By Drazen Jorgic | Reuters*
ITEN, Kenya (Reuters) – It has taken Kenya nearly five decades to gain the upper hand over its neighbour and greatest athletics rival Ethiopia, but the winning formula was staring Kenyan track officials in the face all along.
The London Games will be the next battleground between the two giants of middle and long-distance running, who have tussled for east African track dominance since the 1960s.
Kenya finally toppled Ethiopia from its perch in the medals table by going against the grain to focus on female athletes in a male-dominated track team.
It was only then that the number of gold, silver and bronze medals around Kenyan necks went through the roof.
“Kenya was shooting itself in the foot initially by not including women,” said Paul Ereng, Kenya’s 800m Olympic gold medal winner at the 1988 Seoul Games.
Ereng, a cross-country head coach at the University of Texas, said Kenya would often select three male athletes to compete for an Olympic event but only take one woman.
“Our societies are male dominated. It is said women belong to the house and all that but I think we are disturbing those ideals,” Yobes Ondieki, Kenya’s 1991 world champion over 5,000m, told Reuters in Eldoret, a town in western Kenya’s Rift Valley.
“We are giving women a chance and women are proving themselves,” Ondieki said, looking at his old friend Ereng, who nodded. “You can say it’s like an Arab Spring for women.”
After Ethiopia narrowly pipped Kenya in the medals table at the 2004 Athens Games, Kenyan athletics officials realised the majority of Ethiopian medals at Athens were won by women and decided to bring women’s athletics to the high level of men.
“We got more sponsorships (for women), we trained more coaches to focus on the women…,” said Peter Angwenyi, a spokesman for Athletics Kenya.
The new strategy started to pay off when 18-year-old Pamela Jelimo won the 800 metres at the 2008 Beijing Games to become the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
But Jelimo wants even more financial investment in women, insisting: “We still have a long way to go.”
ETHIOPIA IN DISARRAY
Ethiopia heads to London hoping to improve on the Beijing Games, where Kenya won twice as many medals, eager to prove its athletics factory can still produce great champions.
But its preparations appear to have run into trouble.
Ethiopia experimented with a more conventional training approach after the Beijing Games, allowing athletes to report to camps only ahead of major competitions, but went back to stricter methods after the country’s runners flopped in two subsequent world championships.
Daegu 2011 represented a steep downfall for Ethiopia, a country used to outpacing its rivals in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon — it only won a single gold medal and four bronze.
Kenya, on the other hand, scooped seven gold, six silver and four bronze medals.
“What happened in Berlin (in 2009) and Daegu is a reflection of that (conventional training approach),” said Yilma.
“I’m not saying they don’t train at all in those circumstances, but the concentration levels and commitment won’t be the same if they are based on their own.”
At Addis Ababa’s stadium, Ethiopia’s elite athletes scamper in groups in a return to the old Soviet-era boot camps that thrust Ethiopia’s long distance runners to the sport’s pinnacle.
It’s eight months since the Ethiopian Athletics Federation summoned 200 athletes ahead of the world indoor championships in March and the London Olympics in July and August.
“We keep a close eye on our athletes because we want to monitor their forms at close range and to avoid a situation where they would return back burnt out from over-competing,” said national team coach Yilma Berta.
IN SEARCH OF THE MAGIC FORMULA
In contrast, Kenya favours the open-house philosophy and a desire to keep athletes training near their rural homes.
As the dawn sunrise peers over acacia trees and lush green hills in western Kenya’s Rift Valley, it is the sight of slim torsos that catches the eye in Iten, a small Kenyan town some 2,400m above sea level.
The ranks of runners jogging through the maze of trails around Iten’s gentle hills is swelled every year by foreign athletes who visit the ‘Runner’s Mecca’ in hope that the magic formula will rub off on them.
Pieter Langerhorst, Dutch national athletics coach who co-owns the High-Altitude Training Centre in Iten, says athletes from dozens of countries have trained in his camp over the past year, including the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe.
“A lot of top Ethiopians are also training here in our place,” Langerhorst explained, pointing out that Kenyans do not go to the main training camp in Ethiopia. “You can’t compare what they have (in Addis) to here.”
But one of the biggest concerns for Ethiopia, according to local commentators, is the lack of talent coming through the ranks to replace the likes of the great Haile Gebrselassie, while Kenya is reporting one of its greatest crops ever.
“Kenya had an absolute and huge reservoir of athletes training so it was only a matter of time before the Kenyans would wear (the Ethiopians) down,” said Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish missionary who has trained 25 Kenyan world champions and four Olympic gold medal winners in the last 36 years.
“The same as Jamaicans in sprinting — it’s only a matter of time before the cream comes to the top.”
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho; Editing by James Macharia)
*Culled from Reuters