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Long journey to school sets path to Olympic success

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Linet and Moses Masai need that extra push to make it to their old school

By Debbie Martin
BBC World Class, Kenya

The small township of Iten perched on the edge of Kenya's Rift Valley is a richly fertile plateau famed for farming some of the country's biggest crops - maize, beans, coffee and athletes.

Kenyans dominate the world running stage and it is here, along the red, dirt roads of Iten that most of the country's great athletes live and train.

The latest harvest includes World Champion 10,000 metre runner Linet Masai and her bronze medallist brother, Moses.

As we filmed Linet and Moses out on their pre-dawn run, our attention began to turn to tinier, miniature athletes emerging through the morning mist - school children.

Clad in their uniforms, books tucked under their arms and many in bare feet, they were not training for some international athletics event - simply running to get to school.

For this part of Kenya, it is not an unusual sight, many children in the Rift Valley walk or run to school every day.

Seeds of Success

Whilst scientific theories have often put the success of Kenya's runners down to genetic makeup, optimal climate and altitude, it also makes sense to consider the impact of these early years of involuntary distance training on the region's school children.

Linet and Moses agreed to accompany us back to their old school in Kapsokwony District some 80 kilometres away from Iten, to show us where it all began for them.

I noticed the talent in Linet late. In 2005 she wanted to stop running. I said to her, please can you continue with your running. You will not know your future
Athletics coach, Ben Tumwet

That was if we could only get there.

En route, the siblings' shiny Mitsubishi, purchased with hard won-prize money, became wedged firmly against a rock, halfway down the slippery mountain track, its wheels spinning hopelessly.

For Linet and Moses, it would have been quicker to get out and run, after all, this mountain pass had been their original training track as they jogged barefoot to school as children.

After nearly five hours of mud-churning revving, we reached Bishop Okiring school. It is a basic set-up: a few out-buildings with rickety, wooden desks, glass-less windows and a patchy school field with grazing cows which doubles up as the athletics field.

As children, Linet and Moses would train for hours by running laps around this field, under the watchful eye of their athletics coach.

"I noticed the talent in Linet late. In 2005 she wanted to stop running. I said to her, please can you continue with your running. You will not know your future," Linet's athletics coach, Ben Tumwet said.

Moses is proud of his old classroom, explaining that he preferred to sit by the window, since he was often tired after athletics training, and found the fresh air kept him awake in class.

Linet joined the girls for lunch in the school canteen - a dirt mound outside the school's mud hut kitchen. It was a simple meal of ugali (maize) and beans, which the children eat everyday and which Linet says she loves because it is filling and gives her stamina.

Nurturing Saplings

You can’t just say ‘I want to become an athlete.’ You have to put in the hard work. And if you do that, eventually it will pay off and you can fulfil your dreams
Moses Masai

The school is clearly proud of its former pupils, and cannot believe that Linet and Moses' sporting success has put them on the map.

The head teacher was eager to show off his up-and-coming sports stars. With no athletics track, the children ran a few laps around the grassy field instead to demonstrate their talent for the camera.

"These are our athletics stars of the future," announced Mr Okadie proudly. "As you can see, they are very promising. But we have to support them and other young athletes like them, so they can make the Olympics. For if we don't support young sports stars in schools, there will be no Olympics."

As the children crammed into the boys' dormitory which doubled up as a make-shift assembly hall, everyone waited with baited breath to hear what Moses and Linet had to say. After a formal welcome from the head teacher, Moses stood up to speak. You could have heard a pin drop.

"Not so long ago, I was a pupil at this school. I was sitting in this school hall where you are sitting now. I worked hard and trained hard. I continued with my schoolwork. You can't just say 'I want to become an athlete.

"You have to put in the hard work. And if you do that, eventually it will pay off and you can fulfil your dreams."

At which point the assembled children erupted into cheers and dancers entered the hall wearing pink and green sashes singing a tribal song celebrating the value of education. It was a humbling experience.

Linet Masai with pupils from Bishop Okiring School
Linet Masai was overwhelmed with the welcome she received from her school

On the journey home, we passed hundreds more smiling faces, walking and running home from school. As Linet and Moses had trodden these mountain tracks just a few years previously, it may be only a matter of time before more of these miniature athletes follow in their muddy footsteps and go on to tread the boards of the world athletics stage.

Partnerships Blossom

Bishop Okiring is linking with Bedford Academy in the UK to begin an exciting Olympic Journey to London 2012. Go to bbc.co.uk/worldclass.



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see also
Rift Valley: Land of the runners
06 Jan 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
Kenyan siblings in pursuit of 2012 gold
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
At home with Moses Masai
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Moses Masai on path to success
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams


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