NAIROBI, May 20 – Kenya's Olympic medallist Douglas Wakiihuri may have hung up his running shoes, but a worrisome shrinking wildlife habitat in his native country has forced him back onto the track.The 45-year-old former marathon world champion has teamed up with a group of Japanese investors to organise a half-marathon race in Nairobi to promote athletics and wildlife: two attributes for which Kenya is famous.
The May 24 race will start and finish inside the Nairobi National Park, a swathe of 117.21 square kilometres (28,963 acres) teeming with a diverse range of habitats and species.
Kenya’s oldest park, Nairobi National Park along with 25 other wildlife conservation sites are coming under increasing threat as competition for land between the fast growing human population and the animals intensifies.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), managers of the country’s parks and wildlife, warns that the animal migration routes across the plains into Tanzania are threatened by the changing settlement patterns.
KWS has teamed up with Wakiihuri to raise awareness about this problem facing the country’s much-cherished heritage.
Wakiihuri has brought the same fierce, innate ability he displayed in athletics into his new project of protecting wildlife and its surroundings.
A former resident of the Langata area, which borders Nairobi National Park, Wakiihuri expressed dismay at what he called the wanton destruction of natural forest where animals used to roam freely.
— I cannot run there because half the forest is gone —
"For over 10 years, my training sessions were mostly concentrated inside the Langata forest. It is so sad that today I cannot run there because half of the forest is gone and (what is left) is now being protected so that nobody grabs it," he said.
The marathon hero explained that "since my youth I loved nature and animals."
"I have a natural affection that gives me a mental feeling you get in running in natural surroundings and that’s why it has given me the urge to conserve the natural habitat."
Wakiihuri sees himself as a child of two worlds — born in Kenya and nurtured in Japan where he arrived at age 19, learned the language and adapted to the different life.
He credits Japanese culture with instilling in him both the mental strength and resilience to face life’s challenges and the motivation to become a top marathon runner.
The athlete, who retired in 1992, has also invited Japan’s 2000 Olympic women’s marathon champion Naoko Takahashi to the event to offer inspiration for young Kenyan girls.
The 37-year-old Takahashi, who retired from athletics last November, made history when she became the first woman to break the two hour-20 minute barrier at the 2001 Berlin marathon.
Wakiihuri credits sports for helping to spruce up Kenya’s image after last year’s deadly post-election violence, noting that Kenya topped Africa in the 2008 Beijing Olympics medals table.
He warned, however, there was now a need to preserve the environment where the country’s athletes practice and perform.
"Sport was used to clean the mess… still it does not give us assurance that we are going to maintain that sporting activity if we are not going to conserve our natural grounds and keep peace," he said.