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Kenya's athletes get back on track

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Eldoret, Kenya

Runners training in Eldoret
Some athletes were accused of fomenting violence
Athletics is a way of life in north Rift Valley, home of the Kalenjin community where Moses Kiptanui trains.

"Everyone believes they can run here," Kiptanui smiles.

"I guess it's part of the culture."

But the fastest men and women in the world found themselves running scared when they saw their neighbours' houses torched and thousands of people forced to flee their homes in January and February after the disputed presidential election.

In the run-up to the World Cross-Country Championships in Edinburgh this weekend, athletes have tried to catch up with their training while coming to terms with the fear and disruption of the past few months.

"The first week of January was particularly difficult," Kiptanui says.

"You just didn't know who you were going to meet. People were fighting everywhere - maybe you would turn up at a roadblock and they would hurt you, harass you."

At the peak of the fighting the slightly-built steeplechase champion, who has broken seven world records, found himself defending his fellow sportsmen.

Moses Kiptanui
Psychologically it's something that's frightened everybody - Kenyans now have to put their house in order
Moses Kiptanui
After the killing of Lucas Sang, a prominent local athlete, the local papers were filled with allegations that successful sportsmen and women, who had invested their winnings in the town, were helping to fund the violence.

"I know some athletes received death threats," Kiptanui says.

"These guys had won medals - and so [other people] see anyone with having money as funding the violence. People were very scared."

Although the Kalenjin people make up the majority of the athletes here, other athletes are Kikuyus: members of President Mwai Kibaki's ethnic group, whom some saw as political rivals.

Fear

Nearly all the Kikuyus have been chased out of town or are penned up in a makeshift camp in the agricultural showground.

Some of the Kikuyu trainers had to move home, fearing for their lives.

Showground displaced people's camp
Many of Eldoret's Kikuyu people were forced to take refuge
"When it was going on people didn't realise how bad it was," Kiptanui says.

"Psychologically it's something that's frightened everybody. Kenyans now have to put their house in order - we should not forget what we came through.

"This should remind us that we have to be united all the time."

For Kenya's team of 27 athletes, the championships in Edinburgh will be a deeply symbolic moment as they run together under a single flag.

A month since a historic peace deal was signed paving the way to a power sharing deal, Kenya's politicians are still squabbling and still have not formed a full cabinet.

What is more, the two months of post-election violence disrupted the athletes' training schedules - the impact of which could be revealed when they compete both in the Cross-Country Championships and later in the Beijing Olympics.

"We need to show people that we are still united and build this nation," Kiptanui says, confident that the Kenyan team will do well.

His hope is the country's politicians will follow the athletes' lead.


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