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Women come of age

NAIROBI, August 23 – Before the Beijing Olympics, Pauline Konga, Joyce Chepchumba, Isabella Ochichi and Catherine Ndereba co-shared a slice of Kenyan history.

Since the country made her Olympic debut at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, the quartet had held the distinction as Kenya’s only female medallists at the biggest sporting carnival.

However, none of the pioneering female podium finishers managed to bag the top medal-gold. That record compared unfavourably with their male counterparts who established Kenya as the most decorated African country in Olympics history having won 46 medals (16 gold, 17 silver and 13 bronze).

At the 29th Olympics in China, our female athletes finally clicked to gear as they took to the track with vengeance to win four medals where Nancy Jebet Lagat could add another on the last day of action.

The icing on the cake was teenage 800m phenomenon, Pamela Jelimo, who stepped into uncharted waters to deliver her country’s first ever female gold medal in a World Junior record of 1:54.87.

Indefatigable Ndereba, the great trend setting distance runner who has inspired a generation of female athletes opened the account with her second silver in marathon (2:27.06). Eunice Jepkorir (9:07.41, 3000m steeplechase) and Janeth Jepkosgei (1:56.07) also clinched the second medal.

“We are witnessing the age of focused female runners. Most are now educated, are aware of how to set winning goals and then embark on achieving them,” veteran coach, Boniface Tiren says.

The tactician has honed prodigious talent for two decades and handled three national teams to the World Junior Championships, a stage where female runners have excelled only to fail the grade at senior level.

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“In the past many young talented girls who shone as juniors ended up dropping out of school to pursue professional athletics. Lack of proper education saw managers take advantage of them and enter them in too many races. This burned them out before they matured,” the tactician said.

Tiren added that some of their senior male colleagues and other wayward men compounded the problem by engaging them in early pregnancies/marriages and antisocial behaviour such as alcoholism.

“Now things are changing. Young female athletes are now questioning their managers’ decisions to enter them in many races, know measures to prevent pregnancies and are resisting early marriages.”

He believes that the Pre-Olympics training camp set up by Athletics Kenya in Eldoret ahead of the trials helped the Beijing cause for female runners.

“They got to establish a greater sense of team work. My experiences with previuos teams showed that female athletes were bonding less than their male colleagues and the camp helped bring them closer.”

His observations are supported by debut Olympian Viola Kibiwott, 23, the 1500m runner who bowed out of the heats in Beijing.
“I used to race only during school holidays but in not more than three events. I am not planning to get married as yet until my career takes shape,” the 2002 World Junior gold medallist said.

She added: “I also want to sturdy business so that I can manage my earnings properly when I retire from the track.”

Unfortunately, Viola lost her mother a day before she was due to depart to Beijing but the former Sing’ore Girls High School student represents an emerging generation of goal-driven Kenyan female athletes.

Kibiwott’s former schoolmates, Nancy Jebet Lagat (1500m), Jepkosgei, Sylvia Kibet (5000m) and Vivian Cheruiyot (5000m) also made their impact.

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“More than ever before, female athletes are being taken seriously by coaches and officials. They have more access to specialised training and medical advice,” Tiren, who was part of the team that coached Kenya to third place at May’s World Junior in Bydgoszcz, Poland observed.

The athletics team to Beijing had 21 female runners, where 18 were set to compete and another three reserves. However, 400m prospect, Elizabeth Muthuka, failed to travel after failing two drug tests.

Tecla Chemwabai was the first and only Kenyan female athlete to compete in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics but it was not until the 1996 Games when Konga won the first medal (5000m silver, 15:03.49). Incidentally, that is where the women’s 5000m race made its Olympic debut.

Four years later in Sydney, Chepchumba won marathon bronze (2:24.45) and in Athens 2004 Ndereba (2:26.32) and Ochichi (14:48.19) won silver in marathon and 5000m.

Signs of an upturn in fortunes were evident at last year’s World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Jepkosgei (800m gold), Ndereba (marathon gold), Cheruiyot (5000m silver), Priscah Jepleting (5000m bronze) and Jepkorir (3000m steeplechase bronze) stepped the podium. Only Ndereba (marathon silver) and Jeruto Jeptum (3000m steeplechase bronze) managed a top three finish at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki.

“Although Ndereba (36) is almost retiring, runners like Jelimo and Jepkosgei will continue urging young girls to aim for excellence,” said Tiren.

“Most of the current group of quality female runners have years ahead of them. Women athletes tend to last longer than men and further we are having more talented young runners from the junior ranks ready to graduate to seniors.”

He cited World Junior champions, Christine Muyanga (3000m steeplechase); Mercy Cherono (3000m, 2006) and World Youth 800m champion Winnie Chebet as some prodigies ready to take the world stage.

Tiren adds that another factor that may be contributing to stellar performances by female runners is their increasing acceptance of counsel and training methods offered by local coaches.

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“Before, they could only listen to ‘Mzungus’ (foreign coaches). Now seeing the likes of Jelimo and Janeth sticking readily accepting advice for us is encouraging,” he added.

The 2009 and 2011 World Championships in Berlin and Daegu as well as the London 2012 Olympics offer the grand stage for our track heroines to display whether the showing in Beijing is a pointer to domination of the sport or a false dawn.

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