Iten is to Kenyan athletics what Kapchorwa is to Uganda, or Bekoji to Ethiopia. No other Kenyan town has produced more athletics stars than Iten.
Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda is home to 2019 World Championship men’s 10,000 metres champion Joshua Cheptegei who is also the world cross country champion, 2020 World Half Marathon champion Jacob Kiplimo and Stephen Kiprotich, the gold medalist in men’s marathon at 2012 London Olympics.
Kapchorwa, located on the ranges of Mount Elgon, is the town largely responsible for Uganda’s encroachment into fields of competition in athletics largely regarded as Kenya’s domain.
Ethiopian town of Bekoji, located 225 kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa, is renowned for producing athletics stars who have won 18 Olympic medals between themselves. It is home to Ethiopia’s distance running legend Kenenisa Bekele and other household names like Derartu Tulu, Fatuma Roba and Tirunesh Dibaba.
On Thursday when World Athletics honoured Iten for the town’s contribution to athletics, some of the town’s famous sons and daughters on hand to witness the occasion were former London Marathon champion Mary Keitany, world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge, multiple 3,000m steeplechase world and Olympic champion Ezekiel Kemboi, and former World Cross Country champion Irene Cheptai.
But Elgeyo Marakwet County where Iten is located is also home to women’s marathon record holder Brigid Kosgei, double world and Olympic champion Vivian Cheruiyot, former men’s marathon record holder Wilson Kipsang, Kemboi, 2007 World Cross Country champion Lornah Kiplagat, among others.
The World Athletics Heritage plaque bestowed on Iten confirmed the town’s status as home to world-conquering athletes.
According to the global athletics body, the World Athletics Heritage Plaque is awarded for “an outstanding contribution to the worldwide history and development of the sport of track and field athletics and of out of stadia athletics disciplines such as cross country, mountain, road, trail and ultra-running, and race walking.”
Iten joins 60 other previous recipients of the honour, among them six of the oldest athletics races in the world. The honour was inaugurated on December 2, 2008
And what a befitting recognition for Iten which is Kenya’s athletics capital. Because Kenya is blessed with so much athletics talent, it is very easy to take for granted our achievements in major championships across all levels. Just to highlight this, Kenyans currently hold world records in men and women’s marathon, women’s half marathon, women-only half marathon, and men’s 800m.
Iten alone is home to many present and former world record holders, world and Olympic champions. But the government’s muted response to calls to honour local athletics stars, and ordinary folk who are ignorant of our athletes’ achievements reinforce the perception that athletes, like prophets, are never recognized at home.
At other times, it’s is a case of familiarity breeding contempt. We brush shoulders with these world-beaters on the streets and in shopping malls, we may not immediately recognize their true value.
It is hoped that the location-based recognition bestowed on Iten which highlights, celebrates and links together iconic and historic athletics competitions, careers, performances, cities, venues, landmarks and culture around the world, will inspire Kenya to do more by way of recognising her athletes.
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Isn’t it God’s providence to East Africa in terms of athletics talent amazing?
While Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and Athletics Kenya president Lt-Gen (Rtd) Jack Tuwei and British High Commissioner to Kenya Jane Marriott were unveiling the plaque on Thursday in Iten, I can bet my last coin that Kapchorwa and Bekoji took note.
We can take solace in Chinua Achebe’s words that a man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors the whole time.
Our athletes who have worked hard from obscurity and have risen to the top of the world should be inspired by their struggles and the World Athletics Heritage plaque to hang on to the top spot. They must not rest on their laurels after reaching the top.