NAIROBI, Kenya, March 9 – After fluffing their lines with the Olympics marathon team selection, Athletics Kenya (AK) have sewn themselves into an even tighter knot with their controversial plan to stage distance track event Trials at the Pre Fontaine Classic.
On the face of it, the idea to select the national team at the Samsung Diamond League meeting in Oregon on June 2 appears revolutionary as the federation schemes to bag the elusive 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals in London.
“We have been doing the same thing (Nairobi Trials) and we have not been winning. We decided let us try to take our Trials to an international event since it will give our runners better preparations for the Olympics,” AK boss, Isaiah Kiplagat, led the chorus from their Riadha House headquarters.
He went on to state Trials at the Pre Fontaine Classic would give talented athletes who excel in international circuit competition but get buried at the high altitude selection events back home an equal chance to contest the ticket.
But since Kiplagat revealed the Oregon Trials plans just after the National Cross Championships last month, the federation has faced a severe backlash from active and retired runners as well as a section of the Kenyan media.
Matters went over the boil at a press briefing on Monday when the visibly upset Kiplagat tore on journalists and retired athletes who maintain the sponsorship from sports apparel manufacturing firm Nike for the proposed Oregon Trial is behind the idea.
“Let’s remove all this mischievous and malicious talk. How do we sell an athlete to go and compete in America? When he qualifies, which country will he represent? He will compete for Kenya not America!” he stormed.
Immediately after the controversial scheme was announced, retired twice Olympics 10,000m silver medallist and former world marathon record holder, Paul Tergat, voiced his fervent opposition.
That was so significant since Tergat rarely comments/gets involved in AK affairs despite being widely regarded as the de facto face of Kenyan athletics. “We should select our team right here at home,” he simply advised.
Another retired great, former 10,000m world champion and twice Boston Marathon winner, Moses Tanui, a regional AK official in the Rift Valley also broke ranks with his superiors to slam the plans.
Not foreseeing such opposition, AK were quick to call Tergat to a meeting and sources at the same indicate the Riadha House top brass failed to convince him to scale down.
Kiplagat took to the media to deliver a thinly veiled dig at the former greats’ resistance to the Oregon saying that, “These people calling themselves retired runners have done nothing for athletics in this country.”
According to the plan, 64 London Olympics probables in 5,000m and 10,000m are supposed to assemble at the High Performance Training Centre, Eldoret on Monday for training under nine coaches selected by the federation.
The group then will contest in a mine-trial on April 17 where the said coaches will choose either the five or 15 athletes each for male and female to compete at the Pre Fontaine Classic depending on whether you believe Kiplagat or his secretary general David Okeyo who have offered the contrasting figures.
On Wednesday at another media briefing, the chair then announced only the male athletes would be selected for the Oregon Trial as the plan took yet another radical twist.
“Why hold a mini-trial to select athletes to go for a Trial abroad if the aim of the exercise is to ensure our athletes are fresh for London Olympics? Why not hold one Trial early here and allow any athlete who does not have qualifying time to travel to Eugene,” one of the selected men 10,000m runner told Capital Sport in confidence.
He added: “Personally, I will not go to the camp since how can you withdraw athletes from competing in the circuit even before the outdoor season starts? It’s not that they will compensate us from not competing and we have family to take care of.”
And he is not alone. None of the top selected athletes contacted over the plan offered support and that has left Riadha House mandarins nervous in an issue that could potentially spell an end to their long tenure at the federation.
Among those selected in the women 10,000m probables is Lucy Wangui Kabuu, the 2006 Commonwealth champion who in January, formally announced her retirement from track running to focus on the roads.
Currently, she is in Iten preparing for the London Marathon after being invited for racing 2:19:34 on her ultimate distance debut in the Stanchart Dubai race. “Are they asking us to abandon our plans for London? Why did they not seek our position first?” her perplexed spouse, Josephat Kamau posed.
“The idea to have athletes abandoning their programmes to train with AK coaches is bound to fail since being an individual sport, most runners have a training programme that personally suits them.
“For example, last year they forced Geoffrey Mutai to train under the national team coaches ahead of the Punta Umbria World Cross and see what happened, he lost a race he would have easily won,” another probable told Capital Sport.
Having stepped on many sore toes, AK bosses maintain the Nike sponsorship for Pre Fontaine has nothing to do with their decision.
“The money we received is not important but it is full sponsorship. We decided to accept the offer and if we do not win the gold medals, you come and criticize us then” Kiplagat bellowed.
In an election year where a sterling performance at the London Olympics is vital for Kiplagat and his national executive in a bid to retain their posts, the timing for the Pre Fontaine plan could not be more ill.
It comes after the federation publicly handed world champion, Abel Kirui and record holder, Patrick Makau men marathon Olympics berths late last year only to announce 12 probables for London in January with the final squad of six being named end of April.
That disenfranchised the affected runners who nonetheless, will seek the Olympics ticket at the London Marathon as Kiplagat and Co continue playing Russian Roulette.