RAsbel Kiprop is a child of the IAAF High Performance Training Centre (HPTC) in Eldoret, Kenya. Along with Panama’s World champion long jumper Irving Saladino and Jamaica’s World 100m record holder Usain Bolt, who train at other IAAF HPTCs around the world, the 19-year-old Kenyan 1500m runner is one of the many outstanding products that the IAAF’s development policy has delivered in recent years.
Never heard of Kiprop? Well, injury permitting it will not be long before the name of this now barely 19-year-old Kenyan runner will be as much on people’s lips as Ethiopia’s revered long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie.
That’s a bold claim to make about an athlete who presently boasts a World Junior XC title and a fourth place finish at last summer’s World Championships 1500m final as the pinnacles of his career.
Erudite and eloquent and at times even philosophical, best described Kiprop’s performance as he addressed a mesmerised pack of international journalists at a press conference ahead of tomorrow evening’s Meeting Gaz de France Paris Saint-Denis – ÅF Golden League (Friday 18 July).
A week ago in Rome (11) Kiprop smoothly accelerated away from many of the best 1500m runners in the world to lower his nearly year-old PB by over three seconds to 3:31.64 and so take his most important career victory to date.
Today, Kiprop just as confidently in his train of thought and speech delivered precise and carefully analysed answers to every question, projecting an assured persona, the like of which has not been seen in the responses of any other African runner of such youth in the past couple of decades.
We all accept that there are many great stories to tell from that continent of sporting brilliance but so few of the dozens of talents who have emerged have been able to translate their tales meaningfully to the rest of world. It is not just an African but a worldwide dilemma for the sport which has led to the IAAF setting up media training courses for athletes in the last two years. In the African context Gebrselassie has stood out as one of the rare exceptions of a top media talent, and in Kiprop, athletics has found another such potential world media star of the highest order.
Kiprop’s athletics story began in 2006 when he was approached by Martin Keino, the son of the great Kip Keino, Olympic champion and World record breaker, who administers the IAAF centre in Eldoret, who asked him to join the centre after he finished fourth in the Kenyan junior trials of that summer. Before that year Kiprop had not really taken athletics that seriously in fact his father had cautioned him from pursuing too strenuous training too young in life.
His family home is 20km from Eldoret city, and they are farmers. No real surprise there but as one of just three brothers, Kiprop does hail from an unusually small household by usual agrarian standards in Kenya.
Kiprop describes himself modestly as being “just normal” when his schooling is mentioned but confirms that there is a possibility that he might consider university in the USA in the future.
And what is his subject? “Geography”.
“Asbel” we were told by Kiprop means ‘determined’, and there is no doubt his name fits his character. This is a young man who wants to succeed.
“Since 2006 I have been under an Olympic Solidarity scholarship in Eldoret, and when this finishes at the end of this season I will have to think about things. But for me it would be best to stay at the centre than to move away if I am going to achieve the cause which I am striving for, running in the Olympics, running better times, being a World champ, and maybe even trying a world record if things work out.”
What about his improvement in Rome, was it expected?
“When I went to Rome I had an idea of improving my best, but I never really considered the prospect of winning the race. I was surprised because I was running against athletes with much better personal best times – Daniel Kipchirchir Komen, Shedrack Korir. So yes it was a surprise, I never expected it, I just wanted them to push me to a faster PB.”
Does that performance give you confidence for Beijing?
“There is a big difference between running a Grand Prix race and the Olympics because you have to run the three races, the heat, the qualifying round (semi final) and then the final but yes, I hope for more improvement when it comes to the races in Beijing.”
“In a championship I like a slow race so that you can sprint at the end but again in Grand Prix it’s very different with the rabbits, so they tend to be fast. As a professional athlete you have got to know how to run both kinds of races.”
You exude a great deal of calmness and control in your answers, is that the same feeling you have on the track?
“Before I went to Osaka last summer (World champs) everyone in Kenya was saying that I must win gold and I was not comfortable at that time with these opinions.”
“I like to run comfortable. I don’t really know how to explain it. I do not put myself under pressure…yes, you could say I run because I simply enjoy running…. Money will come later when I have achieved my goals so it’s not a factor now.”
Who are your athletics heroes?
“Kip Keino was my hero from the beginning but as I started to actively take part in athletics I have wanted to run like Hicham El Guerrouj. The first time I got to watch him (on TV) running was in the Olympic heats in 2004, and my memory is of his amazing energy.”
“What I was trying to do (in the final in Osaka) was to copy what Hicham normally did to tackle (Bernard) Lagat. He normally ran in front and then after 600m or 800m he would change the pace at which point everyone would try, especially Lagat would try to pass but not be able to because they would already be straining.”
“I have tried to copy this tactic in Osaka but it didn’t work so I will now try something else.”
And what about the race tomorrow in Paris?
Tomorrow, “winning will be a surprise as remember every athlete comes with the aim of winning, no one sets out to lose.”
There is no doubt that Kiprop is one of life's winners!
Chris Turner for the IAAF