John Kibowen winning the short course race at the 1998 World Cross Country Champs (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A Kenyan XC Legend - John Kibowen

If there was one man who regretted the passing, last year, of the era of the 4km short course race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, then it must have been John Kibowen.

John Kipkemboi Kibowen
Born: April 21, 1969, Changach, Nandi

With his 38th birthday approaching next month, Kibowen has decided that he will retire from international competition after this year's World Cross in Mombasa.

Until 1998, when the first short-course race was staged at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech, Kibowen had been the nearly man of Kenyan track. Now, he will be retiring having won three individual World Championship medals, two of them gold, safe in the knowledge that he can perhaps pursue marathon ambitions while younger runners take up the baton of defending Kenya's running pride.

A military man (he is an aircraft technician), Kibowen was a 3:30sec 1500m runner who had failed to progress beyond the semi-finals of the Athens World Championships a decade ago, but who seized his opportunity when, the following March, he headed to Morocco with the Kenyan cross country team.

At 28, he was a real dark horse in Morocco. While all attention was on Daniel Komen, few thought Kibowen would win the race. Yet that is what he did, with four Kenyans following to the finish line.

The success over a slightly longer distance ought to have given Kibowen a bit of a clue about his career ought to lead, although when he tried 5000m in Kuala Lumpur at the Commonwealth Games later that year, he was out of the medal placings again, finishing fourth behind Laban Rotich.

Injury was to keep Kibowen out of competition for most of 1999, but on his return to the 4km race at the World Cross the following March at Vilamoura, he was good enough to lead four of his Kenyan team mates home once again.

Frustratingly for Kibowen, though, after the World Cross he suffered a recurrence of his injury and so missed Kenya's Olympic trials in 2000.

Back at the World Cross in 2001, he finished seventh over 4km and went on that summer to take bronze over 5000m at the IAAF World Championships in Edmonton.

Having missed the championships in 2002, the following year, Kibowen won his final medal at the World Cross in Lausanne, where Kenenisa Bekele was accumulating the second of his imperious five World Cross doubles. It was a good form guide for Kibowen, who that summer would place fourth in the 5000m at the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Paris, France.

In 2004, he finished 32nd in his 4km speciality at the Brussels World Cross. He went to Athens Olympics the same year, already resigned to just representing the country.

In the Olympic Village in Athens, he told me that it would not be possible to stop Bekele. He was happy to reach the final though, where he finished sixth. He missed the next cross-country season, which started too soon after the Olympics and he did not even appear at the Kenyan trials.

But in 2006, following a sixth place finish over 5000m at the Helsinki World Championships the previous year, Kibowen travelled with the Kenyan cross-country team one last time, as team captain for the third time, though this time he would race over 12km, finishing a respectable 12th, significantly helping Kenya to regain the men's team title that they cherish so much.


It is likely that, as his competitive career comes to a close, he will spend more attention on his diverse investments in farming, real estate and commerce in Kenya. Kibowen runs a dairy farm in Kapkabus, where he has 20 Freisian hybrid cows. He also has a 50-acre maize farm where he also built a stone house where he and his wife, Florence, whom he married in 1993, are bringing up their four children.

A highly enterprising man, Kibowen also runs a petrol station in Bayete and another one in Waunifor, near Kapkabus, and he also rents out several houses in Eldoret’s exclusive residential areas.

Harmonising coaching in Kenya

Kibowen has strong views on the conflicts between individual athletes' training programmes and the demands of the national teams' training camps.

“Coaching is a crucial issue for a nation’s performance at the World Championships. Yet we have two types of coaches: one who coaches an athlete when the cross country season starts. He draws the training programme and remains with an athlete up to the national championships and trials.”

“He will know your strengths and weaknesses. He will know if you suffered an injury because your association will have lasted for long.”

“However, after the national is selected, another coach, a totally different one, will be imposed on athletes, yet he has no slightest idea of how the athletes are training. He will coach you for a whole month. Whether you have an injury or not, he won’t have any idea.”

“Athletes belong to different stables. I belong to Pace Sports Management. Others belong elsewhere, with different training programmes. These programmes should be harmonised. Coaches should have round-table discussions after the national trials to agree on the way forward.“

“More so, coaches with more athletes at the camp should be sponsored by authorities to live at the camp to continue their programme. Residential camp should not be more than 10 days.”

“Athletes should try as much as possible to respect coaches. When an athlete is called to national duty, he or she should listen to coaches even if you don’t entirely agree with his views. Showing utter disregard for coaches brings tension in the camp and saps up an athlete’s mental concentration."

Omulo Okoth for the IAAF