Paul Tergat at the 1999 IAAF World Cross Country Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A Kenyan XC legend - Paul Tergat

When the man who is better known in Kenya than most politicians expresses his view on the reason why no Kenyan has won the individual men's title at the IAAF World Cross Country, it is probably worth paying attention to what he has to say.

Paul Kibii Tergat
Born: June 7, 1969, Riwo, Kabarnet

“Our athletes have not regained the title because of lack of the will to win," says Paul Tergat, the five-time winner of the World Cross title but worryingly, perhaps, for a nation that takes such pride in the sport, also the last Kenyan to win the 12km individual title, back in 1999.

"We just don’t have strong coaches to push athletes," says Tergat, who since giving up on his cross country career has gone on to become the holder of the World record for the marathon.

"Our coaches don’t know how to handle athletes, they don’t relate in a manner that brings out the winning touch among athletes."

And it is a view that carries some weight because, unlike most of his contemporaries, Tergat was a relatively late starter at running, only taking up the sport once he had moved on from Riwo and Kapkawa primary schools in his native Kabarnet to join the military. Nor was Tergat from one of the regions of Kenya - the Nandi or the Keiyo or Marakwet highlands of the Kalenjin land - better known as the country's runners. Rather, he is from Baringo.

Of his five World Cross titles, he regards Belfast, his fifth victory, in 1999 as his most memorable. “It was cold, rainy, muddy and the course treacherous," he says. "One corner of the course was dangerously slanting. I was even scared at first because one had to slide to negotiate the corner. It was not easy at all, because nobody knew what to expect there.”

"But I was encouraged because I knew it would affect everybody. I was going for my fifth title and I was both excited and anxious.”

“When I did it, I thanked God. It was my most exceptional victory,” he says.

Nor has he forgotten Turin, where he won his third straight title in 1997.

Thomas Nyariki, Paul Koech and Shem Kororia, plus Morocco’s 10,000m World record-holder, Salah Hissou, had hit the front at a rapid pace on the flat, fast, parkland circuit.
Tergat dug really deep into his reservoirs to catch and pass them. Just. Pictures of the finish in Turin show a struggling Tergat just ahead of Hissou. The Kenyan is not smiling, but almost crying.

The man to watch

Tergat had won his first title in Durham in 1995 on another tough, muddy and hilly course, that day beating an impressive trio to the gold medal: double track World champion Ismael Kirui, Hissou and Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian rival who on four occasions on the track - at two World Championships and two Olympic Games - would come between Tergat and a 10,000m gold medal.

In 1995, Tergat had won at the Kenyan cross country championships and Mike Kosgei, the head coach, had rightly predicted that the emerging 25-year-old was the man to watch. Kosgei was right, and Tergat led Kenya to the team title.
“During our time, Mike Kosgei was very strong and had influence over all athletes," Tergat says.

"I never had any problems with him. He had authority over athletes. We would joke and laugh and have fun a lot while not training. When we started training, Kosgei suddenly became somebody, no, something, else. He could strike a balance, between being gentle and friendly, and not being harsh, unreasonable and dictating."

Five World Cross titles, four global silver medals at 10,000m and the fastest marathon of all-time, at 2:04:55 set in Berlin in September 2003, Tergat is rightly regarded as one of the outstanding distance runners of all-time, a master of track, road and cross-country.

The need for team work

He believes that the old methods of Kenyan running offer the best way to success.

“Athletes these days run individually. There is absolutely no teamwork. Even as you watch the races, you hardly see any team co-ordination. Yet, I can’t blame athletes. It is the responsibility of the officials to co-ordinate, advise and talk to the athletes.”

"But we need permanent coaches. The idea of naming coaches for particular championships is archaic and must be stopped. Envious coaches start undermining their colleagues. It encourages mud-slinging."

Tergat, at 37 still much in demand on the lucrative global road race circuit, is married to Monica, a trained nurse. They have four children.

He acknowledges the importance of agents for modern, professional athletes.

"All managers want their athletes to do well," Tergat says. "I have been in this business for so long and I have worked with managers. Like athletes, managers want their athletes to win more medals, more money, but an athlete needs to strike a good bargain."

Omulo Okoth for the IAAF