They were the pride of Kenya, but the country’s athletics community could not escape the worst of the post-election tribal violence after disputed December polls.
While two runners perished in the Rift Valley crucible of hate, there have also been allegations that stars past and present helped fund the New Year spree of inter-ethnic killings that ultimately claimed an estimated 1 500 lives.
As a result, this summer’s Beijing Olympics have taken on an unusual significance for the East African country — and talk within the sporting community has turned to healing.
Kenya’s sporting heroes are desperate to show they are united, and ready to bring back the medals Kenya craves, despite Olympic build-up training inevitably falling foul of the unrest.
”We athletes, we are peacemakers and peace lovers,” said former world 10 000m champion Moses Tanui. ”When we train, we train with all other communities.”
The vast majority of Kenya’s world-class athletes hail from the western Rift Valley, scene of the worst of the violence.
They also hail mostly from the same ethnic grouping, the Kalenjin.
These people largely supported opposition leader Raila Odinga, who lost to President Mwai Kibaki from the rival and majority Kikuyu tribe in the disputed December 27 presidential election that sparked the unrest, which finally ended with a power-sharing deal.
Training centres for these athletes are mostly found in the Rift Valley area — many around the town of Eldoret, the scene of a shocking church burning on January 1 in which 30 people died, indelibly marking the country’s soul.
That same day, Lucas Sang, a member of the 1988 Seoul Olympics 4 x 400m relay team, died amid the violence: his mutilated body was discovered the next day in Eldoret, where he had retired from the sport to take up farming.
A second track star, marathon runner Wesley Ngetich, succumbed on January 21 to a poisoned arrow in the southern Trans Mara district.
Training for marathon runners was particularly disturbed, the athletes faced with the impossibility of running through areas where groups of men roamed armed with more than just anger.
Above all, the political unrest put an end to the seemingly untouchable status for so long enjoyed by Kenya’s athletes — on a par with footballers in Europe.
‘You run for your country, for one flag’
A February 21 report issued by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) cited ”several informed sources” to state that Kalenjin militias were financed by track stars, with the express aim of mounting raids against Kikuyus.
”The motivation for giving the raiders cash and transport is said to be partly economic,” the ICG report’s authors wrote. ”They allegedly want the Kikuyus evicted so they can take their farms and property.”
Particularly damaging, while they acknowledged various accounts of former army corporal Sang’s death, they said that ”most of the accounts suggest he met his death on the outskirts of Eldoret while commanding part of a Kalenjin raiding party”.
Another top athlete, world marathon champion Luke Kibet, narrowly escaped death, local reports also said at the time.
Kenyan athletics leaders were outraged, quickly organising a press conference to deny the allegations.
Tanui, a friend and business associate of Sang’s, for one insisted that sport’s code of ethics would have prevented any of the country’s athletes from taking part in such action.
”I remember in January that we tried to shelter some of the athletes that were in Eldoret, to protect them until the police came and escorted them to wherever they wanted.
”In Kapasbet, a Kikuyu athlete was saved by a Kalenjin — if we had a motive for doing something, those athletes would have been killed,” Tanui said.
”You run for your country, for one flag. When I’m running, they don’t say Moses is Kalenjin, they say Moses comes from Kenya. Nobody knows who is Kalenjin and who is Kikuyu.”
If the killings have subsided, their consequences are still being felt by the athletics community.
In just one symbolic example, the western city of Kisumu saw its athletics stadium complex — the sport’s spiritual home — given over to people displaced by the rule of fire, machetes and arrows.
As a result, the first race meeting of the season on March 7 and 8 — part of qualifying matches for the Beijing Olympics in August — had to be moved to the capital, Nairobi. — AFP