If running was an art, then the cradle of its creativity will be in the Rift Valley region of Kenya and Ethiopia.
How else can one explain, in social or scientific terms, why this region has constantly managed to dominate athletics with such easiness and passion?
I visited Eldoret, the city and home of champions, in December last year. It was inspiring to spend time with elite runners. It was also motivating to learn of the commitment by the Uasin Gishu, Nandi and Elgeyo-Marakwet county government towards athletics.
The objective of my visit was twofold: To formally grace the occasion marking the launch of Athletics Kenya’s annual conference, and, informally, try to learn about the elusive secret, if any, of success of Kenyan marathoners.
The answer to the latter is not as straight forward as one may hope. Perhaps a clue can be deduced from a quote by the renowned coach of David Rudisha, Brother Colm O’Connell, who said that the only secret to success (among Kenya’s athletes) is that there is no secret!
The effort deployed by athletes in this region blurs the line between passion and ambition. Indeed, the correlation between hard work and success of athletes is solidly engraved in the sheer number of athletes the region boasts.
In The Little Red Book of Running, Scott Douglas offers a whopping 250 tips he learnt from Iten - home of champions - while on an athletic pilgrimage. Notably, he observed that Kenyans run organically. Talking of organic running, a vivid illustration is found among school going children. I saw how they ‘organically’ straddle over the rolling hills and dirt roads to make it to school. Barefoot!
To imagine that they repeat this routine every week day, and against each other, is reason enough to believe indeed that no human is limited.
Various studies instituted to find out the scientific explanation of winning among athletes from the Rift Valley region are yet to conclusively explain how.
Like in Ethiopia, I believe it is all about hard work. No amount of laboratory tests can clinically proof the immeasurable spirit of team work exuded in athletic training camps, the sheer essence of admiration demonstrated by local communities, compounded with respect bestowed on marathoners.
This is reason enough to negate any scientific explanation.
As a descent of a country which empirically gives Kenya a run for their money, I observe that what our countries lack in quality of football, we have compensated it in the quantity of athletes.
The time is now to take advantage of this opportunity to grow sports tourism and benefit our countries.
The economic impact sports tourism can have on our economies can be enormous.
Consider, for instance, that the 2015 London Marathon contributed 128 million pounds of economic benefits to the city alone! Estimates indicate that the 2019 London Marathon surpassed the one billion pound mark.
Ethiopia and Kenya boast of a citadel of elite marathoners, complete with an ‘A’ list of living legends who have defied global competition to dominate marathons for decades.
With this enabling potential, the economic will of the London Marathon can be replicated in Addis Ababa and in Nairobi. I look forward to a time when organisers of the Eldoret City Marathon or the Standard Charted Nairobi Marathon will invite Ethiopian athletes to compete. Conversely, we look forward to see Kenyan marathon runners compete in the Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa.
This year, I know that the wining curve for Kenyan marathoners’ at the world stage of athletics will continue to assume an upward projection.
My wish is, in any major marathon where Ethiopians and Kenyans are participating, if an Ethiopia does not win, then a Kenyan should.
As we look forward to the London Marathon in April, may the best man win in the duel between Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele.
For both are unlimited.
Alem is the Ambassador of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to Kenya.