With 600 meters to go, Kibor is still a close fourth. He begins to move up, a development the others find intolerable. Osoro and Bitok cut him off twice, then hurl him three lanes wide. Kibor darts inside and passes, dangerously, on the rail. With a lap to go he is in the lead and sprinting with an expression of terrible anguish. A lap is too far, and he has used too much. He tightens. Tanui passes him on the backstretch, Osoro on the last turn. But Kibor holds third to the end.
His time is 28:51.1, one of the fastest 10,000s ever run by one so young at any altitude. After a vote of the selection committee, Kibor is named to the team that will go to Auckland a month later, in January, for the 1990 Commonwealth Games. He will be the youngest Kenyan male ever to represent the country in a major competition and will finish fifth in the 10,000.
Respectfully amazed, Kibor walks the infield, dripping, holding hands with an official. "Next time I'll wait. I'll sprint only the last 300," he says, the lesson indelible. "My feet are painful now. I do think shoes, spiked shoes, would have helped."
To Westerners, Kibor is a prodigy, but this is a land of prodigies. "We lost another like him two years ago," says Philip Ndoo of Nairobi, who ran at Eastern New Mexico University in the mid-'70s. "A kid named Atoi Boru did 3:42 for 1,500 meters when he was 14. His coach ran him too hard, burned him out. We don't know where he is." A 1,500 in 3:42—need one be reminded?—is equivalent to a 4:00 mile.
The questions are simple and irresistible. How can this be? What land, what history, what life has created such abundance in this specific sporting expression? And why are Kenyans getting even better?
Some factors seem obvious, until you think about them. It's a boon to grow up at high altitude, but lots of societies are located in highlands yet nurture no runners. Where are the Tibetans? The Peruvians?
A statistical case might once have been made for the Nandi's being a genetically superior strain of runner. But no one has found and measured any specific genetic factors that make the Nandi better than anyone else. And now that tribes once thought hopelessly un-talented are getting into the act, they seem to be showing that the raw material is wonderful all across the Kenyan tribal spectrum. Perhaps the Nandi were just first to develop it.
Besides, Kenyan tribes have intermarried and absorbed each other so much over the centuries that genetic distinctions are hard to make. Tribal differences are real—are they ever—but they are more cultural than physiological.
This suggests that to understand how Kenya's wellspring of runners has really come about, you must follow one runner home and live a little of his life. To assist in this, fortune offers Joseph Kibor.
Christmas is but two days away, and Kibor is shyly working the small crowd of track fans filing out of Moi International Stadium, casting about for a ride home to Kapchebau village to take the news of his success to his grandmother. Give him a lift, he says, and he will show you the way.