Kenya hosts the world junior athletics championships in just over a year, hoping to showcase its future stars and the potential the country has to stage international athletics competitions.
Athletes are training hard, but preparations for the event have stalled amid constructions delays and the government’s failure to deliver promised upgrades to sports facilities including new stadiums.
“Our athletes have suffered a lot,” said Elias Kiptum Mahindi, a two-time winner of the Linz marathon in Austria, who has trained in the high-altitude town of Iten, the cradle of Kenyan champions, for the past decade.
Iten, 2,400 metres (7,874 feet) above sea level, has been the training site for Olympic medal winners including David Rudisha, the former world marathon record holder Wilson Kipsang, and current women’s marathon record holder Mary Keitany.
“The athletes really like the serenity Iten provides,” Mahindi said. “The climate and the conditions here are very good.”
But ambitious plans to improve facilities have resulted in running tracks being closed for months and no sign of them reopening.
“We are urging the national government and those responsible to help us,” Mahindi said.
When Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was first elected in 2013, he listed nine stadiums to be built or refurbished.
They included the famous Kamariny stadium in Iten, and the two big stadiums in Eldoret and Kapsabet, both named after Kenya’s legendary athlete Kipchoge Keino.
Six years later, none of the stadiums are ready.
Nowhere to run
In Iten, the Kamariny public training ground — a track that has launched the careers of multiple champions and driven Kenya’s dominance in middle and long distance running for over half a century — is closed.
Athletes are forced to travel to running tracks in Eldoret, some 35 kilometres (21 miles) away, or in the neighbouring town of Tambach, 11 kilometres away.
Colm O’Connell, who left Ireland for Kenya’s Rift Valley over 40 years ago and has coached over 20 Olympic and World champions, has been forced to hire a bus every day to take his junior athletes for training to Tambach.
“It has become very expensive,” said O’Connell, noting that crowding is also a problem as runners from miles around converge on the limited facilities at Tambach.
“Even when you reach there you’re not assured of getting the space to train,” he said.
In Eldoret, the athletes have to join a waiting list for training at the small university track each morning and evening.
As the clock ticks down to next year’s championships, athletes point out that delayed government plans to upgrade facilities risk damaging a sport that brings intense national pride to the country.
“The tracks were supposed to be ready by now — so that at least we can use them to train and prepare all the teams,” said athletics coach Kenneth Kibet. “It is a big problem for the whole country.”
Fund-raising for own track
Among the projects is an expensive all-weather tartan running track at the iconic Kamariny stadium in Iten.
There is little sign of progress: the stadium is closed and construction is stalled.
Kibet said athletes would have prefered that the existing dirt track have been simply upgraded, so at least they would have somewhere to train.
“We can’t come here,” Kibet said. “We would have prefered that this track be left as it is.”
Some fear that Kenya has not learned its lessons from the past.
Kenya lost the hosting rights for the football African Nations Championships (CHAN) in 2018. The overall governing body, the Confederation of African Football, ruled the country was not in a position to host the event since the stadiums were not ready in time.
The government insists, however, that it is doing what it can. Former sports minister Rashid Achesa toured the Eldoret and Kamariny stadiums in Iten in January and called on the contractors to speed up their work.
He said government money allocated for the stadium constructions had been diverted to other priorities and the government was seeking new funding sources.
Frustrated athletes have taken matters into their own hands and have launched a fund-raising campaign to build a basic track nearer to Iten.
“Athletes have come together,” Kibet said. “We don’t need complex rooms, just the field to be upgraded.”