By Martin Keino*
When the world’s best long-distance runners take to the track and road at the London Olympics this month, the fierce competition and one of the most intense rivalries in athletics between Kenya and Ethiopia will take centre stage. Ethiopian runners have dominated the 5,000m and 10,000m events on the track for many years. Kenya has won these races at the Olympics only once. Ahead of London, the tables seem to have turned, with Kenyan athletes now favourites.
The history of the rivalry dates back to 1968, when Kenya emerged to win three of its firstever gold medals at the Mexico City Olympics, challenging Ethiopia as the regional athletics powerhouse of the era and triggering its domination of the middle-distance races since then. The two East African neighbours live and train in similar high-altitude areas of the Rift Valley that cuts across their borders. Their athletes have similar physical builds, and the countries share a determination to change their socio-economic conditions that brings them to the start and finish lines almost on an even keel. What makes these runners the best in the business is the healthy competition among them, a good rapport they share with each other and, most importantly, fierce national pride. The London Olympics will usher in a new level to the rivalry. After successful 2008 Beijing games for both countries, they are looking to protect and increase their medal tallies by sharpening up in events that they had missed out on. Kenya wants to reverse the paucity of gold medals in the 10,000m, and in June controversially held some of the trials for its Olympic team in Eugene, Oregon, in a climate closer to London’s.
Having had little success in middle-distance before this year, the Ethiopians have come out guns blazing in recent Diamond League races with new athletes upstaging their more renowned neighbours, effectively changing the form-chart for the Olympics. The fierce head to-head battle for long-distance supremacy between Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot and Ethiopian Meseret Defar will resume in London, along with Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele against Kenya’s top men in the 10,000m.
After winning every major citymen’s marathon in 2011, breaking every course record, as well as claiming World Championship gold, the top 20 places on the world ranking lists and the world record, Kenya looks set to defend its marathon title from Beijing. It won’t be as easy as it sounds, however. So far in 2012, Ethiopia has proved it can match the Kenyans’ performance, winning most of the major marathons and breaking just as many course records as Kenyans did last year. The stakes have been raised, and this fantastic rivalry between the two neighbours will provide many of the highlights of the London Olympics.
*Source www.theafricareport.com.Martin Keino a former Kenyan pace-setter, is a sports marketer.