ITEN, Kenya – When the Olympic Games start in London on July 27, residents of a rural village in western Kenya’s Rift Valley Province will be watching events with more than a cursory look.
Iten, a small settlement built 2,400m above sea level on the escarpment of Rift Valley’s lush green hills, has acquired a reputation as the base of choice for many of Kenya’s top athletes.
“The local community have gelled with the athletes. It is now a special place for athletics,” said Brother Colm O’Connell, coach to 800m world champion David Rudisha.
On a first visit to Iten, one may be forgiven to think that there is an athletics competition about to take place.
Men and women, dressed in a multitude of sports brands and florescent colours, run from different directions in groups of three to four along the narrow roads.
“This is a place where people have seen the importance of running,” Abel Kirui, double marathon world champion and Kenyan Olympic hopeful, tells Reuters after a morning jog at high altitude.
“If you actually happen to go fairly early in the morning when the weather is very fine, you can see people running. They are chasing time, chasing glory.”
It is estimated around 800 to 1000 runners live and train in the Iten area. The sport is seen as a way out of poverty in a region where most of the residents are subsistence farmers.
But one of the appeals of Iten is that world champions train with Kenyan youngsters and can be seen running around dusty red roads where many children walk to school barefoot.
Rudisha, Kenya’s most popular athlete, trains with juniors once a week.
“It all latches on to the kids. They see the elite athletes training around the roads and of course more and more are taking it up. More and more people are ambitious to become athletes,” said O’Connell, an Irish missionary who has trained 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medalists during his 36 years in Iten.
Iten initially gained its athletics reputation when St Patrick’s, a boys-only boarding school, and opposite sex Singore Girls school, produced a host of champion runners.
“They formed the nucleus of this athletics excellence,” said the 63-year-old O’Connell, citing recent Singore Girls alumna and double world champion Vivian Cheruiyot as a local icon.
Women’s 2011 world marathon champion Edna Kiplagat and 2012 London Marathon winner Mary Keitany have built houses in Iten and settled down in the area with their families.
“People here are very friendly,” said Kiplagat.
“It’s a peaceful area and mostly people understand when athletes are running they give way so we don’t get any disturbances when we are training.”
“The (champion athletes) are role models and they are attracting people from all over the country,” added Pieter Langerhorst, Dutch national athletics coach and co-owner of the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten.
“If there are champions, it attracts.”
Another quirk of Iten is that during training Kenyan athletes like to reside in basic accommodation, often described as “Spartan” by foreign visitors unaccustomed to the idea of world champions sleeping in tiny houses with shared toilets.
Iten’s fame has now acquired an international dimension with athletes from across the world visiting various training camps in the area to prepare for Olympic Games and other major competitions.
Langerhorst, who is married to Iten’s most famous resident, long-distance runner Lornah Kiplagat, said athletes from 40 countries trained at his camp ahead of the Olympic Games, including Britain’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe and 5,000m world champion Mo Farah.
But as Kenyans await the London Games in expectation of a record medal haul for their country, athletes like Kirui are adamant neither glory nor wealth will disturb the egalitarian environment in Iten.
“Being humble is part and parcel of our uprising,” he said.