this year’s Olympic Games that got off to a colourful start with last Friday’s well choreographed opening ceremony at the new Beijing National Stadium, popularly known as the “Bird’s Nest”, an architectural masterpiece.
Representing Kenya at the Amref Salzburg Marathon some five years ago in Austria, Kimani-Marcetic met and fell in love with a Bosnian runner, Sinica Marcetic and the couple moved to Banja Luka. The rest, as they say, is history.
The 28-year-old has continued to improve her personal best times in long distance races and has quickly become Bosnia’s sporting celebrity, with her latest big triumphs coming in the last two months when she won The European Cup 5,000 metres race and finished second in the 3,000m in another big track meeting in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia.
Kimani-Marcetic is in Beijing to represent her country in the marathon at the Olympic Games and is one of Bosnia’s four athletes to the Games, one of the smallest delegations here.
She has a personal best time of two hours and 37 minutes which she clocked in the Dubai Marathon last year and faces former compatriots — seasoned world champion Catherine Ndereba, Martha Komu and Salina Kosgei — in the marathon race from 7.30 a.m., Beijing time, today (2.30 a.m. Kenyan time).
“It’s unbelievable! I’m so happy to be here… I never ever dreamt of being at the Olympics, let alone running for Bosnia at the highest level,” Kimani-Marcetic told Lifestyle at the Olympic Village in Beijing.
Another Kenya-born runner who will be wearing strange colours at the Olympics is Hilda Kibet. Born on March 27, 1981, in Kapchorwa, Kibet will don the Orange strip of the Netherlands having been granted Dutch citizenship only last October.
Interestingly, one among her opposite numbers at the Olympics will be her own sister, Kenya’s 5,000m star Sylvia Kibet.
Although they will compete in different races, with Hilda tackling the tougher 10,000m race, it will be an interesting family reunion when the two report to the Beijing Olympic Village tomorrow, just five days to the start of the athletics programme.
Kibet qualified for the Olympics in May when she ran the third fastest time of the year, clocking her personal best 30 minutes, 55.61 seconds to earn the Dutch ticket to Beijing.
What is more interesting is that she was paced to the brilliant performance by her cousin and Dutch superstar Lornah Kiplagat, who will also run in the 10,000m final on the opening day of the athletics programme next Sunday.
“I’m very happy with my time and I’m very excited about going to the Olympics and running with Lornah in the 10,000m in Beijing,” Kibet said after the memorable race in Utrecht.
Kibet, who went to the Netherlands to study physiotherapy, will come up against her former country women Lucy Wangui Kabuu, Grace Momanyi and Linet Masai in the 10,000m and with Kiplagat in the mix, the race has been touted to be one of the most spectacular with Ethiopia’s world champion Tirunesh Dibaba and her sister Ejegayehu also in the line-up, plotting the downfall of the Kenyans and ex-Kenyans.
Kiplagat took up running seriously in 1994 and represented Kenya at the 1996 World Cross Country Championships. At the time, she lived with great Kenyan runner Susan Sirma, the first African woman to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships.
“Sirma was my heroine. She is my relative and helped me to become a professional runner,” Kiplagat, who changed her nationality to Dutch in 2003 and who also runs the Lornah Kiplagat Foundation charitable organisation, says.
Kiplagat missed last year’s World Championships in Osaka after a calf injury meant that she could not face Dibaba, the world champion whom she thrashed on the way to winning the cross country gold in Mombasa.
The two Dutch girls will enjoy extra motivation at the Games due to the fact that the Dutch Olympic Committee is offering 25,000 Euros (about Sh2.6 million) to its gold medallists in Beijing, where the Dutch are projecting a top 10 finish on the medals table, no mean achievement for a nation of just 16.4 million.
What many people might also not know is the fact that British Olympic marathon runner, Mara Yamauchi, also has Kenyan roots despite the fact that she was born in Oxford. Yamauchi grew up in Kenya — where her parents lived for 25 years — until she was eight years old.
Married to a Japanese national, Shigetoshi Yamauchi, her name, “Mara”, came from the Mara River which runs through Kenya and Tanzania and, along with world record holder Paula Radcliffe, she hopes to end up with a marathon medal next Sunday.
Most of the Kenya-born stars, however, will turn up for Gulf nations when the track and field programme starts next weekend with Qatar and Bahrain making up what people are now fondly referring to as Kenya ‘B’ (Qatar) and Kenya ‘C’ Bahrain.
Bahrain will be looking for a medal in the 1,500m through a young man once known as John Yego. Currently operating as Belal Ali Mansour, he is infamously remembered for coming under the scrutiny of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for allegedly falsifying his age to compete at the 2005 World Youth Championships where he won gold in the 1,500m.
Sports minister Maina Kamanda ordered his arrest for allegedly flouting Kenyan immigration procedures with his manager, Barnabas Korir, defending him and leading to the charges against Belal, who also runs in the 800m, dropped. Belal acquired the Bahraini passport in 2005.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s former world 800m champion Billy Konchellah’s efforts to have his talented son Gregory follow in his footsteps and bag medals for his country of birth have proved futile.
Instead, Gregory will carry the Bahrain flag when the athletics programme starts, competing for his adopted nation under the name of Yusuf Saad Kamel.
The talented 800m runner’s career started when he received a call from former Boston Marathon champion and 1991 world 10,000m gold medallist, Moses Tanui, who thought he would be a great runner and sought to train with him.
The 25-year-old Kamel took up Bahraini citizenship in 2003 as a junior and is among the strong contenders for a medal in the 800m where Kenya will field three strong runners, Wilfred Bungei, Boaz Lalang and Alfred Kirwa Yego. Kamel currently serves in the Bahrain military.
Hoseah Kipkemboi is also at the Beijing Olympics under his new identity of Khamis Aadam and competing for his new abode, Bahrain.
Kenya has dominated the Olympics 3,000m steeplechase competition and with Qatar’s world record holder in the event, former Kenyan Saif Saaeed Shahen (Stephen Cherono), sidelined with injury, the amazing run is set to continue.
But one man could spoil the statistics and spoil Ezekiel Kemboi, Richard Mateelong and Brimin Kipruto’s bid for another clean sweep like that they did at last year’s World Championships in Osaka.
Tarek Mubarak Taher will represent Bahrain in this event and his current form is cause for concern.
Once known as Dennis Kipkurui Sang, Taher changed citizenship to Bahraini in 2005 and holds his new country’s national steeplechase record at 8:07.12.
The line up for the men’s 1,500m will also have a Kirinyaga-born runner, David Nyaga. He is on the Qatar team’s roster and will surface at the Beijing Olympic Stadium as Daham Bashair Najm.
His other teammates include Felix Kikwai Kibore, one of the few Kenya born runners who have opted not to change their names after defecting to the Gulf who alongside another ex-Kenyan, James Kwalia, will run in the 5,000m.
Qatar’s team list is crowded with Kenyan imports. They include Salem Gamal Belal, formerly Thomas Katui, who will run in the 5,000m race, Ahmed Hassan Abdullah (Albert Chepkurui) entered in the 10,000m and Hassan Mubarak Shami, the world marathon silver medallist who is chasing an Olympic marathon gold.
But perhaps the most famous of all Kenyan defectors in the men’s competition in Beijing is double world champion Bernard Lagat who will be running for the United States of America.
Lagat, from Tucson, Arizona, won the gold medals in the 1,500m and 5,000m at last year’s World Championships in Osaka and will be chasing another double for his nation at the Beijing Games against a strong Kenyan team that has vowed not to let him bask in the glory that catapulted him to a near cult status in the US track and field sphere.
Lagat left Kenya for the US in 2004 after he received a track scholarship from the Washington State University that was hoping to raise its profile by signing up talented African runners.
Unlike many athletes who have defected from Kenya to other nations, Lagat says his move was not as a result of differences with the athletics authorities in Nairobi and neither was it as a result of any sort of bitterness.
“For me, it is nothing to do with the organisation of the sport or anyone treating me badly,” he says Lagat who married American Gladys Tom with whom they have a son, Miika Kimutai.
“Basically it came down to me living here in the US for a long time. This is where I want to raise my family.”
Last year, the mayor of Pullman in Washington State declared December 9 Bernard Lagat Day to honour the achievements of the city’s adopted son in Osaka. One can only imagine what the mayor will do for this Kapsabet-born star should he cruise to another double at the Beijing National Olympic Stadium.
Any way you look at it, Beijing’s will be a truly Kenyan Olympic Games.