When Athletics Kenya drafted Paul Tanui into the 10,000 metres team last week as a late replacement for the injured Wilson Kiprop, they didn’t know the sort of positive public relations effect the move would have in Asia.
All of a sudden, there has been renewed interest in Team Kenya at the championships, especially in Japan where Tanui is based, running for the Kyudenko team.
Japanese media have been keen on Kenya’s training programmes, travel schedule and pre-competition ethic here, and all their questions are centred especially on Tanui and Martin Irungu Mathathi, the other Japan-based runner in the 10,000m.
The Japanese keenly followed the Kenyan trials at the Nyayo National Stadium last month, where three Japan-based runners were chasing the elusive World Championships places.
Bitan Karoki stunned the Nairobi crowd with his blistering front-running that saw him take the field by surprise, opening up a 200-metre gap early in the race, the 20-year-old running the first 6,000 metres in 16 minutes and 36 seconds before cruising over the next 2,000m in 26:30.
But the effects of high altitude wore him out, the Tokyo Team S&B runner collapsing coming to the bell in a race won by Administration Police’s surprise package Peter Kirui (27:32.1) followed by Kiprop (27:32.9) and Mathathi (27:38.6).
Effects of high altitude
Tanui was fifth (27:44) but earned the surprise ticket last week when Kiprop withdrew with injury and will team up with Suzuki Hamamatsu Team’s Mathathi to the delight of Japanese fans.
“Many fans will be travelling from Japan to Daegu to watch Tanui, Mathathi and the Japanese team,” Tanui’s Japan-based manager, Stephen Mayaka, told the Daily Nation on Wednesday. “There will be fans travelling to support Ethiopia’s Ibrahim Jeylan too,” he added.
Jeylan, the 2006 world junior 10,000m champion, who will challenge the Kenyans in the longest track race, runs in Japan for Honda Company.
“These three athletes have struck up a huge rivalry in Japan and their clash in Daegu is the talk in Japan’s athletics circles,” Mayaka, the first Kenyan athlete to settle down in Japan, 30 years ago, said. “Between the three, Tanui has the best time in the 10,000m in Japan this season and Jeylan is also very strong.
“Fans will be travelling to support athletes employed by Kyudenko, Honda and Suzuki companies.”
Nissin Foods, who employed former Kenya cross country champion Gideon Ngatuny, are represented here by Japan team’s Yuki in the 10,000m and Watanabe Katsuya in the 5,000m.
Tanui has best time
Katsuya is one of Japan’s strongest prospects and his form has seen him defeat Kenya’s Japan-based runners this season.
“Tanui’s fans will travel directly to Daegu from Tokyo with some taking the ferry from Fukuoka to Busan and onto Daegu by bus to arrive a day ahead of the 10,000m race next week,” Mayaka said.
Mayaka said Kenyan runners are very popular in Japan and already, many are missing Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru.
“Since he came to Japan, Tanui has won many races and become popular like Wanjiru was in Japan. Wanjiru was a huge celebrity and he is missed by many, especially his schoolmate in Sendai, Kinukawa Megumi who will represent Japan in the 5,000m and 10,000m in Daegu.”
Japan’s team here also has hammer thrower Koji Morufushi.
“We all loved Wanjiru and I once hosted him with my family and he also took my daughter to school together with me and gave a lecture on the Olympic Games and how he won the gold medal in Beijing.
“Wanjiru kept telling people here how we celebrated with Chinese bear Tsingtao after he won the gold in an Olympic record time,” Mayaka recalls.
“We did a lot of training together and he was a true friend and used to call me Oniisan which means “big brother” in Japanese, a true show of respect.”
It is the same feeling that Wanjiru created in Japan that Tanui and Mathathi hope to relive by winning medals in the 10,000m final here.