ELDORET, Kenya (Reuters) - The post-election violence is over but Kenya’s elite runners have not stopped looking over their shoulders.
Traumatized by unrest that was especially ferocious in the nation’s running heartland around the Rift Valley town of Eldoret , the athletes — including high-profile Olympic aspirants — lost weeks of work and still fear to run alone.
The usual influx of foreign runners who join the Kenyans for high altitude training also virtually dried up.
“There is still fear in the air. The athletes stay close to town, they are nervous of training on their own,” said 23-year-old marathon runner Mike Kiprop, standing during a break near a burned-out block where some runners had been staying.
Angry at President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election in December, gangs of pro-opposition Kalenjins in the Rift Valley set up roadblocks and attacked members of his Kikuyu community, burning homes and killing with stones and machetes.
Revenge killings ensued in other parts of Kenya during a two-month crisis in which at least 1,000 people were killed.
Among the fatalities were 1988 Olympics 4x400 relay finalist Lucas Sang, killed during a mob fracas in Eldoret, and marathon runner Wesley Ngetich, shot by a poisoned arrow near the Maasai Mara game reserve. Other runners were injured.
Adding to the impact of the crisis on Kenyan athletics, some analysts have accused runners from the Kalenjin community — which has provided most of the nation’s champions — of using their wealth to finance the mobs.
They deny that, but the accusation has caused deep offence.
“I cannot accept this stupidity,” said Italian coach Renato Canova, as his Kenyan-born Qatari runners warmed down on a ridge overlooking the spectacular Kerio Valley.
“They say Lucas Sang was out leading a gang. In fact, he was out trying to mediate a situation, but was attacked by one crazy man with a machete. Runners are peace-lovers, not war-makers. Why are people trying to smear them?”
Now a power-sharing deal between Kibaki and the opposition has stemmed the violence — but the consequences on the ground will take longer to resolve.
“It was very disruptive,” said Yobes Ondieki, the 1991 world 5,000 meters champion who now coaches in the highland village of Iten near Eldoret.
“Gangs on the roads would turn the runners back saying ‘you are happy training and we are suffering from this stolen election’. It will have an impact, but I think it will also make them stronger and determined to overcome.”
Coaches believe the effect of the violence will show at Kenya’s performance in the world cross-country championships in Edinburgh this weekend, but hopefully not at the Beijing Olympics in August.
As well as lost training, many Rift Valley athletes had family and friends caught up in the unrest, an upsetting distraction for minds that need to stay narrowly focused.
Swiss journalist Jurg Wirz, who has written a book on Kenyan athletes, said he could see many runners were under-prepared at the recent nationals in Ngong.
“It was obvious. The front ones are maybe at the same level but there was a big gap with those behind, and the field was not as big,” he said.
“It will definitely have an effect at Edinburgh. But Beijing is still very far away. They have a lot of time to close the gap and get back to the level of before, provided there is no new setback. You just never know.”
That is the fear of many Kenyan athletes: that the power-sharing deal will collapse and chaos will return.
For now, though, training camps dotted around Iten and Eldoret are returning to normal. From dawn to dusk knots of runners can be seen silhouetted against the hilltops, pounding through forests, or kicking up dust on tracks round the fields.
At former Olympic champion Kipchoge Keino’s high-performance training centre in farmland outside Eldoret, athletes are relieved to be back outside after being cooped up in the compound during the height of the troubles.
They kept up their fitness on an in-house track.
“There’s no problem now. We can run anywhere,” said Sri Lankan 1,500 runner Wijekoon Chaminda Indika, 25. He was supposed to fly into Kenya for six months of pre-Olympic work on January 1, but waited a couple of weeks due to the violence.
Other foreigners cancelled altogether or evacuated, depriving the Rift Valley of its usual early-year cosmopolitan mix of top international athletes.
“The most important months are January and February for us. This year, it was really going to boom, but the violence ruined it,” said Jean-Paul Fournier, who runs the Kerio View hotel in Iten popular with foreign coaches and runners.
At the nearby “University of Champions” run by Kenyan-Dutch great Lornah Kiplagat, several dozen runners from the United States and the Netherlands went home. At one point, a gang stormed Kiplagat’s camp, demanding food.
Between her camp and Fournier’s hotel, a burned building — attacked because it was owned by a Kikuyu — shows where the violence reached the normally placid village of Iten, on the edge of the Kerio valley at 700 metres.
On roads to Iten and elsewhere out of Eldoret, rows of charred and smashed houses and shops bear testimony to the violence. Huge boulders remain near where roadblocks were set up. Locals speak of thousands on the rampage.
“Let us just hope this madness is over,” said coach Canova.
Editing by Clare Fallon