The unfinished race: Kimetto, Jelimo to Rudisha…what went wrong?
Isaac Swila in Nairobi Sandra Lamwaka in Kampala Gilbert Kiprotich in Eldoret
David Rudisha is an “A class” athlete, but it’s debatable as to whether Dennis Kimetto, the man who once held a marathon record, and Pamela Jelimo, a 2008 Olympic champion belongs to this special cadre.
For Alfred Kirwa Yego, and Ugandan Dorcas Inzikuru, they are way below this class of athletes, but for one reason or the other, their tales conjoin like Siamese twins to give a meaning.
At their prime they had the world at their feet. They inspired hope amongst many budding athletes and held their respective nation’s collective breath.
But that is just a tip of the iceberg. To best understand their stories, we have to begin by revisiting the events of August 9 2012 at the Olympic Stadium.
Lining up for the 800m race final at the imposing Olympic Stadium, filled to the rafters, the deafening noise making for a raucous atmosphere, was a lanky dark-skinned kid from Kilgoris town, a dusty peri-urban setting located some 327 kilometres west of Kenyan’s capital Nairobi.
This skinny kid happened to be David Lekuta Rudisha.
Aged just 23, he was competing at his first ever Olympics. In the preceding year, 2011, at the Daegu World Athletics Championships, he’d won the 800m gold medal. That race was a precursor to greater things.
And on this particular warm evening in London, he was here to measure his mettle with the crème de la crème.
Being an Olympics final, the magnitude of the evident cannot be overemphasized, and Rudisha knew what was in store.
Back home in Kilgoris, and in Nairobi, his kin were glued on TV sets to watch him take on the world’s best. And he did not disappoint. From gun to tape, he ran a powerful race, his long strides giving him the momentum as the crowd roared on, his engine, full of gas, giving his competitors no chance in a race that has been described by some of the most refined athletics writers as the “The Greatest 800m Race Ever”.
In doing so, Rudisha became the first and, so far, the only runner to break the 1:41minute barrier in the two-lap race. In leading from the start of the race, Rudisha pulled away from the rest of the field after 200m, completing the first lap in 49.28 seconds en-route to winning gold in 1:40:91 – and setting a world record!
His sterling performance earned him rave reviews across global media which tipped him to become the king of 800m as age was still on side – he was just 23.
Rudisha would go on to defend his title at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, clocking 1:42.15. Besides the Olympics heroics, he has two gold medals inder his belt from the World Championships – Daegu 2011 and Beijing 2015- as well as Africa Championship gold medals won in 2008 and 2010.
With the impressive performances at the formative years of his career, many had hoped that ‘King’ David would go on to break his own record and dominate the world stage. Sadly, the 2016 heroics in Rio was his last title, at just 26. Fast forward, at 31, Rudisha is competing no more. His long strides wow his fans no more, the majestic runs, and signature smile at the finish line are non-existent.
Pamela Jelimo, nicknamed Éldoret Express, paradoxically, like Rudisha, is an 800m specialist.
She won gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing at the age of 18, becoming the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic gold medal and also the first Kenyan to win the Golden League Jackpot, pocketing a cool $ 1million.
Her nostalgic conquest of the track at the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium in Beijing in 2008 brought her fame and fortune. Apart from the jackpot, she pocketed around Sh5million for striking gold.
Sadly, with the monies and the fame came the decline – fast and furious. Not much success was realized in the succeeding seasons until 2012 at the indoor meeting in Lieven, France that she began to get her groove back, finishing second to Malika Akkaoiu of Morocco.
Four years later, in 2012, in London, when Rudisha was taking the world by storm at the Olympics, Jelimo came fourth only to have her fourth-place finish upgraded to silver when in November 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended Russian female runner- Mariya Savinova-Farnosova and Ekaterina Poistogova, who finished first and third on the day – be given lifetime ban for her doping violations at the Olympics. The Court of Arbitration for Sports subsequently imposed a four-year ban on her after finding her guilty.
When her career is analyzed, and autobiography written, 2008 will be her special year, not only did money flow into her bulging bank account like oil in a well but it’s also the year that she engraved her name in the athletics books with the mind-blowing performance at the Bird’s Nest, making her an instant heroine among her kith and kin and a household name.
However, as fate would have it, an Achilles strain developed while in training in 2009 marked the beginning of the decline for the police inspector.
Since the 2012 Indoor Championships in Istanbul Turkey where she won gold, little has been heard of the 31-year-old queen, who is married to Peter Kiprotich Morrey, himself a former runner specializing in 800m.
Like Jelimo and Rudisha, the story of David Kimetto, a former marathon world record holder, also makes for a bitter-sweet reading.
It is night of September 28, 2014. One woman – Caroline Chepkorir – has a group of men squeaking as they offer first aid. Chepkorir has fainted – due to excitement – after witnessing her husband Denis Kimetto break the world marathon record at the BMW Berlin Marathon running a time of 2:02:57. This is 26 seconds faster than the previous best performance over the distance.
On this particular night, Kimetto, a fierce runner, became a monster on the track. At 30 he had beaten the odds and broken a world record with zero experience on the track or as a marathoner. His spouse Chepkorir couldn’t hold it and so were his fans – enthralled by the milestone.
This heroic not only changed Kimetto’s life. Expectations grew by huge proportions, his narrow shoulder carrying the weight of so many athletics enthusiasts who believed that in the succeeding seasons he would become the King of Marathon.
Prior to breaking the marathon world record in 2014, Kimetto had, in 2012, clocked the fastest time in history by a marathon debutant by clocking 2:04:16 to finish second to his training partner and compatriot Geoffrey Mutai at the Berlin Marathon.
Kimetto’s star continued to shine and in May of 2012 as he broke Sammy Kosgei’s world record by a staggering 32 seconds running a 1:11:18 at the BIG 25K in Berlin with a prior win of his 25K world-record run, of the Berlin Half Marathon in a time of 59:14 – a mark that still stands as his personal best over the distance to date.
However, after a series of sensational results and two world records, Kimetto’s star on the world stage began to dim. The build-up to Chicago wasn’t a smooth one. He had malaria and suffered a back problem that same month. After Berlin, his situation deteriorated and the world started witnessing a career poked with injuries and misfortunes. The once shining light of Kimetto had started to fizzle as his prowess diminished.
To sum it up, at the peak of his powers he won three major marathons and four half marathons – in Berlin, Nairobi and RAK Half Marathon (UAE) – all at around the same time.
With his potential, many, and rightfully so, had hoped he’ll dominate the world stage and attain longevity.
To date questions, abound, as to why the 36-year-old long-distance runner did not bag an Olympics medal or a world championships title. What could have prevented him from hitting the glass ceiling?
Alfred Kirwa Yego, one of Kimetto’s contemporaries also flattered to deceive. The 34-year-old, also an 800m specialist, gave glimpses of his potential at the Beijing Olympics where he bagged bronze, besides winning gold at Osaka Japan, in 2007, at the World Championships, and silver in Berlin, in 2009, in the same competition. But that is as far as his success went.
Like the aforementioned, Kirwa failed to take his career to the projected heights.
Across the border, in Uganda, the 38-year-old steeplechaser runner Dorcas Inzikuru comes to mind.
For a nation whose forte wasn’t athletics until the turn of the century, giving rise to amongst others Joshua Cheptegei, Inzikiru was the spark in the dark days.
It thus came as no surprise when on the 9th of August 2005, Uganda’s parliament spared a moment to pay homage to the little-known girl from Vuura in Arua district for winning the inaugural IAAF women’ 3000meters Steeplechase Championship in Helsinki Finland in a time of 9:18 seconds.
Rightly so, at just 23, she had ended Uganda’s drought on the world stage, three decades after the great John Akibua won Uganda’s first Olympic title in 400m hurdles at the 1972 games in Munich.
Apart from the Helsinki triumph, Inzikuru also shone a year later in Melbourne Australia, winning gold in the same discipline, to safeguard her place in the history books as Uganda’s best women steeplechase runner.
Her triumph got State commendation as President Yoweri Museveni bestowed her with a Heroine’s Award while also directing the army to build for her a house in her home district of Arua.
‘The Arua Gazelle’ had thus become a star – her name became the reference for sports commentators – an effervescent brand for Uganda.
However, trouble started brewing for Dorcus. A troubled marriage and tempestuous career after motherhood conspired to deny her further medals, ending her promising career.
The unfinished race became her story, even as her unforgiving fans tore her to shreds, on social media.
In an interview with NTV Uganda in 2012, Inzikuru asserted that poor facilitation and the lack of support given to athletes by sports bodies was the reason for her poor performance that year.
“I had to go downtown London to buy my own shoes, no one was there to help me, yet I would have used that time to train, instead I was out and about looking for shoes and by the time I came back I was exhausted,” she lamented.
However, Inzikuru misfortunes had begun quiet earlier, in 2006, before she even won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games that took place that year in Melbourne Australia. She was already struggling with a career-threatening allergy which resulted into a string of injuries. After Ostrava, her doctors recommended that she rests while undertaking light training.
But the problem was exacerbated when she went to Iten in Kenya to train for the African Championship.
“My training was not consistent and with my injuries and the knees the soft tissues started swelling and clouting. When I fell in Germany, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy comeback,” she said in an interview with UBC in 2018. The conditions in Iten were not conducive and the situation got worse.
“The routes in Iten were too dusty and this worsened the problem. Such that when I went to Doha for the Grand Prix meeting, I was profusely bleeding from the nose,” she said of her injuries during an interview with Reuters in 2006. But even with all those problems, the ‘Gazelle of Arua’ still hoped to compete in the then upcoming European circuit and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games where she won gold.
From the above narratives there is one common denominator, and it joins them at the hip: success and failure. Success in that they won medals and captured the psyche of a nation. Failure in that they failed the longevity test hence falling short of their full potential.
For Rudisha, life has not been the same since 2016. A long-term issue with the tendon that attaches to the sitting bone means he has not run competitively since 4 July 2017.
He has also had numerous challenges. On August 26, 2019, he escaped unhurt in a grisly road accident after his SUV car collided with a bus on a highway near Keroka. He confirmed the accident on his Twitter handle.
Later, the BBC reported that marital problems, plus the death of his father Daniel – himself an Olympic medallist – left him looking for “a bit of destruction to distract”.
“I still feel like I still have something in me. I have not exhausted everything,” he says.
“There is something left in the tank and that is what I want to exhaust before I think of doing other things,” he told BBC’s Tom Reynolds in March this year.
“If you saw me one month ago I was a little bit heavier, but now I am losing weight and the response is pretty good. The routine is back. When you miss out on training and competition for two years it is never easy…”
In an interview with Spikes magazine in October 2019, Rudisha was open about turning to partying as a way to release the pressure he felt from his on and off-track issues.
“With everything else going on in my life, the pressure sometimes got to me,” he said. “To release it I’d often hang out with friends, partying too much. It’s not something you intend to come your way but sometimes, during periods like that, you look for a bit of destruction to distract yourself.”
Unlike other athletes such as Kipchoge Keino or Paul Tergat who had success laden careers, shy of controversies, many athletes have found this hard to emulate, raising the million-dollar question: what must an athlete do to remain at the top? What are the contributing factors to their failures? What policy frameworks, if any, should be put in place to offer help?
Nailis Bigingo, the head coach of Uganda’s Prisons athletics team says the failure to attain longevity is because some of them join the career late when their best years are already gone.
“I think that athletics is a type of sport that should be instilled in the youth at a very young age,” he says, adding that getting the foundation right also makes athletes inculcate the discipline needed to compete at the top level.
Michel Boeting, a Dutch-based athletes’ manager argues that failing to realise one’s full potential could be a matter of fate as every athlete trains towards a set goal.
“The only sensible goal to chase is to be a better athlete than you were the day before.”
But the failure by some of these athletes could have been compounded by training regimes, and what should they look out for?
“You are an athlete 24/7, you should always have some basic fitness. You can’t go lower than six weeks’ trainings towards top-shape. Otherwise you let yourself go and is it harder to achieve growth in performance,” he said.
While noting that focus and discipline are mental processes which some have from scratch, other athletes struggle for this and only attains it while maturing in the sport while some never attain it at all, letting others run their lives hence failing.
“Talent will give you the platform to perform… focus, discipline and hard work decides how much higher that podium will get you,” he advises.
“After a race, rest is needed but you can’t sit too long doing nothing. Active rest is best but it’s also personal on what you feel best with. Some will take 2 weeks, other 4 weeks. Longer breaks will make it harder to grow in performance. You need to keep on building before you are too low,” he said before passing a withering verdict: “If many people hang on you there is no way you can fly. This contributes to failure.”
For his part, Claudio Berardelli, 2Running Club head coach whose stable includes some of Kenya’s high-flying active athletes such as Eunice Sum, Mercy Cherono, Amos Kipruto, Margaret Chelimo, Vincent Kipchumba, Evans Chebet, Benson Kipruto, to mention a few, notes that for an athlete to attain success and longevity, a lot of factors must be put into consideration and addressed, not just the sporting aspect.
“When we think of an athlete’s career we can’t just focus on their talent and physical characteristics but we have to consider the athlete as an individual and we have to try to find a formula to guide him into all the aspects that a professional career requires.
“To be an elite athlete you need to have certain characteristics in terms of physiology and bio-mechanic, depending on which event you run but today, considering how competitive the business is, to be successful might not just mean winning one event,” he said.
“You maybe talented but to be successful, probably it means to have a long term plan which can guarantee a long and successful career. In order to do that, you need to think of all the aspects of being a professional athlete.”
Having a proper management taking care of all the logistics and facilitating all the running activities, he argues helps an athlete to attain success.
“You need to have business mentality because having the capacity to build yourself around the stability… to do all these it is important to choose the right people around you to support you in the process (manager, coach, physiotherapist and maybe even some honest business advisors).”
Berradelli warns that discipline and proper management of an athlete’s social life are also key areas which must be well managed.
“Professional athletes are today very exposed socially, also due to social media platforms and their good exposure becomes important in order to have a proper position on the market,” he said, adding that diet and rest also contribute to one’s chances of having a fulfilling career.
Those who choose the night life may never attain the success of former revered athlete, such as Paul Tergat.
“The topic of diet is complex and definitely not easy to express, but some few basic concepts always work, for instance eating organic food as much as you can, with fruits and vegetables in high quantity. If possible, have an expert who might direct you well on how to balance well the three macro nutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates,” he said, noting that it is also important for an athlete to have quality sleep.
Athletics Kenya (AK) president Lt (Rtd) Jackson Tuwei attributes failure of some of these athletes to desire for quick money.
This trend, Tuwei explains, has seen many athletes shift to road races which are more lucrative in terms of prize money.
“I want to urge our athletes to stop shifting to road races early because when a young athlete goes to half marathon or marathons he or she might risk having a shorter career. In my opinion athletes should grow and remain in track right from their youth and then at the senior then they can now shift to road races,” he said, reckoning that discipline is also a key pillar and those who stick to it have had the legs to compete even in four Olympics.
Robert Ng’isirei, a long-time national youth head coach, credited for shaping and developing young talents for decades, and who has overseen the growth of renowned athletes including Vivian Cheruiyot, an Olympic gold medallist and a former 10,000m world champion, says lifestyle of the athlete plays a critical role in the success or failure of an athlete.
“I can give you the example of Vivian and Edna at the 1999 World Youth Championships and you can see they have developed and have been consistent over the years. It is down to discipline in your career and how you maintain yourself which also entails the food you eat. Our athletes should also be patient and avoid rushing towards success. You can’t win overnight, it takes time,” he advices.
It seems, for the generation that ran in the days gone by share in this script, something that many current athletes seem to lack.
John Ngugi, a five-time World Cross Country Champion who won gold medal in 5000m at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea reinforces this view point.
“A lot has changed from our time and the current crop of athletes. In our time we did not earn a lot of money, unlike nowadays, when athletes earn a lot. I think this is a big problem since some of them will run and when they get large sums of money they don’t train again. Personally, I know of an athlete who ran and broke the world record and when he earned Ksh 30million he told me he wouldn’t compete again!”
Drawing from his own experiences on the track, Ngugi says that he struggled with injuries too but perseverance saw him bounce back.
“After winning my first cross country title I was unfortunate to get a knee injury and I had to be flown to London for an operation. If it were not for the quick response maybe my career would have ended there. So I would urge managers and the federation to follow up on athletes who get injured because it may end up cutting short an athlete’s career.”
But are there policy frameworks in place, say by AK or the National Olympics Committee of Kenya (Nock) to guard against waste of Kenyan athletes?
“We are greatly concerned… the ecosystem around the athlete is a contributing factor… we really look into details; we have to do research but a lot of athletes are not prepared for success,” Nock acting Secretary General Francis Mutuku told this writer at a recent seminar in Mombasa.
Mutuku reckons that though Nock hasn’t come up with a policy framework on dealing with the challenge, they are contemplating commissioning a research on the area to give a clear perspective. He however adds that there are already trainings, bringing together successful Olympians to help impart life and career management skills to upcoming athletes to know and appreciate the value of discipline.
“Some of these athletes get information on how to manage success when it’s too late. Success comes with many shades and they need to know how to manage that. The moment you get a lot money, motivation changers.
“Lifestyle is another contributing factor. Whether social life or off competition they have to maintain discipline. A good example is Eliud Kipchoge, who despite his accolades, is still very focused,” Mutuku said.
Drawing from the successes of his boss, Nock President Paul Tergat, Mutuku is of the view that discipline is paramount for one to maintain top performances over the years.
“We need to start letting successful athletes give their stories to upcoming athletes. Everyone wants to be a champion but no one wants to act as a champion,” Mutuku says with a tinge of regret.
He poses briefly, takes a blank stare at the ocean’s blue waters whistling behind him, then adds: “We are also organising career transition workshop to train them even on use of social media to build their careers. We don’t want athletes to be overnight stars but to be at the top for long, to push and encourage each other.”
Reporting by Isaac Swila, Sandra Lamwaka & Gilbert Kiprotich;
Research by Sandra Lamwaka & Isaac Swila;
Field Interviews by Gilbert Kiprotich, Isaac Swila & Sandra Lamwaka;
Editing by Isaac Swila & OOS;