EMBU, Kenya (Reuters) - While the athletics world waits to see what impact Kenya’s violent post-election crisis will have on the country’s performance at the world cross-country championships on Sunday, the team’s fitness coach is proudly optimistic.
“No general accepts to go to war without confidence in his troops,” said John Mwithiga, declaring his faith in the young and hastily assembled team. “I will use simple tactics that have won wars in the past.”
Mwithiga, whose choice of words reflects his two decades as an instructor at Kenya’s Armed Forces Training College, is one of the unsung heroes of the country’s athletics success story.
Popularly known as “Warm-up” from his favorite phrase, Mwithiga, now 62, trained many of the country’s best distance runners before handing them on to national coaches such as Mike Kosgei and Dan Muchoki, who picked up the plaudits overseas.
“Some of the top athletes have passed through my programme in the Armed Forces,” Mwithiga, one of the two assistant coaches attached to the national cross country team, told Reuters.
“I am not craving for fame. I have always preferred my behind-the-scenes operations. After all, we all serve our country,” he said at the team’s training camp 130 km north-east of Nairobi.
Many elite athletes, however, disliked the lack of continuity and asked for club coaches to stay with them at national level.
“We have adopted this and the results are encouraging. Coaches should grow and develop with their runners from the source,” said David Okeyo, Athletics Kenya secretary general.
Mwithiga has now been with the national cross country team for four years with Julius Kirwa as head coach and David Leting as another assistant.
Kenya’s Armed Forces athletes have contributed much to the east African nation’s success in cross country over the past two decades, with John Ngugi, Paul Tergat and William Sigei winning the senior men’s title 12 times between them.
Among notable names who passed through Mwithiga’s training regime at the college are General Jeremiah Kianga, who now heads Kenya’s military, Commissioner of Police Ali Hussein Mohammed and General Joseph Nkaiserri, a member of parliament.
Former Olympians Simon Kipkemboi, David Kitur, Joseph Chesire and Lucas Sang, who was killed in the mayhem of post-election violence on New Year’s Eve in Eldoret, also trained under Mwithiga.
Despite Mwithiga’s confidence, many Kenyans feel that the team going to Edinburgh this weekend are too young and inexperienced to handle veterans such as Ethiopia’s multiple world champion Kenenisa Bekele and Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese, the defending champion.
The weeks of violence that claimed at least 1,200 lives and uprooted more than 300,000 people following President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election on December 27 disrupted preparations and coaches had to name the squad in a hurry, leaving out some of the more experienced runners.
“I know I have a young squad that has mainly graduated from the juniors into the senior category but they are the best we have for the task ahead,” head coach Kirwa told Reuters.
“As for the political problems, the less we think about them, the better,” he added.
Kenya draws most of its talented middle-distance and distance runners from the western Rift Valley Province, which was the worst hit by the political violence.
Two important legs of the local circuit in the hilly towns of Eldoret and Nyahururu, usually the ultimate test for strength and endurance, were cancelled in December and January because athletes’ safety could not be guaranteed.
“In previous camps, we set weekends aside to rest,” said Kirwa. “That is not the case this time. We have been training full time.”
He said some promising athletes such as former world junior champions Pauline Korikwiang and Vivian Cheruiyot had been left out because they were unwell when the final list was drawn up.
Commonwealth Games 5,000 meters champion Augustine Choge is the most experienced of the senior men’s team, yet he did not even finish among the top 15 at the national championships, where the title was won by Gideon Ngatuny, a 22-year-old who was fourth when Kenya hosted last year’s world championships in Mombasa.
The inexperienced Mark Kiptoo was elected captain, a post held previously by Tergat. Bernard Kiprop Kipyego, the bronze medalist last year, Hosea Macharnyang, fifth last year, Joseph Ebuya and rookie John Thuo complete the senior men’s team.
Among the women are Linet Masai, who won the world junior title last year and Prisca Jepleting, who was seventh.
Kenya was once the dominant force at the world cross country championships, winning the men’s team title for 18 years in a row before surrendering it to Ethiopia in 2004.
Editing by Clare Fallon