Once a Hero….But Not Always a Hero

“From Nothing to Something”

What happens when you have been at the very top…The pinnacle of your sport… Once a hero…A superstar… An Olympic champion… You have experienced it all… Traveled the world… Been to every award ceremony and function there is… Competed against the best and beat the best… But then, with some ill fate, you suddenly find yourself at the lowest slums far away from the glitz and glamour of previous success. When all is said and done. When the glitz and glamour has finished.. What happens then?

Irene Kosgei on the podium in Delhi (Gold medal)
Irene Kosgei on the podium in Delhi (Gold medal)

I have spent 5 weeks with the athletes of Solian Athletics Camp, and during that time I have met and spent time with many world class athletes, past and present . Athletes such as William Tanui- 1992 Barcelona Olympic 800 metre Champion. Irene Kosgei- 2010 Commonwealth Games Marathon Champion (pictured above) and Charles Cheruiyot- 2 times Olympian and former world junior 3000 metre record holder.. All athletes who have been at the very top. Experienced the pinnacle of their sport. But for one reason or another they now find themselves far away from the riches they once knew. They now find themselves in a desperate struggle making ends meat just to survive. Going from something.. To nothing. Let me tell you how I met each of these athletes and how I got to understand their struggles. William Tanui was my driver from Kapchorwa to Solian. A good friend to Walter Chumo- Solian Athletics Camp founder (and my main point of contact throughout this trip). I never realised William was an Olympic champion until I seen a picture hanging in his home from the 92 games. I asked him what position he finished. Number one he said!! An unassuming character, William now makes a living working with Walter in Nairobi- cleaning cars, driving people like me around. He has very little involvement in athletics these days.. I was shocked when I heard how he earned a living. This man is an Olympic Champion!! He should not be driving me around!! It should be the other way around..

William Tanu, Barcelona Olympics 1992 gold medalist. Project Africa supporter and member
William Tanu, Barcelona Olympics 1992 gold medalist. Project Africa supporter and member
William and his team-mate after their Barcelona 1 and 2
With William, Walter and the 2 athletes coming from Frankfurt Marathon
With William, Walter and the 2 athletes coming from Frankfurt Marathon

I met Irene while out jogging one day. We noticed a farmer in a nearby field struggling with harvesting maize. Nothing new here I told myself. This is Africa.. But then one of the athletes I was jogging with asked did I know who the farmer was? I had no idea. He replied it was former Commonwealth Games Marathon Champion Irene Kosgi. I insisted we stopped for a chat.  After a while she tells us about her life as an elite athlete. Travelling all over the world, signing big money contracts with NIKE etc. However, injury struck and it was all gone. Just like that she was dropped. Dropped from her management company. Dropped from her NIKE contract.  Cancelled indefinitely.

Commonwealth Games gold medal and world championships team gold
Commonwealth Games gold medal and world championships team gold

Irene explains in detail the race in New Delhi, and how she had to struggle after falling at the start of the race.. But nothing like now as she struggles with her crops.. Struggles to survive.. Sport can be cruel. Life even more so…

Winning gold in Delhi
Winning gold in Delhi

I met Charles at a school closing day where I was invited along to talk to the pupils. Kids would come up and shake my hand and request photos. I had no clue as to who Charles was. His career was before my time. But at the function I was standing beside this old man. Eventually we got talking and I found out his full story- I was standing beside a 2 time Olympian.. A former junior world record holder and American scholar, studying economics in New York for 4 years before pursuing athletics professionally for another 15 years during the 80s and 90s. What I couldn’t understand was why the kids where shaking my hand?  Asking me for photos? I have never achieved anything!! This man beside me is a legend of our sport.. But now just a peasant farmer in a local village in rural Kenya.. How can this be?

Charles, and his twin brother back in the glory days
Charles, and his twin brother back in the glory days
With Charles Cheryiout, 2 time Olympian and former world record holder.
With Charles now- 2 time Olympian and former world record holder.

Solian is a small village, hidden away deep in the great rift valley of Kenya. At first glance it seems like any other village in Africa.. But when you delve deeper into the area you begin to realise that you are in the presence of greatness.. Without even knowing it. People like William, Charles and Irene are just normal humble people, earning a living through farming and other small scale businesses. They are people who have been to the very top. But are now back where they started from. “From grace to grass” someone said. Project Africa Athletics must give exposure to these past champions. They have a story to tell.. They can be great assets to young athletes coming up today. In 2015 we will work closely with each of the guys mentioned above to see how their expertise can be utilized to its fullest.

The Secrets to Success

The athletes of Solian Athletics Camp
The athletes of Solian Athletics Camp
Future Champions
Future Champions

The athletes of Solian Athletics Camp are a group of 20 elite runners, of which a number have competed in Europe and Asia before. But quite a few have yet to have that opportunity. There weekly training program looks something like this- Monday– 1hr 10mins “dash” (fast) Tuesday– 6am- 40mins easy, 10am- 50mins fartlek (1min slow, 1min fast) 5pm- 40/50mins jog Wednesday– 6am- 40mins easy.. 10am- Circuits/Exercises.. 5pm- 30mins jog Thursday– 6am- 40mins easy.. 10am- 1hour fartlek (3mins fast 1min slow) Friday– 10am- Hill work Saturday– 5:30am- 35/40km progression run (starting slow, finish fast) Sunday– REST

Amos in Training
Amos in Training
The athletes of Solian Athletics Camp

And I think I have discovered the secret to the Kenyan distance running supremacy. I believe it boils down to the above training program plus 4 additional factors- 1) “Mursik”- Also known as sour milk to me and you. You just add charcoal from a “special tree” that is only grown in Kenya, leave it sitting for 4 days in a warm place and then you drink..  Kenyan athletes (The Kalenjin tribe particularly) swear by this receipt.. At first I wasn’t a fan, but with time I began to like. Its very bitter and sweet.. I may even make some when I arrive back in Ireland. 2) Is the altitude. Solian sits at around 6000/7000ft altitude. Training at that altitude develops the lungs and naturally develops more red blood cells.. No EPO required!! Just hard honest training.. 3) Is “Ugali”- The famous athlete diet of Kenya. Every day consists of Ugali.. Morning, noon and night.. Its a mixture of maize flour and water. All athletes swear by this stuff. I could add in tea as number 4, because in Kenya, and especially the athletes, any time is tea time. I drank 30 cups of tea one day. This is no exaggeration either.. Genuinely I drank 30 cups of tea!!

The most important piece of equipment at the camp
The most important piece of equipment at the camp
Drinking Mursik from a traditional calabash
Drinking Mursik from a traditional calabash
More tea? Sure why not!!
More tea? Sure why not!!

Daniel Chepyegon- 2:08 Marathoner

With Dan and his family in Solian
With Dan and his family in Solian

One athlete who trains at the camp and who I spent allot of time with during my stay in Solian was Daniel Chepyegon- former Ugandan marathon record holder with a P:B of 2hrs 8 minutes. Daniel is a world class athlete, and like most of the athletes I have met, is a humble guy struggling to make a decent living as a professional athlete. Professional athletics is not easy. Especially in Uganda and Kenya. However, a guy who can run 2:08 for the marathon should not be struggling to make a living in the sport.. For this I blame the athlete managers and agents. Not once has a manager or agent come to Solian and understood the struggles these athletes endure day in day out. All the athletes need is a fair chance. They struggle day in day out in training for a fair chance. And when they get a chance to compete abroad an agent will skin them for every penny they have. 15% deduction here, another 15% there, in total an athlete like Daniel will return home from a race in Europe with maybe $100.. Sometimes he returns home with nothing..

Daniel (in red) after training.
Dan training with the group (In red)

Athlete exploitation by managers is common practice here in Africa. That is obvious.. Led by European agents, athletes are easily exploited because of the difficult circumstances they find themselves in locally. In future Project Africa Athletics hope to give athletes a fair chance. A chance to earn a living. A chance to realise their talents and pursue their dreams.

MTN Kampala Marathon

We organised for 6 of the Solian athletes to attend the MTN Kampala marathon on Sunday past. For a few of the athletes this was their first experience travelling outside the camp. Organising this trip was not easy- our planned transport let us down a few hours before we were due to travel so we had go by public means to Kampala. From Solian to Kampala is an all day journey by matatu (Kenyan taxi). Couple that with crammed taxis and bad roads, the journey was one I will never forget.. And one I don’t want to relive again.

The guys relaxing before the race
The guys relaxing before the race
Some of the athletes relaxing before the race
Some of the athletes relaxing before the race

On the morning of the race we set off from our accommodation at 5am. The MTN marathon is as tough a race as you will see anywhere in the world. Vincent Kiprotich from the Solian camp finished 10th in the 10km. A few weeks back he ran the Frankfurt marathon to finish 17th. A young man who can run fast times next season provided he is given the opportunity to race frequently. Solians only lady representative finished 9th in her first 21km race. Another athlete who can perform very well next season so long as the opportunities are there. The other 4 athletes where in the 42km and finished in the top 15 (despite 3 of them missing the start by 5mins because of the organisers decided to start the race early!!) In total there were almost 30 thousand runners (an event I would not like to be organising).

Selinah.. Position 9 at the Kampala marathon
Selinah.. Position 9 at the Kampala marathon
Vincent and his wife at his place in Solian before travelling to Kampala
Vincent and his wife at his place in Solian before travelling to Kampala
Kampala 10km startline
Kampala 10km startline

Its worth noting that Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation, where I had spent 3 weeks previous to Solian had 3 winners on Sunday- all be in from past athletes. Alex Cherop won the 10km, Stella Chesang won the 21km ladys race and Nathan Ayeko winning the 21km.. Athletes who would still be with the foundation were the correct facilities in place.

The Final Journey

The MTN marathon draws the curtain on my time here in Africa, with a few more days in Kampala with John Chebaibai of Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation before I fly back to the Emerald Isle. Once I arrive back in the UK and Ireland the hard work will start on this project. We want to give our athletes opportunities to race all over the globe but firstly, we must register with IAAF and we hope to bring a number of athletes to the UK and Ireland early next year for some races and exposure to racing outside of Uganda and Kenya. We will also be undertaking a major fundraising initiative. By the end of 2015 we hope to have raised enough funds to construct a training camp for our athletes. With Rio 2016 just around the corner, as well as Uganda being selected to host the World Cross Country Championships in 2017, we hope to have a number of our athletes competing at these prestigious events. Our plans are ambitious but achievable. Through proper planning, development and fundraising I see no reason why these aims cannot be achieved. And even the 2017 World Athletics Championships are being hosted at the Olympic Stadium in London. Its like a home games all over again!! I have been in Africa for over 3 months, travelling to some of the most remote areas of East Africa to understand the athletes, their lives, the communities in which they come from and the challenges they face on a daily basis. What I have found out is that it is not easy making it as an elite runner in Africa. Especially from deep in the rural villages where our programs are running. Our motto for 2015 will be “from nothing.. to something”.. This applies to both ourselves as an organisation and the athletes we work with..We both can come from nothing.. And achieve something… I honestly think 2015 could be good for something..

Thanks for everything
“The Final Journey”
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