Beijing, ChinaWorld, you’d better watch out, Kenyan women are on the march. First Pamela Jelimo and Janeth Jepkosgei took apart the 800m field here in the Bird’s Nest stadium on Monday (18) and then Nancy Jebet Lagat (previously better known as 'Langat'), who turned 27 yesterday (22), dismantled a classy 1500m field to capture Olympic gold.
Winner of the men’s 800m and captain of the Kenyan team, Wilfred Bungei, explained how times are changing in Kenya as women abandon their traditional role to dedicate themselves to other pursuits.
“There is a change in mentality in Kenyan athletics,” explained Bungei. “Women no longer have to be housewives and stay at home. There is a change in the way women approach sports and work. Now it is a career for them. They can be a housewife and have children later.”
Lagat put it more simply: “It is not difficult for women to be an athlete in Kenya.” In truth, she got the best start in life on two counts. One, she is from Eldoret which, as she says, “is where a lot of runners come from.” Secondly, her father Joseph ran the 5000m at international level.
But she pointed out that it was not her father that got her into running but the Kenyan teachers in her school at Eldoret High: “I started running in school because I liked it, not because anyone encouraged me and in 1995 I made the Kenyan team, but I could not represent my country because I was under-age.”
I am completely surprised
That alone speaks volumes for the talent inherent in this young woman, but the only other success to her name before Saturday night in Beijing was a World Junior 800m title in Chile in 2000. Two years earlier in the same event she had taken silver in the Annecy World Junior championships.
In the Athens Games, she went out in the semis and in Helsinki fared even worse by failing to progress beyond the heats. So did she think she stood a chance in Beijing: “No, I am completely surprised,” she said. “I was not expecting to perform to the level that I have.”
Coming into the Olympic Games, Lagat had a personal best of 4:02.31 with a slightly slower season’s best of 4:03.02, not the kind of clockings that made anyone think she would become Olympic champion.
Not only did she not think she would win, it was impossible to find anyone in the Kenyan media who thought she would lift the title. Various journalists had to confess that they had not included her in their previews.
It was only when Kenyan women came away empty handed from the 5000m that she finally got a mention with one newspaper referring to her as “the lone wolf” left in the competition. Well, the wolf had some bite in her and bite she did. World champion Maryam Jusuf Jamal had no response to Langat’s searing attack down the back straight.
Not that Lagat was intending to do anything in particular: “I had no tactic, no plan,” she revealed. She even thought there were so many strong runners in the field, including Jamal, that her chances were minimal.
Bungei, however, gave some idea of what was afoot: “This year we changed the way we approached the Olympics. Instead of going to training camp after the national championships, we went one month earlier. That allowed us to harmonise our training. We were together for two months instead of one. It changed our performance, building team-work.”
But even the team captain had no inkling of what was to unfold in the women’s 1500m: “I was surprised and I am happy for her. We need to give credit to her,” he said.
Born and raised in Eldoret, Lagat now lives in Nairobi where she is a member of the armed forces. She is coached by Italian Claudio Berelli and married to marathon runner Kenneth Cheriuyot. In 2001 he won the Rotterdam marathon. Now his wife is Olympic champion.
Before these Olympics no Kenyan woman had won an Olympic title. After Lagat’s victory they have two female Olympic champions. As Bungei said: “The world will be surprised at the effect Kenyan women will have on athletics.” Jelimo and Lagat are the first of many.
Michael Butcher for the IAAF