NAIROBI (Reuters) - Winning the world 800 meters title last year has put Janeth Jepkosgei under huge pressure as she prepares for the Beijing Olympics in August.
Since she became the first Kenyan woman to win a world title, defeating Mozambique’s seemingly unassailable Maria Mutola in the process, fans have come to expect that she will win another first in China.
No Kenyan woman has ever won an Olympic gold medal.
“When I went to Osaka, I was not under such pressure and it made things much easier for me; not this time when everybody expects me to win an Olympic title,” Jepkosgei told Reuters.
“But I try as much as possible not to think about it and just concentrate on my training. If I think about it, it will just weigh me down with fear and I may get disturbed. I just want to train well,” she said.
Training well became hard amid the bloody unrest in Kenya which followed the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki on December 27.
Jepkosgei’s home area in the Rift Valley was badly affected by violent incidents and some athletics camps closed, while others considered relocating.
“We need to prepare well psychologically and physically, which can’t happen under the current situation,” the woman nicknamed the “Eldoret Express” said at the time.
Two athletes died in the violence — 1988 Olympic relay finalist Lucas Sang in Eldoret and marathon runner Wesley Ngetich in Trans Mara — and senior members of the country’s athletics fraternity angrily denied an accusation that they had funded some of the worst clashes.
More than 1,000 people died and 300,000 were displaced in the turmoil, before a power-sharing pact was signed at the end of February.
Eldoret, which saw some of the worst violence, has produced a remarkable number of middle-distance and distance runners.
Jepkosgei’s home is between those of fellow 800 meters runners Wilfred Bungei and Kenyan-born Dane Wilson Kipketer.
“That made me a natural 800 meters runner and I always admired the two great runners,” she said. “But the person who groomed me and honed my talent was (1988 Seoul Olympics 800 champion) Paul Ereng.”
Ereng is one of the people who believe the 24-year-old Jepkosgei is a favorite for an Olympic gold medal in Beijing.
Now a cross-country head coach at the University of Texas in El Paso, he said he recognized Jepkosgei’s talent years ago.
“When I first saw Janeth at the Africa Junior Athletics Championships in Mauritius in 2001, where she finished second in the 800 meters, I saw a raw gem,” Ereng said after Jepkosgei won the world title in Osaka.
She was then a student at Singore Girls, a school that has produced a number of world-class athletes such as 1997 world 10,000 meters champion Sally Barsosio.
“My prediction was she would win the world championship title, Olympic Games and she will become the first Kenya woman to run one minute 56 seconds in 800 meters,” he said. Jepkosgei’s personal best, set in Osaka last August, is 1:56.04
Jepkosgei, coached by Italian Claudio Beradelli, will run all the Golden League races in Europe as part of her Olympic build-up but is giving indoor events a miss.
Also in the Italian-owned stable, Rosa Associati, are London Marathon champion Martin Lel, winner of the inaugural world marathon majors title Robert Cheruiyot and world 800 meters champion Alfred Kirwa.
Kenya’s women have won three silver medals and one bronze at the Olympics, all in 5,000 meters and the marathon.
Forty years ago in Mexico City, Kenya entered women competitors at the Olympics for the first time and none of them went beyond the first round of their races.
This time they have a real prospect of gold and Jepkosgei is carrying a nation’s hopes on her shoulders.
“If she trains well and remains focused, she will definitely win the gold medal,” said David Okeyo, the secretary-general of Athletics Kenya and leader of the Kenyan team going to Beijing.
Editing by Clare Fallon