Kenya’s most popular sport faced its most trying moment this year as the country stood on the edge of the cliff due to political violence.
The year starting on a wrong footing for athletics. First, two elite runners lost their lives in the election skirmishes while many were ousted from their camps and homes, disrupting their training schedule.
Some, like marathon runners Robert Cheruiyot and Martin Lel, had to seek refuge in Europe or Namibia.
The post-election violence claimed the lives of 34-year-old Wesley Ngetich, who was killed by a poisoned arrow in Transmara, and Lucas Sang, an Olympic runner in Eldoret.
World marathon champion Luke Kibet escaped two attempts on his life. In one incident, he had to draw his gun for self defence.
The chaos took their toll on Kenya’s performance in the World Cross Country Championship in Edinburgh, Scotland in March and the World Indoor Championship in Valencia, Spain, also in March.
The signs were not good in Valencia. Team captain and the then 800m champion Wilfred Bungei pulled out with a thigh muscle injury. This wrecked team spirit and Kenya did not win any gold medal. Kenya clinched only two silver medals from Daniel Kipchirchir Komen in 1,500m and Paul Kipsiele Koech in 3,000m race.
In the Edinburgh World Cross Country Championships, Kenya’s grip was weakened as it failed to win any individual title, though it retained its overall team crown. Cold weather, poor training and strong challenge contributed to Kenyan runners’ poor show.
Athletics Kenya required some inspirational event to help the athletes restore their confidence and work together. It came at the Africa Athletics Championships in Addis Ababa in April. Kenyans won a major vote of confidence to claim a fourth finish, claiming a total of 16 medals – five gold, five silver and six bronze. South Africa, Nigeria and host Ethiopia claimed the top honours.
It was in Addis Ababa that the world came to know of soon-to-be Olympic 800m champion Pamela Jelimo. Competing in her second major international meeting (her first was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 2007 at the Africa Junior Championships) Jelimo won in a new Africa junior record of 1:58.70 to beat veteran Maria Mutola (2:00.47).
Her performance caught the eye of the world and she was invited by her agent to try out a race in Hengelo, The Netherlands, where she reaffirmed her new status as a true revelation in the two-lap race.
The rest is history. At the conclusion of the six-meeting IAAF Golden League series in Brussels, Jelimo survived the gruelling 14-week battle to win the Sh68 million ($1 Million) jackpot, athletic’s biggest prize.
Jelimo joins compatriot Robert Cheruiyot and Martin Lel, who scooped Sh35 million ($500,000) for the World Marathon Majors, another six-round marathon contest repeated twice in two years.
In top city marathons, Lel won his second London marathon in April, was fifth at Olympics and pulled a muscle in Lisbon to withdraw from defending his New York title. Robert Cheruiyot won in Boston for the fourth time in a row while Martha Komu took the Paris marathon event.
Jelimo is the second Kenyan born athlete — after Wilson Kipketer (1999) now running for Denmark — to win the jackpot, and only the second African woman after Maria Mutola (2003).
In July, Kenya was ready to showcase new talent at the World Junior Championship in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Kenya and Ethiopia shared the spoils on track while Russia and Germany ruled the roost in field events.
On their return to Poland (having been here in 1999 in the World Youth Championship), Kenya posted satisfactory results in finished third with four gold, five silver and two bronze medals to finish behind United States and Germany. A total of 183 countries took part in the championship in Poland.
Then came the big one — the Beijing Olympics in August. Never before in the history of the Games has Kenya’s performance been so good.
International sporting events are about national pride. Ranked 15th overall out of the 2004 countries that had paraded their best sporting talent in Beijing, the Kenyans returned home with a heavy bag of silverware. They had clinched a total of five gold, five silver and four bronze medals.
Jelimo, at just 18, became the first Kenya woman to ever win a gold medal at Olympics while Samuel Wanjiru, 21, filled the missing gap in Kenya’s stronghold — the men’s marathon.
Wilson Kiprugut won Kenya’s first ever Olympics medal when he took a bronze medal in 800m in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Kenya’s dominance in 3,000m steeplechase was born in Mexico, and 40 years down the line, local athletes have kept their stranglehold on the race, save for 1976 and 1980, when Kenya boycotted the Olympics.
Amos Biwott won Kenya’s first steeplechase gold in Mexico in 1968 and it was Brimin Kipruto who prolonged the record for another four years with his triumphant running at the awesome Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing.
The closest Kenya runners came to winning marathon gold was in Seoul in 1988 and 2000 in Sydney, when Douglas Wakiihuri and Eric Wainaina claimed silver.
Jelimo and Nancy Jebet Lagat (1,500m) won Kenya’s first gold medals ever by women.
World 3,000m steeplechase champion Brimin Kipruto picked Kenya’s first gold. Half an hour later, 18-year-old Jelimo wrote new history as she won the women’s 800m gold in 1:54.87, a new junior world record ahead of world champion Janeth Jepkosgei, who took silver.
Team captain Wilfred Bungei retired from international competition by winning gold in 800m with world champion Alfred Kirwa Yego taking bronze.
Nancy Jebet Langat surprised many when she claimed gold in the women’s 1,500m. But the last honour went to Samwel Wanjiru as he pulled away from the rest of the leading pack with 10km to go to win the first ever gold in men’s marathon. Wanjiru set a new Olympic record time of 2:06:32.
Kenya finished top in Africa with 14 medals (five gold, five silver and four bronze) ahead of Ethiopia (four gold, one silver two bronze), Zimbabwe (one gold three silver), Cameroon and Tunisia, each with one gold medal. Overall, Kenya finished in position 15.
At the world half marathon contest in Rio de Jenairo, Brazil, Pamela Chepchumba and Patrick Makau Musyoki won bronze and silver respectively as Ethiopia won the women’s team title in a time of 3:30:59 ahead of Kenya (3:31:24).
In the men’s race, Makau helped Kenya claim the team title in 3:07:24 while Eritrea settled for second in 3:09:40.
At the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India, Kenya, led by world junior 3,000m champion Mercy Cherono, made its debut in November, and as expected they dominated on track to return home with six medals – three gold and three silver (one was from boxing) to finish ninth overall and second in Africa.