NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya has emerged from a period of ethnic strife to assemble its strongest Olympic athletics team for 40 years with a target of at least six gold medals in Beijing.
Following a fiercely disputed presidential poll this year more than 300,000 people were forced to leave their homes and up to 1,300 killed following clashes.
Athletes were among the most affected because the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, known as the world’s capital of long distance running, was one of the clashes’ epicenters.
Kenya has won 44 Olympic medals in athletics since 1964 and is confident of adding to that haul in Beijing.
“A conservative figure puts it at six (gold), men’s and women’s marathon, men’s 3,000m steeplechase, women’s 800m and any others in men’s 800m and either 5,000m or 10,000m races,” team manager Joseph Kinyua told Reuters.
“We have a strong team, possibly equal in strength to the great team of Seoul and our team of 1968,” said Kipchoge Keino, the father figure of Kenyan athletics who won 1,500m gold in Mexico and the 3,000m steeplechase in Munich four years later.
World marathon champion Luke Kibet, who suffered a head injury during the political clashes, is also a strong candidate for gold along with Augustine Choge who won the Commonwealth Games 5,000m title two years ago.
“This is going to be a stronger team that our team of 1988. I can predict that they will bring home more medals than we did in Seoul,” Paul Ereng, the 1988 Olympic 800 meters champion said from the United States where he is head cross country coach at University of Texas.
The marathon team also boasts Robert Cheruiyot, who won the inaugural World Marathon Masters, Japan-based world half-marathon record holder Samuel Wanjiru and three-times London winner Martin Lel.
The women’s marathon also provides a strong chance of medals with world champion Catherine Ndereba and Selina Kosgei in the field.
Teenager Pamela Jelimo, nicknamed “Kapsabet Express” after her Rift Valley home town, looks unstoppable in the women’s 800 meters. She is poised to become the first Kenyan to win an IAAF Golden Jackpot following victories in Berlin, Oslo, Rome and Paris.
Kenya is also eyeing a sweep of the medals in the men’s 3,000 steeplechase with defending champion Ezekiel Kemboi and world champion Brimin Kipruto leading the way.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)