Why Kenyan star Wilson Kipsang now runs on shaky ground

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Updated: April 20, 2017

He’s in there, somewhere — behind the nearly 8-foot concrete wall crowned with a security barrier of broken bottles, behind the steel gate blocking intruders’ entry to his mansion and past his personal security guard. Wilson Kipsang is perhaps the most elegant man in all of Kenya. Six feet tall and slender and sinewy at 137 pounds, he is the onetime world-record holder for the marathon, and his personal best of 2:03:13 is just 16 seconds off the current record. He has notched four sub-2:04 marathons, more than anyone else in history. When he runs — his gleaming bald head erect, his arm carriage low, his whole body tilted subtly forward as his knees rise only minimally — he seems to be gracing the earth.

When Kipsang is not running, that grace remains. The man is smooth. He’s genial. He is cool and composed. He is also, yes, a politician, and he’s running for a seat in the Kenyan Parliament. On Friday, he’ll face 11 other candidates in a primary vote to determine the Jubilee Party candidate in his district. (Whoever wins Jubilee in his district will likely win the general election in August.) On TV of late, he’s been superb.

So why is he making me wait outside this concrete wall in the small Kenyan city of Iten? Why did he tell me to arrive at 6 a.m. and why, at 7:30, am I still waiting, obliged to pass beggarly notes to his security guard? Is this guy for real? Is he the man of the people he purports to be? Recent news reports have questioned his integrity. There are allegations afoot that Kipsang has bribed voters in hopes of winning the primary, allegations that he and his campaign have publicly denied.

I keep waiting. It’s 8 a.m. It’s 8:30. Finally, at about 8:40, the guard beckons me inside, into Kipsang’s receiving room, where a plenitude of running trophies is arrayed on the mantel amid a few scattered belongings left by his four children, and I see the man himself. He is smiling. He is folded into an easy chair, a study in angles and bones, and he is swaying to the Afropop music streaming out of the television. He shakes my hand and he laughs, and for a moment my doubts melt away. I think to myself, “This man is nothing but kindness and goodness.”

It is almost impossible to convey how proud Kenya is of its distance runners, who in the past 10 Boston Marathons have won five men’s titles and seven women’s titles. The pride jumps out from the road signs. Iten is the “Home of Champions.” Eldoret, less than an hour away, is the “City of Champions.” And there is little debate over which contemporary champion instills the most pride.

At 35, Kipsang has already established himself as a daring young businessman. In 2013, he turned an Iten farm field into the swank Keellu Resort Center, a 30-room hotel, and he did so with flourish, not even waiting for the corn to ripen before he broke ground. (He sold his corn green, astonishing locals.) Then in 2014, he founded the Professional Athletes Association of Kenya to do battle with Athletics Kenya, a controversial and scandal-ridden wing of the Kenyan government that oversees all things track and field.

Kipsang’s first run for elected office is an outgrowth of the work he’s done over the past three years, advocating for Kenya’s approximately 10,000 professional runners as president of PAAK. As well as promising to “distribute water” and “educate the poor,” Kipsang has promised to “look for friends and sponsors to help athletes with training facilities” and to push for a “modern stadium in every county.”

He has a good chance of winning, for he has the common touch: On weekends, it’s not hard to find Kipsang bending over the soil, rake in hand, as he tends his cashews and sweet potatoes in the Kerio Valley less than 30 miles south of Iten. He’s running for office there in a district that, politically speaking, is known as Keiyo South. He owns a vacation home in the Kerio, and he grew up there on a harsh, character-building landscape.

The Kerio is one of Kenya’s poorest regions, a hot, dusty place where dry thornbushes litter the land and venomous snakes sneak into homes during droughts, searching for water. Violent cattle rustling is common, and herders often guard their cows with AK-47s.

Starting at age 7, Kipsang was obliged to run to school. The trip was a little over 4 miles each way. “If you were late,” he tells me, “you were punished.” When he was 13, he began running home for lunch; he was now covering about 17 miles each day. He ran barefoot; his family did not have money for shoes. They didn’t have electricity or running water either, but they were not, by local standards, poor. No, Kipsang’s father, Joseph Sarkutta, was a local chief as well as a police sergeant, and Kipsang watched in admiration as his dad followed local custom by keeping small-claims disputes out of court, opting instead to solve them through restorative justice — by making opposing parties sit down and talk. “If somebody grazed a cow on his neighbor’s land,” he said as we sat beneath his trophies, “my father would call in the elders, and the elders would decide who’d done wrong and how much was owed. You want to make peace. If you punish someone, then he’ll just fight back. If he goes to prison, he’ll just become more of a criminal.”

When Kipsang became a police officer at age 21, he followed his dad’s lead, asking petty burglars and their victims to sit down and talk. He reveled in, as he puts it, “bringing sanity to the community.” Later — after he was drawn to the bright lights of Iten and after he became a famous runner wealthy enough to pursue a university degree in criminology — he brought his civic sense to the challenges facing Kenya’s pro distance runners, nearly all of whom hail, as Kipsang does, from the Kalenjin tribe, whose 5 million people are rooted in their nation’s western highlands.

Many Kenyan runners are scantly educated. They often get ripped off by rapacious agents and have constant difficulties with Athletics Kenya, which has ruled Kenyan running since 1951 with, many say, an iron fist and a sweet tooth for bribe money.

It’s not hard to find dirt on Athletics Kenya. One needs only go back to November 2015, when the group was outed for its role in two scandals. In investigating AK, the International Association of Athletics Federations discovered that more than 40 Kenyan athletes had been found guilty of doping since the 2012 Olympics in London. AK’s top officials, it said, had covered up the doping epidemic and accepted bribes from athletes hoping to dodge doping charges.

“We have never bribed or coerced any athlete. We have never transferred or aided any athlete to register in Keiyo South. With the love that athletes have for Wilson, everyone registered as a voter in Keiyo out of a willing heart.”

Wilson Kipsang’s campaign manager and adviser, Elias Kiptum, on whether Kipsang was guilty of a common Kenyan crime

The IAAF also accused three of Athletics Kenya’s top executives of embezzling $700,000 that Nike had given the agency to train and support poor Kenyan runners. It also found that AK’s president, Isaiah Kiplagat, had accepted a “gift” of two cars from the Qatar Association of Athletics Federation as that nation angled, successfully, to host the 2019 track and field world championships. The IAAF suspended Kiplagat and two other AK leaders for 180 days.

In a way, the skulduggery was old news in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. Kenya is corrupt. When Transparency International rated 176 world nations and territories in its 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, with No. 1 being the least corrupt, Kenya placed 145th.

Outrage is almost a default emotion among many Kenyans, and in November 2015, dozens of little-known PAAK athletes stormed AK’s headquarters in Nairobi, chanting and bearing placards with slogans such as “Enough Is Enough For Blood Suckers.” They barricaded themselves inside the building and locked out AK officials, demanding that the officials be fired and that AK’s constitution be rewritten.

There no longer was room for the sort of nuanced negotiations that Kipsang’s father conducts. The heat was on, and still Kipsang remained unruffled. He made a cameo at the rally and cheered the occupiers, saying, “We are staying strong until our demands are met.” Then, quietly, he conferred with Athletics Kenya brass and elicited a promise: The AK leaders would make voting for the group’s top officials easier for rank-and-file Kenyan athletes.

Somehow he managed to earn respect even from people dubious of PAAK.

“Wilson Kipsang is about the only person PAAK has with any finesse,” says Elias Makori, the Nation Media Group’s North Rift regional editor for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. “He speaks well. He’s first-class as a businessman and an athlete. Even in his family life, he’s done well. He’s faultless, almost.”

On my second day in Iten, I rise before dawn and go to the red dirt track at Kamariny Stadium and wait for Kipsang to show up for a workout. Sitting on the worn bleachers, I see 50 or 60 elite runners already out on the track, doing speed work in the cool of the morning. It’s as though I’m beholding a stampede of gazelles. The ground thunders as a thin, red dust wafts through the air.

Many of these athletes, like Kipsang himself, hail from small Kenyan villages. They are hopeful migrants who’ve come to Iten to seek their fortune, or at least to eke out a living on the meager cash prizes and appearance fees afforded them by European and American race directors. And it’s only when I speak to a runner named William Kiptoo Chelinganyang that I begin to comprehend how rough their lives are.

Chelinganyang, 36, has run a 1:04 half-marathon. Though he is extremely fast, he’s not quite top tier, and he has but a fourth-grade education. For him, the past decade has been a constant struggle to support his wife, his two children and his parents, all of whom depend on his race earnings. The principal themes, he says, have been disappointment and betrayal. In a 2012 race, Chelinganyang says he finished third, winning about $2,500; he claims he received only $250. He complained to Athletics Kenya that his agent had bilked him. He says he was told: “We cannot help you. Your agent is not registered with us.” (Athletics Kenya did not return ESPN’s repeated phone calls and emails.)

Before every international race Chelinganyang enters, he must journey seven hours by bus to Nairobi to apply in person at AK headquarters for a “clearance letter” allowing travel. Invariably, he says, he is asked to pay a bribe in exchange for the letter. Usually the fee is about $20, and often he pays it. In 2010, however, before the Athens Marathon, he did not have the money. He waited in AK’s offices for three days, hoping to get the letter, but he never received it and was forced to forgo the $2,100 appearance fee he had been promised by his contacts in Athens.

Chelinganyang makes roughly $1,200 in an average year, and the timetable for receiving checks is erratic. “Sometimes it reaches a point where we have absolutely no food in the house,” he told me. “Maybe I can get a loan from a shop for a kilo of maize flour. If we eat just one meal a day, that will last us a week. Sometimes I only take water.”

Kipsang wants to help runners even poorer than Chelinganyang. Each month, he spends about $1,000 offering rent assistance, food and race entry fees to nearly 100 Iten athletes as he guides their training. In a town where a simple tin shack can be rented for $25 a month, his largesse goes far. Indeed, during my visit to Iten, I find several successful runners who gush with gratitude when I mention Kipsang. “When I came to Iten, I joined his group and he organized my talent,” says Geoffrey Ronoh, who benefited from Kipsang’s financial support leading up to breaking the hour mark in the half-marathon. “Then he said, ‘You are among the elite.’ He gave me confidence.”

When at last Kipsang arrives at the track, at 8:30 a.m., it’s an “Elvis is in the building” moment. Kenyan runners turn to gape as he trots through his warm-up. European tourist runners, in Iten on pilgrimage, jostle toward him, snapping photos. Then, dressed in a long-sleeve shirt despite the mounting heat, he rolls into a stupendous workout: 20 successive 400-meter sprints, each at about 61 seconds. After the last one, he doubles over for a moment, resting his hands on his knees, and takes a single deep restorative breath. Then, rag-doll loose, he jangles off the track and goes home.

Later, I ride shotgun in Kipsang’s Toyota Land Cruiser as he drives from Iten to nearby Eldoret, wearing a sleek salt-and-pepper dress suit for a meeting. He’s running late, but he is measured and strategic in his remarks, even as a herd of goats wanders onto the road, slowing us down. When I ask him about Athletic Kenya’s handling of the Nike money, he says: “I don’t want to say whether it is corruption or not. It could just be mismanagement of funds.” When I ask him about Chelinganyang and others who’ve told me they’ve been denied clearance letters, he says: “Those are allegations. We are not sure it is true.”

Kipsang’s brother, Josephat Kiprotich, is sitting in the back seat. Later, he will tell me, “Thanks to our dad, Wilson is a born politician. When he was in primary school, he was almost always the class prefect. He could lead classes as well. That’s what the head teacher told me.”

It is not clear that Kipsang is effective, however. Makori, the Kenyan journalist, calls PAAK “disorganized” and questions whether it has accomplished anything. “The suspension of those officials?” he says. “That was the IAAF, not PAAK.” Makori disputes PAAK’s claims that it has 10,000 members, each one a professional runner who has paid the $5 membership fee. “Those figures are grossly exaggerated,” he says. Makori adds that PAAK will never overtake Athletics Kenya as the nation’s official track agency. “They have no clout,” he says.

Chelinganyang concurs. “I complained to PAAK when I wasn’t paid,” he says, “but they accomplished nothing.”

Kipsang disagrees. “PAAK has assisted so much in the improvement of Athletics Kenya’s delivery of clearance letters,” he says. “It has also improved athlete-manager relationships” — by forcing laggard managers to pay up.

Still, controversy is swirling around Kipsang. Kipsang’s rivals in the Keiyo South parliament race are accusing him of illegally recruiting Iten- and Eldoret-based runners to vote for him. In a nation where voters can register anywhere they choose but are not allowed to accept incentives that could sway their choice, he is allegedly transporting runners to Keiyo South and giving them lunch money. Detractors claim it is possible that he is even recruiting non-Kenyans to vote for him. In February, two Rwandan runners training in Kenya, Hakizimana Gervaiz and Hagenimana Olivier, along with a Burundian athlete, Mpundu Elonge, were arrested near Iten after allegedly trying to procure Kenyan IDs. A Kenyan athlete named Laban Kipkoech was arrested along with them, accused of aiding them in their elaborate fraud that also saw one foreign runner pretending to be deaf and dumb as all of them assumed fake names with a Kalenjin ring to them.

News stories throughout Kenya speculated whether the runners were tied to Kipsang. Meanwhile, according to a local journalist, a rival Keiyo South candidate, Micah Kigen, helped organize a protest that saw 100 people gather outside an elections office, claiming that Kipsang’s campaign had transported hundreds of runners to register in Keiyo South. The runners arrived, allegedly, in matatus — crowded minivans that are the standard mode of transit for all but wealthy Kenyans.

The Keiyo South area coordinator for the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission, Lazarus Chebii, confirmed that 674 people had registered in the district over a recent weekend, adding that all of these voters are “genuine people who belong here.”

The story about the Rwandans broke just as a meticulous report was released detailing the prevalence of voter fraud in Kenya. The Nairobi-based Centre for Multi-Party Democracy-Kenya worked in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation to survey more than 500 Kenyan voters and found that 56 percent of them had accepted bribes from politicians or their supporters. In some cases, according to the report, the bribe was as little as 50 cents.

Eventually, I write Kipsang’s campaign manager and adviser, Elias Kiptum, to ask whether his candidate was guilty of a common Kenyan crime. “I categorically dismiss the allegations,” he responds. “We have never bribed or coerced any athlete. We have never transferred or aided any athlete to register in Keiyo South. With the love that athletes have for Wilson, everyone registered as a voter in Keiyo out of a willing heart.”

A 2:08 marathoner and the coordinator for PAAK, Kiptum says that over 50 percent of the registrants during the February voter drive were professional runners from nearby cities. Kipsang’s campaign, he says, went “door to door to where the athletes were training.” The runners, in turn, traveled to remote Keiyo South en masse, each one personally shelling out about $10 for the round-trip matatu journey.

“I wish to state clearly,” Kiptum writes, “that all athletes paid their fare by themselves, regardless of what was insinuated by our opponents. Athletes love the manifesto that Kipsang gave them. [Several] of them have even loaned their cars for Kipsang’s campaign.”

I see Wilson Kipsang only one more time. We are, as luck would have it, on the same flight from Eldoret to Nairobi, and after we deplane, I watch him step onto the shuttle bus. He is dressed in a warm-up jacket and jeans. The bus lurches to a start, then rattles around a turn. The man next to Kipsang says, “This guy doesn’t know how to drive.”

“It is not the driver,” Kipsang says coolly, refusing to impugn anyone. “It is the road.” He is standing in the aisle, dangling from an overhead handrail, and the bus is dark, so as he studies his cellphone, his face is shrouded in the halo of light emanating from his screen. His head hinges delicately from his neck. He is at ease. Even here, on a jolting courtesy bus, he looks graceful. Even if his critics are right and Kipsang dipped his toes into Kenyan corruption, there is still something hopeful about the equanimity he contains.

Eventually, we get to baggage claim. Kipsang alights, then ambles inside with the crowd, shuffling along, no faster than anyone else but more nimble somehow, moving with the slightest of effort, as though he is floating on air.

Article source: http://www.espn.com/sports/endurance/story/_/id/19200851/distance-running-star-wilson-kipsang-takes-first-run-elected-office-kenya