Nairobi, KenyaFor Paul Kibii Tergat, the world's fastest marathon runner, Athens will definitively form the climax or anti-climax of his illustrious international athletics career which has spanned more than a decade, as 2004 will be his last Olympics.
Tergat has it all except the Olympics gold
"I have every type of trophy in my cabinet, except an Olympic gold medal. This should indicate to you how important I am taking the Games in Athens," said Tergat, 34, a sergeant in the Kenya Air Force.
“I want to solidify my two silver medals into something more tangible for the nation, myself and my fans too.”
Tergat won the 10,000m Olympic silver medal in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney four years later. He also took a World Championships bronze (1995) and two silvers (1997/1999) for the same distance. He won individual World cross country titles for five successive years (1995-1999). He dominated the half-marathon scene like nobody else, both city races like Stramilano and World Championships (1999 & 2000). Tergat also held the World 10,000m track record (1997), and currently holds the World records for the Half and full marathon.
When Tergat missed the London City Marathon last April, due to calf muscle injury, athletics pundits were quick to speculate that he feigned the injury to concentrate on the Olympics. Like the gentleman that he is, he did not attempt to allay those speculations. He just went for medical treatment in Brescia, Italy, under the watchful eyes of his coach Dr Gabriele Rosa and returned home to concentrate on his Olympics training.
On course for Athens success
“So far training has gone on well. I can’t complain. I have been training locally in Kenya and my focus is right there,” said Tergat. “I don’t feel any pressure at all. I am not the target anyway. The target is the medal(s) on offer.”
“My only worry is the Marathon being the last event, run on the last day of the Games. The other athletes may create (party) disturbance and a lot of noise (in the village the night before) because they will already have completed their competition programme,” mused Tergat.
“The Olympic challenge is there but do I run away from it? No, I am ready to face it. The Marathon is a tough race, a very demanding race whose medal ought to weigh heavier than the others.”
Marathon statistics are on Kenya’s side
We, Kenya, have a strong team, rich in experience and status. We have statistics on our side and I am sure we shall pull through, both men and women.”
“Right now, we have done our part. We need prayers and we hope things will go well,” said the man dubbed ‘King’ Paul.
Tergat will be in the Athens Marathon team with Olympic silver medallist Eric Wainaina and Sammy Korir, who was second, by just a second, to him when he set the World record in Berlin last year. Korir’s 2:04:56 was also way inside Khalid Khannouchi’s previous World record mark (2:05.38).
Tergat’s female counterparts from Kenya are World champion Catherine Ndereba, and London Marathon titlist Margaret Okayo, and the less well known Alice Chelagat. In the six runners, Kenyan believes it is assured of a gold medal and up to three more medals in Athens.
"Ndereba and Okayo are capable of winning the race and I can't dismiss Chelagat either," said Tergat.
"I will train up to August 15. That is the time I will be through with my training for the Games. I want to reach Athens on August 25," said Tergat.
The event is set for August 29, the last day of the Games. Although the weather conditions in Athens are humid and hot, Tergat says it will apply to everybody, and that he still believes that training in Kenya is the best plan.
International retirement after running on fire
His plan is to win the race and retire from international athletics. He has said many times that this is his last chance for the Olympic gold medal. The race will be run in the evening, but Tergat says that this is the most difficult time to run because "it is like running on fire. That is the time the tarmac tends to release heat absorbed during the day. In such conditions, a runner tends to lose a lot of water.”
They should be worried about me
"Kenyans should train extra hard because the Ethiopians are doing the same. It won't be easy and we just have to train very hard. I personally am not worried about them. In fact, they should be worried about me," joked Tergat. He will notably face reigning Olympic champion Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia.
Although the Kenyan team reside at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, some 11-km north east of the capital, Tergat has been training at Ngong Hills, about 15-km on the opposite side of the city, with top athletes like Titus Munji, who was third in Berlin, Joshua Chelanga, who was third in Boston two years ago, and three-time Los Angeles Marathon champion Benson
Thinking about wider Kenyan hopes, Tergat would like Kenyans to take over from where he left off in the 10,000m in 2000, when he came so close to winning the Olympic gold in Sydney.
"For the Kenyans to do that, they have to keep pace with Ethiopians throughout the race and be ready for the sprint. I have raced with them many times and the secret of beating them is very good preparation and the readiness to sprint," Tergat confirmed.
Omulo Okoth for the IAAF
Note - Paul Tergat is currently ranked a lowly 22nd in the IAAF World Ranking for Men's Road Running.