martes, 31 de enero de 2012

Abebe Bikila: the Black African breakthrough

     "I was amazed by his feet. I knew later that he ran barefoot. The soles of his feet were as thick and black as coal. I remember that I wanted to touch his feet, the hard skin of which resembled the tyres of big military trucks. I was sure that he would feel nothing but, on the contrary, this hard skin was very sensitive: I hardly brushed it with my finger and he jumped up on the bed and gave me an astounded look."
 Rhadi Ben Abdesselem, silver medallist at 1960 Rome Olympic marathon (1)

The legendary Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, Olympic champion at the marathon in Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 
One of the most memorable moments in Olympic Games history was when that Ethiopian barefoot runner entered the Roman Via Appia to produce a shock victory at the marathon in a new world record time, becoming the first ever black African Olympic champion in 1960. No one had ever heard of him and it was indeed the first international competition of 27-year-old Abebe Bikila. However, prior to the race, Swede Onni Niskanen had actually warned journalists about the chances of his trainee, stating he had ran during the year the marathon in 2:21:23, a respectable clocking, well under the actual Olympic record of Emil Zatopek. No one took him seriously. Imagine he could have added that mark had been achieved at the national trials with the hindrance of altitude and through a hilly course. 
             Italy had organised the 1960 Olympic Games, wanting to show they were a new progressive nation, which had overcome the times of fascism. The marathon had been staged at sunset, to avoid the summer heat. The course intended to evoke the past grandeur of the Roman Empire, in a setting which has been described as a mix between gladiator games and Verdi opera. (2) The last kilometres of the track followed the ancient military route Via Appia Antica. Every ten metres there stood a uniformed soldier carrying a torch in his hand. The torch spread its flickering light over the antique ruins in the background. There was however a relic in the scene which did not belong to the age of Octavius Augustus: that monumental obelisk had been looted by the invading Mussolini troops as a trophy war in 1935 from Axum in Abyssinia
             The favourite, Russian Sergey Popov, who had broken the world best at the European championships two years before, had been left well behind. The race had become an unprecedented duel among two Africans: World Cross Country champion Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselem and unknown Ethiopian Abebe Bikila. The cameraman by then was focusing in the latter runner bare feet. The Axum obelisk, with 2000 metres to go, was precisely the symbolic place chosen by Niskanen for Bikila’s decisive attack. When that modern gladiator, “whose running was so light that his feet scarcely seem to touch the ground” (1) surged away, his last companion was unable to respond. In huge disbelief, the journalists inside the box press could hardly found appropriate words to describe this unbelievable victory: "Suddenly we could see the lights of a little convoy twinkling in the distance - here he came... trotting rhythmically and strongly up the Appian Way, the route of the conquerors in a city where his ancestors had once been slaves." (1) 

Abebe Bikila leads Rhadi at the last stages of 1960 Rome Olympic marathon

            In fact, Bikila’s triumph had more contemporary implications: Mussolini, in spite of sending all the best of his army and using chemical weapons, had never really got to colonise Ethiopia but, on the contrary, one lonely disarmed man had conquered the invaders back with his inspirational running. Abebe Bikila became a symbol for the whole Africa in its historic moment of emancipation and rising. Ghana had gained the independence in 1957 and winds of freedom were blowing throughout the black continent. Abebe Bikila was showing the way: “I want the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” (3) The Ethiopian hero would become so inspirational that a poll in Jeune Africa magazine found he was then the most popular person in the continent. Bikila’s astounding victory had also appealed to track and field specialists. The Italian doctor, who examined Abebe after the race, had only one word to say: "Fantastico!" His pulse was 88, his eyes bright, no signs of tiredness and not one blister on his bare feet. Bikila stated he would have been able to continue at the same pace for 10-15 km longer. (4) Reputed sportive journalist Robert Parienté from L’Équipe believed in athletics “there are no spontaneous generations”, but that man had come from nowhere to win an Olympic gold medal in such incredible fashion. That Ethiopian’s superhuman nature had made the miracle. Yet, was it all the truth about?

Abebe Bikila was born the 7th August 1932 in Jato, a remote village in a countryside of rolling hills of difficult access even today, about two hours North of Addis Abeba. Jato is in the Oromian region, where almost every Ethiopian runner comes from. As every one of his countrymen, Bikila’s father was a shepherd and thus the future Olympic champion grew up grazing cattle. Interestingly, Rhadi Ben Abdesselem, the runner-up in Rome, came from similar background, being also a shepherd, yet in Moroccan Rif Mountains. Tending cattle, both would walk and run several kilometres a day and this precocious physical activity would make them become tougher as well as acquire a solid aerobic base, which would be really useful for their Olympic running days. Besides, Rhadi and Abebe grew up (and later train) in high altitude. Back then this important factor for those African athletes success at Rome Olympics passed unnoticed even to the most accomplished sportive journalists. Some years later there would be some pioneers training in that kind of conditions as miler Jim Ryun, but it would not be until Mexico Olympics, when every sprint and jump event world record was smashed, that the athletic world realised about the benefits of living and training at 2000 or 3000 metres high.  

Abebe Bikila at home with her wife and daughter Tsige

As he was 19 Abebe moved to Addis Abeba, following her mother. After a year unemployed, the young man was lucky enough of being engaged at the imperial bodyguard of Emperor Haile Selassie. This responsibility would be important in the development of his personality. Journalists and writers who went to meet Bikila in his home country described him as a serious and reserved man but interesting and cooperative.  “His smile is slow, but when it comes, it is complete and rewarding, like the opening of a wide curtain.” (5)  Bikila was fond of sports. In his youth he had played ganna, which is a sort of an Ethiopian long-distance version of hockey, with the goalposts in the opposing team villages - maybe a couple of miles apart. In Addis he  enjoyed more westerner sports as volleyball, basketball and football  In 1956 he started practising athletics too. He was 24 years old, not the usual age for a beginner in track and field but, as we saw before, he actually had a long experience in running. When Onni Niskanen, the national coach, knew about this man who to be fitted would run the 20km distance back and forth from Addis to Sululta every day, decided to make of him a marathon specialist.  
Abebe Bikila is awarded by Emperor Haile Selassie, after returning
victorious from Rome Olympic Games

Onni Niskanen was one of the around 600 Swedish who were engaged in the development of Ethiopian society, with a blend of adventurer and humanitarian spirit. Haile Selassie I, the last of the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was proud of being the head of a nation which had got to remain independent for centuries. Notwithstanding, Ethiopia was a backwards nation, with a big average of unemployment and whose inhabitants kept living in straw-roofed mud huts, even in the capital, Addis Abeba. The Negus wanted his country to become a modern nation but on the other side knew the danger of being dependent of the USA or the Soviet Union. Back from the exile after the end of World War II, he asked for help a neutral country, Sweden, who had impressed the Lion of Judah in a visit he had made in 1924. Officers, doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, physical trainers and aid workers would arrive in the 1940s to develop the different institutions of Ethiopian society. Onni Niskanen came in 1946 with a two years contract as sport instructor of the Emperor bodyguards and he would stay in the country forever.      

When his contract training with the imperial bodyguards expired, Onni Niskanen was engaged by the Ministry of sports and became also the Secretary-General of the Ethiopian Red Cross. Niskanen, along with ten other compatriots, organised the practise of sport, following the Swedish model, at school, police and military level, starting from scratch. “When we arrived there was not a civilian sports federation, no organisations, no sports grounds and no instructors or leaders.” (6) Ethiopians enjoyed competitions but it took some time until they understood the need of regular training. Soon it was evident the main sport would be long distance running. In the absence of sport grounds and equipment it was the logical choice. Besides running is a natural way of transport in Ethiopia. Many workers in Addis Abeba lived several kilometres from the workplace. Friday afternoon you would see them jog away over the mountains home to the family and on Monday morning, they would come jogging back with a bundle with a little food in. Usually, they ran barefoot in spite of the stony terrain. Running is a lifestyle. Ethiopians are used to run all the time since early childhood.” (6) Due to his commitment, Onni was named national coach. He had assisted to the Ethiopian Olympic debut in 1952 in Helsinki. Then missed the next Games in Melbourne, because of two years in Sweden to update his knowledge in physical education, but the head coach was ready to guide his promising bunch of athletes to amazing results in Rome.   

Major Onni Niskanen and Abebe Bikila take a break in their training session

Onni Niskanen had his native Finland in his heart and he proved it fighting for his country independence in both World Wars. As a fanatic of track and field to the point her first wife gave him an ultimatum so he had to choose between sport and her, Onni knew every exploit of the legendary Flying Finns Kolemainen, Nurmi, Ritola or Iso-Hollo. (7) However as a Swede athlete, then coach, he looked for the antidote to beat their invincible neighbours, along with other Swedish trainers, and eventually got it. The winning formula was called fartlek (speed play), which was a form of interval training with a free blend of both aerobic and anaerobic system developing strategies, speed and endurance, in a natural environment. During a fartlek session, faster-than-race pace was required. (8) This method, created by Gusta Holmer, was disclosed when Gunder Hägg trained at Gösta Olander's in Vålådalen but Niskanen was also in the same town at the time and he might have been first. (2) With their innovative workouts, Hägg and Arne Andersson would smash the records from the 1500m to the 5000m during the 1940s.
            No matter he was or was not the inventor of fartlek, Niskanen introduced the Swedish “natural school” methods in Ethiopia. The coach of Abebe Bikila left precise information, later published by his heirs at the Niskanen foundation, about his training strategies prior to Rome Olympics. As in Holmer’s, fartlek in the forests was combined with track sessions, with the emphasis in speed, and long road runs up to 32km. “Cross-country running sessions of 1 to 1½ hours were part of the daily training for the long distance runners, but not some casual jogging. Pace training, pace training and more pace training. Speed running for 4-500 metres at highest speed, up rather steep slopes, varied with a bit slower running in between. The same thing when it came to track training. Pace! Six to eight 1.500 metres races, to start with in 4minutes 20 to 25, then they had to press the times downwards. They also ran on the track for 30 - 40 minutes, with varied pace. Sometime full speed through the bends, sometimes on the straights. Road running was done twice per week and on distances that were increased day by day. Sauna baths twice a week was included in the training, as well as massage after the road running.” (4) As you can guess, race pace was also required by Niskanen during the long road runs. Thus Bikila did 32km at 3:10/ 3:15 pace average. With such preparation the gold medallist in Rome, after a conservative start, killed the Olympic marathon with two 5km splits mid-race of 14:37 and 13:42!!! (4) Speed endurance at its best. Only a stunning athlete as Rhadi could manage such demanding sustained change of rhythm, but he was inexorably left behind as the Ethiopian sped up near the end.

Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde, the first Ethiopian Olympic stars
                 Abebe Bikila’s Olympic victories were the combination of the athlete immense talent and the wise preparation of Onni Niskanen for the event. Yet when they first met, the future champion was no more than a rough diamond: "When I started training him, he ran like a drilling soldier. A long-distance runner must concentrate on running with a minimum loss of energy." (1) However the pupil’s willingness and self-discipline brought him to improve quickly in every aspect of his technique to a flowing and relaxed style, which one day would be described as so light his feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground. Besides his discipline, focus and wish of learning, Abebe had a never seen before capacity for running. He could endure the toughest training regimens and seemingly never got tired… And behind him was a coach with the intelligence and knowledge required to guide him to the top.  Even the decision of running the Olympic race barefoot was taken by Niskanen. Usually, Bikila and the second Ethiopian marathoner selected for Rome, Abebe Wakjira, would run without shoes but there was also the national pride: showing up two barefoot Ethiopians to the whole world, would result in negative image for the country; it would seem as though they were so poor they did not have the money to afford shoes for their representatives. Bikila and Wakjira were tested with and without shoes on the Olympic marathon track. Niskanen realized both runners were faster running barefoot and besides their style was more effective. The coach took the risk and asked the runners to also walk without shoes on even in the Olympic village to harden their feet. Wakjira recalls they needed to hide into the tent because athletes from other countries were laughing at them… but he who laughs last laughs longest.   

             Abebe Bikila’s gigantic size as athlete overshadowed other excellent runners in the Ethiopia of his time. Abebe Wakjira was named for the Olympics as he was already 39 years old. In spite of a too cautious start in Rome, he progressed until an eventual 7th place in the second half of the race, overcoming some of the favourites. Two other remarkable long distance runners had to remain at home, due to illness. Besha Teklu had beaten Bikila at the national military championships. Wami Biratu was the number one in the country before the arrival of Bikila. He was expected to run the 5000m and 10.000m in Rome but made a mistake which left him out of the Games. The athletes were paid a bus to go to Addis for the fitting of their costumes. However, Wami made the distance (100km overall) running, to improve on his stamina. Instead he got sick. Finally Mamo Wolde, who had participated in the precedent edition of the Olympics in Melbourne, was also absent this time around. Not as talented as Bikila, Wolde was however as hardworking. After narrowly losing a medal in Tokyo, his moment finally came in Mexico at 36 years of age, as the defending champion faltered, thus keeping the Ethiopian winning streak in the marathon.  

            Abebe Bikila’s 2:15:16 world record from Rome was broken by three other athletes before Tokyo Olympics: Toru Terasawa of Japan, Leonard Edelen of USA and Basil Heatley of Ireland, who lowered the universal best down to 2:13:55. Anyway, Bikila and his coach Onni Niskanen never worried about records. They only cared about not over racing and peaking in the best possible shape at the Olympic Games. In those years Abebe competed sparingly over the world in places as Osaka, Kosice (9) and Boston, now wearing running shoes. In the latter race he suffered his only defeat in all the marathons he completed in his career, crossing the line in fifth place. All the preparations seemed to be under schedule for Tokyo Olympic Games but with 40 days to go his participation was jeopardised when being diagnosed appendicitis. He could not resume his training. After being operated, he just was able of jogging. Thus many dismissed his chances. However, in the decisive moment Bikila proved how privileged his nature was, winning the race again in a world record time, 2:12:11, this time wearing shoes. The runner-up arrived more than four minutes afterwards, while the Ethiopian double champion was doing his stretching routine.

            Abebe Bikila was mentally ready to defend in Mexico but he suffered a leg injury while training for Zarautz marathon in 1967. At the Olympic race, not yet recovered, he had to leave after 17km, before encouraging mate Mamo Wolde to win the gold for Ethiopia. One year afterwards the national hero suffered a tragic car accident, while trying to avoid some students in a political demonstration in Addis Abeba. Despite being send by the Emperor to London, he left hospital paraplegic on a wheelchair. However Abebe did not lose his sportive passion. Encouraged by Niskanen, he started practising archery and joked about the possibility of winning a third gold medal in Munich, where he was invited as a special guest. Abebe Bikila died from a cerebral haemorrhage, related with his car accident, the 25th October 1973 at age 41. He has been a major inspiration for every Ethiopian athlete who has come since. 

domingo, 5 de junio de 2011

About the Kenyan marathoning Boom

     "Kenyans are not really interested in the marathon. I was not either, so when people would praise me for running fast I did not think much of it. But I knew another runner from Kenya, a little older than me, who made a name for himself in Japan—so I thought, if I can get to Japan, maybe I can do well as a runner there, too." (1) Eric Wainaina, marathon Olympic double medallist.

Geoffrey Mutai wins 2011 Boston marathon in an outstanding time of 2:03:02
Photo: Elise Amendola/ Associated Press
        Well, things have really changed since Eric Wainaina sailed to Japan in 1993, in the wake of 1987 World Champion and 1988 Olympic silver medallist Douglas Wakiihuri, looking for a strong support for his marathon career, which was not available then at his homeland. Currently, more than half of the top-100 runners in the marathon ranking lists are born in Kenya: 62 in 2009, 59 in 2010 and 55 this year. The last two World champions are from this country and so is the Olympic titleholder. 
Nevertheless, back in the eighties, when the marathon discipline was becoming increasingly popular among both elite runners and masses and Ethiopian, Tanzanian and Djiboutian athletes were making the highlights at the newly fashionable contests of New York, Chicago, Rotterdam or London, Kenyan marathoners were almost absent in this boom.  The 42,195 km race was strange to the country's athletic tradition.  Scarcely, we can remember from that time Josef Nzau, Ibrahim Hussein, who was based in Alburquerque, and Douglas Wakiihuri, that guy who had gone to live in Japan, (2) because of the reputation of Toshihiko Seko’s coach Kiyoshi Nakamura, that man who trained both athlete's bodies and minds.
After two straight boycotts had almost extinguished athletics track activity in the country, Kenya had started to rise again strongly in the mid eighties, thanks mainly to the astonishing achievements in Cross Country, which made recover lost confidence and national pride.  Coach Mike Kosgei and athlete John Ngugi led the Kenyan resurgence, with the hardest workouts ever seen, and their example started to be imitated everywhere in the country.  The IAAF also helped, subsidizing poor countries and launching the World Junior championships, which reinvigorated the work at grassroots level.  Subsequently, Kenya won three gold medals at 1987 Rome World Championships and four at 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.  The nation had been back to the level of Mexico Games and started setting the basis for an increasing stranglehold at the distance events, which continues to the date.  Talking about the roads, Douglas Wakiihuri had got gold in Rome and silver in Seoul, and soon afterwards won at London and New York marathons.  Ibrahim Hussein, also triumphed in New York and three times in Boston. These early succeses and the newly incorporated money incentives convinced Kenyan runners the marathon distance was worth a try.
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, a four times Boston marathon winner and the
 inaugural world major marathons champion

However, without any tradition in the country, help had to come from abroad to start developing the base for further success.  Boston marathon organisers and Kenyan athletics authorities entangled an arrangement, in search of mutual benefits, since 1992: the East Africans agreed to use exclusively Boston marathon for World Championship and Olympic trials and, in exchange, the Americans would pay expenses for a number of Kenyan entrants in their race and would subsidize a spring marathon training camp in Africa for a few years. Kenyan runners, who had never participated in Boston marathon before 1986, won the race ten years in a row, the whole 1990s decade.
 Some athletes went abroad in search of opportunities.  Eric Wainaina travelled to Japan and some others, like Moses Tanui and Paul Tergat, joined an Italian sports club, managed by renowned coach and physician Gabriele Rosa, who in 1995 started investing in low-budget training camps in Kenya, sponsored by Fila , mainly for marathon preparation. (3) (4)
Small money made big miracles.  Kenyans, along with Ethiopians and North Africans, amazingly,  started producing a massive number of world class athletes in both track and road, dominating distance running in the nineties, in a way never seen before in the history of athletics, and still increasing their stranglehold in the first decade of the 20th century.  On the other hand, the rest of the world, especially European countries, more amazingly, were following the opposite trend, starting losing ground progressively and almost disappearing from long distance athletics spotlights by 2011.  A fine example is no European athlete was entered for the 10.000 metres at Osaka world Championships.  Furthermore, only two Europeans have made the all-time continental top-30 in the marathon during the last four years, with a maximum of three athletes under 2:10 in each seasonal list.  Meanwhile, at global level, the men's marathon is experiencing a meteoric progression in its standards, by far the biggest among the 47 athletics events. Since 2008, no less than 24 different men have dipped under 2:06, a feat only 4 others had achieved before.  All of them are African, mainly Kenyans, with the sole exception of US runner Ryan Hall. (5)   
  Not much is talked about this European decay and why the old continent current athletes, besides their inability to face Africans, are so inferior to the champions you could find in Great Britain, Portugal, Italy or Finland some decades before.  However, this Kenyan and Ethiopian phenomenon have been widely studied in newspapers, books or films.  Journalists, athletes, biologists, nutritionists… all have been in Eldoret looking for the secret of Kenyan success.  Besides the factors already cited, there are other reasons which explain this overwhelming African dominance.  Some argue about the real influence of one or two of them, but there are so many factors that all together make a big gap.
Firstly there is genetics.  East African runners have in general slender, lighter, body shape, which means further resistance to heat exhaustion.  It is illustrative some explain in these terms why Paula Radcliffe succombed to the heat at Athens Olympic marathon, while her tinier rivals Mizuki Noguchi and Catherine Ndereba could handle the weather without much trouble. Their limbs also have probably been adapted to activities where long walking or running is involved, which they have been carrying out since the dawn of humanity, as nomadic grazing or gazelles hunting.  Amazingly, about ¾ of the top Kenyan athletes belong to the Kalenjin group, most precisely the Nandi, which are also related to the Oromo tribe, which makes most of the Ethiopian racing population. Besides their privileged frame for distance running, both Nandi and Oromo as traditional warriors are famous for their physical and mental strength, outstanding qualities for an athlete.  Several physiologists like Scandinavian Bengt Saltin have been in Kenya. (6) Although they have found little evidence of genetics differences, it seems silly to deny its influence in sport when more than 90% of the best long distance runners come from East Africa and about the same proportion of sprinters have West African origin.   

Notwithstanding, everybody agrees the gap between East African and Westerner runners start being built at the grassroots level.  In contrast with European and American children, who increasingly are developing sedentary hobbies like watching TV or playing computer and videogames, many African kids have to run 10 or more kilometres every day in order to reach their school.  Without noticing, they are acquiring with the years the solid aerobic base the master Lydiard talked about, required to start any specific athletic workout, and besides they do it barefoot, adopting a natural and efficient way of running. At home, they do not have many distractions.  Instead they must help with the domestic economy, enduring a childhood full of hardship, which makes them tougher.  Their nourishment is also based in natural food, little industrialised, a diet rich in carbohydrates, with the famous ugali as staple, while our kids are eating too much fat and junk food.  We see, at high school age, when teens start training to become an athlete, Kenyans are already miles ahead.

Kenyan children take part in a shool race        
Photo: Adharanand Finn 
We must consider as well, while European children might focus in a wide variety of sports, Kenyan role models are all athletes, who are getting fame and money running all around the world and are also helping family and community with their earnings.  Athletics is the best opportunity for a more comfortable life. (7) Do not think wrong, Kenya’s future athletes, except a few cases, as four times Boston Marathon winner Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, are not facing starvation, but the reward obtained from winning a second rank marathon in Europe is about equal to one year work earnings in Kenya. Athletes also invest in schools and education thus becoming children benefactors. These ones dream of becoming the next Keino, Ngugi or Tergat, who are just their neighbours next door.  The whole atmosphere encourage running and you will not see anywhere in the world in school such racing passion and enthusiasm and athletics be taken so seriously (8)    
Other factors to consider are altitude and training.  Kenyans are born at 2000 metres of height.  Their organisms through time adapt themselves to the lack of oxygen, producing more quantity of red blood cells.  Unlike at The Andes or the Tibet, climate is warm and it makes running activity possible.  Some say it is the optimal height for training.  Mexican walkers, even go higher, after a period of adaptation at 2000 meters.  Others argue be born in altitude is an advantage but it is better to train at sea level, because at the mountains you waste too much energy.  I can say what really matters in Kenyan case it is the fact it is hilly training.  Westerners make some workouts on hills but it is not comparable to what East Africans do.  Throughout their whole intense running sessions they are up and down mountain trails, overcoming continuously moments of oxygen debt and as a result they increase plainly their resistance threshold. This is why they can have no problem in breaking their rivals legs with changes of speed and are unbeatable at the 3000 metres steeplechase, where every obstacle jump produce a lack of oxygen similar to the one is experienced when running up on a hill. Yet this kind of approach is not as tough as you can imagine.  Legs benefit from this alternation of ascending and descending efforts, instead of keeping a routinous running over flat roads.  Besides, in such natural environment, trees provide supplementary oxygen, which helps carry the uphill workouts.      
It is commonplace to say Kenyan athletes are the best because they work harder than anybody else.  Yet not everybody believes the murderous workouts Mike Kosgei and John Ngugi’s trademark, covering very long distances and asking the highest intensity, are the most advisable at such altitude.  It depends on the coach or on the athlete, because many are self-coached. Brother Colm O’Connell is less demanding in mileage amount, he prefers quality than quantity, and has produced a quite respectable number of World and Olympic champions. (9) Many athletes work with foreign coaches, specially Italians, like Gabriele Rosa, Renato Canova, Gabriele Nicola or Claudio Berardelli, that have their own ideas about how to train. What is sure Kenyan runners are fully dedicated to athletics.  They live in training camps and their lives consist of running, eating and sleeping, nothing else.  It is hard to imagine a European or American athlete with similar devotion.         
Nevertheless, devotion needs economical rewards.  During the 1970s and 1980s a corrupted Athletics federation (KAAA) tried to control every move and every earning of Kenyan athletes.  Only half a dozen runners based in US had some opportunities of competing in the international circuit but even then, the KAAA get once Henry Rono and Mike Boit pull off the track in Oslo and tried to get banned Mike Musyoki by the IAAF because he had placed his road winnings in trust with the US federation, instead of sending them back to Kenya. (3) In 1990, the same Mike Boit was elected Commissioner of Sports and he finished up with that non sense.  He ordered athletes were given their passports back and were allowed to compete where and when they wanted.  At the same time he invited foreign agents to come to the country and enlist athletes, what they did pretty quickly.  It brought to the spiral of opportunities, incentives and massive incorporation of youngsters to training camps, which started to spread everywhere, financed by those agents, shoe companies and other Kenyan runners who were making some money competing at European meetings and US roads.  It was the real beginning of the massive Kenyan dominance of distance running we know today. (3) (10)  
Former marathon Olympic champion Frank Shorter explains cleverly the phenomenon: “The record holders used to be athletes from industrialized nations who had access to technology and financial incentives.  As more Kenyans and Ethiopians could achieve the same access to agents, money and a lucrative running career, the balance of power changed.  The Africans finally got a level playing field.  Then, the game was over”. (9)

Daniel Komen, the day he became 5000 metres World Champion

         Yet the road to stardom is treacherous and it hides uncountable trap holes.  It is not necessarily easy to manage a long term athletics career.  It is not easy either to handle a meteoric rise from ashes to riches. (11) Kenya is overcrowded with talented runners looking for racing opportunities.  They follow ferocious training regimens in order to overcome the fierce competition in their own home country and, even if they survive the cut and get some international notoriety and money, many burn themselves in a few years of overtraining.  Only a few fortunate ones learn how to handle things wisely and keep themselves on the top for many years.  In the nineties, Haile Gebrselassie and Daniel Komen were taking turns in demolishing the distance track records.  Almost 20 years later, the Ethiopian ace, four times world and twice Olympic champion, is still competing for glory, now on the roads.  Interestingly he has established the current marathon world record in 2008 and is pushing the young generation of Kenyans to beat him and his record as he did two decades before on the track.  He hopes to fight for a medal in London Olympics.  
On the other hand, Komen, raised in poverty, in his breakthrough year of 1996, devoted himself to competing everywhere to collect as much money as possible, in the Athletics Grand Prix meetings.  He did not prepare properly for the Olympic Games.  Just went to Kenya for the trials in a hurry, not taking time in adapting to the altitude, and not surprisingly did not qualify.  The following year he won his only major title, the 5000 metres World championships in Athens, but soon afterwards started neglecting training and partying too much and began losing races.  He never recovered his former fitness. (12) Amazingly, Kenenisa Bekele has beaten every Gebreselassie’s record on the track, but has not been able to do the same with Komen’s.  It just means how much talent treasured that brief shooting star; how much talent was wasted.  Yet, not everybody has the chance of having Gebrselassie's great personality and a manager like Jos Hermens.   
  All three Kenyans who have medalled at the Olympic Games, Douglas Wakiihuri, Eric Wainaina and Samuel Wanjiru were based in Japan.  Obviously it is more than a coincidence.  Wakiihuri was the absolute pioneer.  His excellent performances in S&B  inspired coach Tsutomu Akiyama the idea of recruiting Kenyans in order to help rise the potential of his team Yamanashi Gakuin University.  They got two men, Joseph Otwori and Kennedy Manyisa. One had to be excellent to score the maximum points, the other just a little bit better than national members, to be an acccesible target for them.  In just a couple of years YGU won the New Year's ekiden race, and their succes encouraged other teams to follow their example.  Japanese corporate teams were beneficiated because of the arrival of their Kenyan runners, but these ones obtained plenty of advantages too.  (13) To be integrated into the Japanese corporate system offers you an education and regular incomes; an economical and emotional stability which the Kenyans depending on European agents and promoters not always can enjoy.  Besides, Japan is the country of marathon par excellence and there are around many experts, who can guide young runners to a long and fruitful career.
Waianaina, thanks to be trained in the same way Japanese long distance runners do, was the most (and maybe the only) consistent Kenyan marathoner during a whole decade.  Always a guarantee, he was selected for three consecutive Olympic Games, winning two medals in 1996 and 2000.  He is still competing on the roads.  Samuel Wanjiru was shaped into a potential Olympic winner under the wise guidance of first Takao Watanabe, then Barcelona-92 marathon silver medallist Koichi Morishita, who instilled in him the necessary self-discipline, focus and patience in the race (gaman) to play his cards at the right moment of the event. (14) Those qualities, already Wakiihuri had said in the eighties Kenyan athletes lacked. Perhaps, Kenyan (nandi) personality fitted more with the 800, 1500 or 5000 metres and this explains why their marathoning achievements in major championships had been so inferior to the track distance ones.  

Wanjiru, described by Morishita as the most responsible and hard-worker trainee he had ever had and at the same time a fearsome opponent because of both his power and his sense of tactics,  actually made a personal blend of Kenyan and Japanese style of training.  He stated the latter were too much methodical; they needed everything going under schedule. Instead, he would take a day off in case it rained, would prefer a lighter workout volume, making more emphasis in intensity, would train slower at altitude… (15) 
  Luke Kibet, under extreme heat and humidity became in Osaka only the second Kenyan in winning a World championships marathon, 20 years after Douglas Wakiihuri.  However, it was just a sign.  The man who was going to change Kenyan marathoning forever was Samuel Wanjiru the following year in the Olympic Games, in which is widely regarded as the best performance in the whole history of the event. Most previous major championships had been run cautiously, fearing the hot summer effects.  It never beneficiated Kenyan runners, who used to give the impression of not knowing how to handle an important race.  Wanjiru, who was just in his third marathon, did not like to run slowly so he started the final at world record pace and kept it until the 25 km. mark, when the temperature had risen to 30 degrees, helped by team members Martin Lel and Luke Kibet and also Ethiopian Deriba Merga and Eritrean Yonas Kifle.  In five kilometres all not-African runners were already eliminated. 
    Despite the alternatives at the front- pacing, Wanjiru always looked in control, surging aggressively continuously to inject a brisker pace, in words of Arata Fujiwara, “acting like a boxer who takes the initiative and punch to knockout his rival”. (14) Eventually he went alone and was the only one who could sustain a high rhythm until the finish line, ending in an unbelievable 2:06:32, three minutes better than the previous Olympic record.  Wanjiru’s demonstration proved it was possible a different approach to a race in heat conditions and, most importantly, proved to his Kenyan mates the national runners had the ability to beat everybody in the marathon, the same way they always had done at let us say the steeplechase. The freshly crowned Olympic champion did not go to Berlin World Championships but his compatriots had learned the lesson and developed a similar tactic, now knowing their chances increased in a fast race.  It remembered a Cross Country championship with every Kenyan in front, running for the team.  Thus, four times Boston winner Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot sacrificed himself for Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai, who were the fittest Kenyans in the race.  Kirui won a third in a row global championship for his country, again in a 2:06 timing.  It seems it is going to be like this for a long time. 

Martin Lel, Patrick Makau, Tsegaye Kebede, Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai at last London Marathon
Photo: Reuters/ Eddie Keogh

Wanjiru left Japan and the Toyota team soon after his Olympic victory, stating he was tired of running Ekidens.  Yet he went nowhere... After his departure, and with Daniel Njenga getting old, there is no first rank Kenyan marathoner left in Japan.  Mathathi, Ngatuny, Muchiri, Thuo, Paul Tanui, Bidan Karoki… are all of them 10.000 metres specialists. Amazingly, the ekiden races, which were created to foster marathoning spirit among Japanese citizens and help the country win the Olympic Games, have now become a target in itselfs not a mean.  Ekiden races are nowadays so popular that Japanese athletes devote all their efforts in peaking at Hakonen or New Year Ekiden, instead of preparing international championships.  Men marathon results have suffered the effects and there have only been one performance under 2:08 in six years, while at 2010 New Year Ekiden eight men ran their leg under the existing half-marathon national record. (16) Interestingly, top long distance runner Arata Fujiwara has abandonned the Corporate system, and last marathon sensation Yuki Kawauchi, who has never been into, has gotten to qualify for Daegu World Championships, despite working full time and self-financing all his athletics activity. 
    In Western lands, another strange phenomenon is happening lately.  Long distance specialists are progressively deserting the track to meet the roads.  Among the Kenyans the most renowned names are Moses Mosop, Leonard Patrick Komon, Micah Kogo, Sammy Kitwara, Bernard Kipyego, Philemon Limo and Wilson Kiprop.  Among the Ethiopians Gebregziagher Gebremariam, Tadesse Tola, Abreham Cherkos, Bekana Daba, Ali Abdosh, Markos Geneti, Azmeraw Bekele, Lelisa Desisa and Dino Sefar.  As a result, in the latter country, which field is not as deep as Kenyan's, to find the fourth man who will join Kenenisa Bekele, Sihine and Imane Merga at the 10.000 metres in Daegu, the selectors will have to go to 27:22 (Abera Kuma) or 27:41 (Ibrahim Jeylan).  The obvious reason is the road and marathoning circuit can offer now a largest choice of possible venues to compete in and far superior economical rewards than the Diamond League meetings.  Furthermore, Japan is the only country in the world, where 10.000 metre races are held regularly.  Even the Ivo Van Damme meeting did not organise a 10 km event in the last two years.  Besides, Kenenisa Bekele has never been beaten at that distance and the roads are much more open to everybody.  Coach Renato Canova has a fine example about that: Last year Leonard Komon ran at the Bislett Games 12:59 for 10th at the 5000 metres, winning a prize of 200$. The fly from Nairobi to Oslo had a cost of $1200 but as it is norm in these cases he was just paid $700 for expenses.  TOTAL AMOUNT= He paid $300 for running 12:59, the 16th best mark of the yearly lists.  On the contrary, this year he finished first a road race in New York and besides improved the meeting record, earning $45.000. (17) 
Of course, road races and marathons are improving massively in quality field with the addition of so many talented runners.  London and Boston marathons were more loaded than ever and their results speak clearly about the outstanding level the event has reached in the last seasons. 
   Emmanuel Mutai obtained, with his first victory in a major marathon, the deserved prize to his regularity, for being the most consistent performer in the event since he won the Amsterdam marathon in 2007.  Only once he finished worst than fourth in his last eight marathons, all of them majors, including also a silver medal at last World Championships. Mutai surprised everybody running away thanks to covering miles 21 and 22 in 4:30 and the stretch between 30 and 40 km in 28:44, no less than 25 seconds faster than Gebrselassie when he set the current world record. Emmanuel Mutai crossed the line in 2:04:40, more than one minute ahead everybody else; an astonishing difference acknowledging the quality of the field. It was the first time the 2:05 barrier was broken in London. (18)  
            Martin Lel had a happy comeback after being hampered by injuries for more than two years, getting the runner-up place.  It is symptomatic that arguably the two most solid Kenyans, along with Wanjiru, between 2005 and 2008, Kipkoech Cheruiyot and Lel are now experiencing real troubles with injuries.  The pre race favorites Patrick Makau, author of probably the best two performances last season, and Tsegaye Kebede, only beaten by Wanjiru in the circuit since 2008, finished just third and fifth, proving nobody is unbeatable right now and that every year and every race are different.  Between them, Marilson dos Santos at last had a fine day out of his favoured New York, improving largely on his PB, while Jaouad Gharib (sixth) still expects to be in contention for another Olympic Games, despite his age.  World Champion Abel Kirui withdrew from the race and his chances for defending in Daegu seem close to zero, after two seasons full of injuries and disappointments. James Kwambai did not finish either.  Kwambai and Duncan Kibet, the two Kenyan co-recorders, only have had one good season so far.  Finally, Safronov beat Rothlin for the European honour, really far from the Africans.

Haile Gebrselassie expects to end his long and brilliant career with a medal at London Olympics marathon
Photo: Neil Bennett
       Boston 115th edition was still more thrilling than London and full of controversy, after the sensational winner Geoffrey Mutai and runner up Moses Mosop covered the 42,195 km in 2:03:02 and 2:03:06 respectively, one minute below the official world best.  The oldest of the classic marathons is notwithstanding ineligible for world records, because of being too much downhill and a point to point course, thus having the chance of benefiting from strong tailwinds as it was the case. Due to its pedigree, Boston timings have always being accepted by the IAAF and the race is included in the official list of eligible marathons for achieving the London Olympics standard, while other downhill races like Los Angeles and Florence are not.  Yet this time, the results were written down on the IAAF statistics page, in a separate table, which might seem unfair.
            Traditionally, Boston marathon had been considered a tough race, because the second half contains the terrific Newton hills.  In addition there are not pacemakers scheduled and normally the times were always being quite slower than in London, Berlin or Chicago.  However this time around American Ryan Hall, like he did in the precedent year, when Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot established a new race record of 2:05:52, decided to push the pace since the very beginning and went back to the front every time the rhythm was dying, bringing the leading pack to a blazing 1:01:58 first half.  Then Geoffrey Mutai, second last year to Patrick Makau in Rotterdam and Berlin, took the initiative. Running comfortably over the hills, because in Iten he is used at training in similar conditions, he achieved the astonishing goal of running a negative split (1:01:04): one minute better in elevation than the downhill part, killing the race between the 30 and 35 km, the most difficult stretch of the marathon, because it includes the Heartbreak Hill.  Geoffrey Mutai ran that 5 km in 14:11, which can be considered, despite the tailwind, the best split ever in a marathon.  Then came Moses Mosop, in his extraordinary debut at the 42,195 distance, catching Mutai in the subsequent downhill and challenging him to the finish line. (19)
     Gebremariam confirmed his nice adaptation to the event after his victorious first marathon in New York, and Hall followed with a praiseworthy fourth place.  It is enjoyable the new generation of American distance runners like Hall, Rupp, Ritzenhein, Tegenkamp or Solinski run without any inhibition, not fearing anybody.  This is the right way for them to shorten up the gap with the Africans.
    Boston unexpected race development also illustrates how relative can be to set a standard world record for an event when every marathon course is different and so are the atmospheric circumstances. Haile Gebrselassie ran his record in Berlin through a flat loop, under perfect conditions and helped by especially inspired pacemakers, Abel Kirui over all, and his final timing also owns something to James Kwambai challenge until the last kilometres. Gebre’s performance was a groundbreaking one but maybe not the very best ever. This merit arguably belongs to Sammy Wanjiru’s race at Beijing Olympic Games. Last Boston race can also be ranked among the finest marathons to the date.  Of course the wind helped enough as it was seen in the general improvement of the standards in both elite and masses of about three minutes.  Nevertheless, you need to be a quite solid runner to culminate such amazing feat. Just to say the women were not even close to a world best and they had the same tailwind and their field was equally outstanding. Geoffrey Mutai emerged from Newton Hills as the strongest marathoner in the world and hot favourite for Olympic gold and Moses Mosop as the man to watch in a near future.
    Renato Canova, who coaches Mosop and also Wilson Kiprop, Abel Kirui or Florence Kiplagat  has pointed out another decisive factor in the spectacular progression of marathon standards we are experiencing these last seasons. (17) Runners like Tergat or Gebrselassie joined the marathon fields when they were not anymore in their prime on the track.  However, some of the 42,195 km race emerging stars are young athletes, who have not lost any speed and have the ability of running the 10.000 metres under 26:40 or faster.  Wanjiru was one of those privileged ones; So are Geoffrey Mutai,  Moses Mosop, Wilson Kiprop or Abreham Cherkos.  Kiprop and Mutai made something even better last year: running twice under 27:35 in altitude and grabbing gold and bronze respectively, beating all track oriented specialists, in contests as competitive in distance running as the African Championships and the Kenyan trials for them may be.  This endurance speed will enable them, with the right preparation, to sustain throughout the marathon an even pace of 29 minutes for every 10 km split and complete the marathon well under the current world record.  Canova thinks, after seeing his promising first marathon and specially his recent brilliant showing while improving the 25.000 and 30.000 metres world records on the track, Moses Mosop will be ready to run under 2:02:30 as soon as next year.
 Welcome to the new Era!!!
Sammy Wanjiru in his last marathon victory, at Chicago 2010
 “ I estimate the training of the Kenyans is qualitatively about half that of Americans or Europeans of the same level of performance. When the majority of East African children are decently fed, when malaria, tuberculosis and intestinal disease are controlled African runners will amaze the world. They will accomplish performances that are hardly even dreamed of today.” (20) Bruce Tullow, former British athlete, 1973