Janeth Jepkosgei of Kenya celebrates winning the women's 800m final (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Jepkosgei's Beijing target - first Kenyan women's middle distance Olympic gold

23 October 2007A frontrunner on the track and in the fashion stakes, Janeth Jepkosgei is not content to be ordinary. And now she is planning to go where no Kenyan woman has been before.

As remarkable as it may seem, given the prominent role played by the country’s female distance runners since the early 1990s, Kenya is still awaiting its first women’s Olympic champion in athletics. But the overdue gold medal entry into Kenyan Olympic history should be achieved next year if Jepkosgei can carry her 2007 form at 800m through to Beijing.

Having become the first Kenyan woman to win a global title at a distance below 10,000m, with her victory in Osaka in August, Jepkosgei is considering trying to do a Kelly Holmes. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Holmes delivered an 800/1500m double for Great Britain and, asked whether she might try to follow suit in Beijing, Jepkosgei said: “There is a possibility”.

It is, though, a slim possibility. While Jepkosgei added that it would depend on whether she could make a better job of the 1500m during the early season than she did this year, Federico Rosa, her manager, indicated that it was unlikely.

“I think we may start to try 1500m seriously in 2009,” Rosa said. “I think 2008 is too important. Maybe for London (2012) she will try to double. She will try some 1500s next year for sure but it is better to get a big medal in 800 then see.” No Kenyan woman has won an Olympic medal of any colour at either 800 or 1500m.

 “The 1500 is normally the second part of the championships (as it is in Beijing) so she may try, but I think right now that it is a bit risky,” Rosa added. “She will try some 1500s but not focus on both races for the Olympic Games.”

After modest start, 2007 ended with dominance

In an experimental 1500m in Doha in May, Jepkosgei finished 8th in an unflattering 4:14.70. She proved, on that occasion, to be a world-beating athlete in disguise as she ran the two fastest 800m races of the year at the World Championships, won both her post-Osaka Golden League races, in Zurich and Berlin, and set a championship record 1:57.87 at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart.

In both the semi-finals (1:56.17) and the final (1:56.04), Jepkosgei ran from the front and such tactics have become her trademark. Asked if the way she ran worried him, Rosa smiled and said: “At the semi-finals of the World Championships, yes. Now, not any more.”

Asked to sum up her summer, Jepkosgei said: “My season went the way I planned it. In the early season, I was not really in good shape but the plan was to be in shape for Osaka and our programme worked.” She added that she was not planning to run in the IAAF World Indoor Championships, in Valencia, next March.

Even in those brief moments when Jepkosgei is with the pack on the track, she is easily picked out by the red in her hair. It seems that training in Italy from April until September, as she has for seven years, has left her with a developed sense of fashion.

“She loves Italy,” Rosa said. “Her boyfriend and coach (Claudio Berradeli) is from Italy. Everybody likes her, she is a very nice person – very easygoing, never a problem. She likes to dress nicely always, likes to go to the shops. She is a really nice woman all the way.”

Adding that Jepkosgei is the “leader of a new group” of Kenyan woman who are keen to be seen as fashionable, Rosa said that an injection of glamour was good for their image. “It’s a new way (with the Kenyan women athletes),” he added. But above all is Jepkosgei’s dedication to training.

“She is very professional, very tough,” Rosa said. “Training, massage, exercise – it is not common in many athletes, whether they are Kenyan, European or whatever, to be so dedicated and so professional every day.”

From 400m Hurdles to 800m by accident

Jepkosgei was an accidental 800m when she took to the event eight years ago. As a schoolgirl in Kenya she reached provincial finals in the 400m Hurdles, High Jump and Long Jump and was National Schools Heptathlon champion. But, when she learned there was no 400m Hurdles at the national trials for the 1999 World Youth Championships, she opted for the 800m.

Qualifying in second place, Jepkosgei went to the World Youths in Bydgoszcz, Poland, but failed to reach the final. She was still mainly a hurdler in 2000, winning 400m Hurdles gold and 800m silver at the East Africa Youth Championships. But, after taking the African Junior 800m title in 2001, she was sent to the Kip Keino High Performance Training Centre, in Eldoret, where she was coached by Paul Ereng, the 1988 Olympic 800m champion. 

In 2002 Jepkosgei won the World Junior title and she made her senior breakthrough in 2006 when she defeated Maria Mutola to win the Commonwealth Games title in Melbourne. Recalling the part that Ereng played in igniting her career, Jepkosgei said: “I was inspired by Paul Ereng. He gave me motivation and what he said is happening.”

David Powell for the IAAF