Kenyan long distance runners include greats such as Catherine Ndereba, Patrick Makau and Duncan Kibet. Catherine Ndereba’s speed was famously first noticed when she ran to collect water for her family home and returned well before her brothers and sisters.
For an ‘Our Own Correspondent’ Radio 4 programme, the BBC’s Claudia Hammond visited Iten in Kenya. Iten lies in a hilly region around 2,600 metres above sea level and the children here often have to travel long distances to school. But instead of walking, the BBC reporter found that many youngsters were routinely running to school and not just at a jog, but at real speed.
One 13-year old boy told the reporter that his run to school each day takes around 40 minutes. However, with his lean physique and stamina, it’s an activity which he enjoys. This seems to be the case for a large number of children living in this hilly area of western Kenya. When asked what they would like to be when they grow up, many say they dream of becoming athletes. Their motivation is also clear. With poverty widespread in this area, the children know that if they should be successful, they would be in a financial position to help their families and local communities. Many will no doubt soon be watching the Olympics and gaining inspiration from figures such as David Rudisha, who is the current world record-holder for the 800 metres.
However, with so many youngsters having the same ambition, the competition to get into the top flight of Kenyan athletics is fierce. Nevertheless, even if they don’t make it to Olympic standard, there is another possibility on offer from running. An hour away from Iten is a training centre for youngsters with running talent. Here they are hoping their students’ sporting ability will help win them a scholarship to college or university in the USA.
One young girl training at the centre called Nowami wants to study nursing, while another girl hopes to be a scientist. Both know they could be accepted onto courses in America not for their academic ability, but for their speed. If they’re really fast and achieve the necessary exam grades, the slim physique of these Kenyan girls and their high-altitude training could ensure they have a speed advantage which youngsters elsewhere find hard to match. The competitive spirit is certainly strong among these teenagers and with poor job prospects at home, they understand their speed could be their ticket to a brighter future.
Read Adeline's story, a former SOS child and now an Olympic hopeful.