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Tanui hit roadblock

En route to Games, there was a detour paved with politics

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 4/13/2001

LDORET, Kenya - His voice level is barely audible, but beneath the soft murmur is a simmering frustration. Moses Tanui is not upset merely because Kenya's dominance in distance running might be in jeopardy. What bothers the two-time Boston Marathon winner is that he believes the primary adversaries of the Kenyan runners aren't on the race courses and aren't from another country.

''I feel it is scary, because people mix politics with sports, especially the officials,'' said Tanui.

He is referring to the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association, which removed him, 2000 Boston winner Elijah Lagat, and Tokyo Marathon winner Japhet Kosgei from Kenya's 2000 Olympic marathon team last July 22, just two months before the Sydney Games, citing suspect preparation and commitment.

Kenya uses Boston as one of its Olympic qualifiers, giving the top two finishers berths on the marathon team. Tanui, the second Kenyan across the finish line in Boston last year, insists the KAAA revamped the squad because he and other athletes have criticized their leadership.

They were replaced by Rotterdam Marathon winner Kenneth Cheruiyot, 1996 Olympic Marathon bronze medalist Eric Wainaina, and Ondoro Osoro, who took fourth in Boston last year.

The move was one of the most publicized controversies leading up to the Sydney Games, and it drew more attention when Osoro suffered gunshot wounds in a carjacking. That meant the KAAA had to find a replacement, so it reinstated Lagat. Initially, Lagat vowed not to rejoin the team unless Tanui and Kosgei were reinstated as well, but he changed his mind. Still, after restarting a marathon training regimen he had abandoned, he struggled in Sydney and didn't finish the race.

Cheruiyot didn't finish, either. Wainaina improved on his 1996 Games showing to take the silver medal, but it left Kenya still without a gold in the one race it has tried so desperately to win but has not. Kenya also failed to take gold in the 10,000 meters, a race it has not won since Naftali Temu triumphed in 1968.

In addition, Kenyans failed to win such major marathons as New York, Chicago, and London last year. And cross-country legend Paul Tergat had his string of consecutive world championships snapped at five.

Many are wondering whether 2000 was an aberration or a sign that all is not well with distance running in Kenya. Tanui is among those who believe many of the ills can be traced to the governing body.

''Let me put it this way: The officials are not runners, so they don't know anything about running,'' said Tanui. ''They don't know how painful it is when you train. They think that when you run, it's something like driving a taxi. That is my worry: that if not for the input of the athletes and the managers, athletics in Kenya will be ruined.''

Tanui has taken the KAAA to task and to court. He filed suit against the KAAA. He said he wants to make certain a namesake he and other athletes, coaches, and trainers have worked to establish isn't torn asunder.

''The officials feel like they are the ones who run athletics,'' Tanui said. ''And in my opinion, without the athletes there is no Association. And this is my worry: that people are fighting something that they don't know.

''When I'm training, nobody knows what is happening. [KAAA officials] go to the national championships and say, `This is a good athlete.' But one thing you should know is the consistency of the athlete - how that athlete has run over the last three years.''

Not surprisingly, many in the KAAA strongly oppose Tanui's words and actions. Among them is two-time Boston winner Ibrahim Hussein, who retired from running in 1993 because of a bad back and is the chairman of the KAAA's Rift Valley region - which includes the Nandi District, the region from which most of the country's top runners come.

''People like Tanui are interested in politics,'' said Hussein. ''He talks politics all the time, and there's nothing else he knows now.''

Hussein believes Kenya did well to take two gold, three silver, and two bronze medals in last year's Olympics.

He added Kenya has set often unrealistic standards since it captured four gold medals in the 1988 Games in Seoul.

''I think, to me, Sydney was a great achievement for us,'' said Hussein. ''The rest of the world is catching up. So many runners have the freedom of what to do now and they train, and you have so many Kenyans running now if you wake up at five in the morning you'd see so many are training. But it's shoe companies that have control over associations. This is the problem.''

Still ahead of pack

But while others are catching up with Kenya, Hussein feels his country is still at the top of the distance-running world. As evidence, he cited November's world junior championships in Santiago, Chile, where Kenya took seven gold, four silver, and three bronze medals, most in distance running. It was the most medals won by any of the 39 nations competing.

''We dominated so many events it wasn't even a track meet,'' said Hussein. ''We need competition. If we go to the Olympics and win the way we did, we need to congratulate our people, not criticize them because of political interests.''

Still, other Kenyans have had problems with the KAAA's management.

Last March, Tergat and others reportedly called for the dismissal of top KAAA officials because of a controversy at the World Championships in Vilamoura, Portugal. Kenya sent more athletes than were allowed to run, then was forced to decide which would compete. At the time, 3,000-meter world record-holder Daniel Komen was quoted as saying the KAAA needed restructuring.

In August, 400-meter hurdles runner Eric Keter won a court ruling to be placed on the Olympic team after the KAAA had left him off despite his having reached the qualifying mark. Many were surprised when Catherine Ndereba, the first woman across the finish line in Boston last year, wasn't selected for the Olympic team.

''The system which we have used to select people, I think we have to review,'' said Kipchoge Keino, chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya and a gold and silver medalist in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics. ''Probably, we are taking athletes without considering who is the best in the country.

''We are the best marathoners of any country in the world today. We've won marathons all over the world. Then when we go to the Olympics, we're not winning anything. That means we're not planning for it. We're not having the proper selection.''

After Sydney, said Keino, members of Kenya's sports governing bodies convened to discuss the Games.

''We should have a structure where we will use the Boston Marathon as a qualifying mark,'' he said. ''We have to make sure we use the results of Boston as a qualifier and work with the Boston people. If we had taken the two from Boston [Lagat and Tanui] and another from another marathon, we would have done well.''

In the future, added Keino, if there is concern about a runner's Olympic training or commitment, the runner will be called in by the KAAA and asked to run a half-marathon before a decision is reached on his Olympic status.

That might appease folks like Tanui, who once was quoted as saying runners in Kenya were being treated like donkeys.

''These athletes need peace of mind,'' said Keino. ''They need encouragement. They need motivation. And they need not to be disturbed.''

Despite the country's woes in many world distance-running events, Kenyans believe their success will continue at Boston. Tanui said he has made it a personal goal to make up for last year's showing, where he broke from the pack too early and subsequently lost his lead to Lagat.

''I say that this time because I lost last year,'' said Tanui, ''and maybe sometimes it was not my luck last year. I want to try to change my strategy in Boston this year.

''Last year, the big problem was the wind. When we arrived at the straight, the finish, I started to sprint when it was too long. So I had a long sprint, and the wind was too heavy. I think if I had waited another two seconds [the outcome may have been different].''

Tanui, who has been competing since the late 1980s, said he wants to finish his career at Boston, perhaps next year. ''I have not decided yet, but I think that will be my last marathon,'' he said. ''That is my focus. When I want to go, maybe I should say, `Boston, bye-bye.'''

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