The men's 10,000-meter run in Kenya's Commonwealth Games trials is a race of many departures, many rejoinings. The leaders—exuberantly, incorrigibly Kenyan—surge and slow and surge again, flying willingly into the distress such tactics cause. That they race through the thin air of Nairobi's 5,500-foot altitude seems of no consequence. Most were born and trained at even greater elevations. With their incessant passing and jostling, they seem to consider the 25 laps not as a single long contest but as dozens of shorter ones. If you don't know how excruciatingly effective this manner of racing is, you think them impatient children.
By 6,000 meters, under the leadership of 1988 Olympian Moses Tanui, the front pack has been cut to four. They are three men and a boy.
Joseph Kibor, barefoot, shirttail out, the gap in his lower teeth a mark of his Kalenjin tribal upbringing, clings to the pace. Kibor turned 17 only the day before. This is his first year of competitive running. He had to sell a goat to pay his way from his home far back in the Cherangani Hills to the preliminary trials in Kisumu, on Lake Victoria. He is barefoot because he failed in a two-day search to borrow some spikes.
Each time Tanui surges, Ondoro Osoro and Kibiwott Bitok stick right with him. But the young Kibor, unpracticed at sprinting and recovering, must let them go. When they have gained 20 or 30 meters they ease slightly, and Kibor laboriously reclaims what he has lost, his arms swinging high and loose across his chest, his hips cocked back, his heels grazing the back of his shorts.
His form, it happens, is the picture of the young Kipchoge Keino, Kibor's idol and an influence on almost every Kenyan runner. Keino, now 50, is the man who let the world know Kenyans could run. More to the point, he let Kenyans know Kenyans could run.
Keino's world records at 3,000 and 5,000 meters in the mid-1960s and his defeat of Jim Ryun in the '68 Olympic 1,500 gave rise to a river of superb Kenyan distance men. Since Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in '63, its athletes have won 24 Olympic medals in men's running events, despite boycotting the '76 and '80 Games. Ten of those medals were gold, a total second only to the sprinter-blessed U.S.'s.
In recent years the river has deepened and widened. Kenyans won the 800-, 1,500- and 5,000-meter runs and the steeplechase at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and got silvers in the steeple and the marathon and a bronze in the 10,000. The most difficult race in the world is the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, because it draws together champions from all the distances. Olympic 5,000-meter champion John Ngugi of Kenya has won this race the last four years. Kenya has been the team champion on each occasion. In the '88 race in Auckland, New Zealand, eight Kenyans finished in the top nine.
Traditionally these magisterial runners have come from a very few tribes, notably the Kisii and the Kalenjin, which constitute only 15% of Kenya's 23 million people (52% of whom are under 15 years old). The Kalenjin are actually a group of related tribes. One of them is Kenya's historic cradle of runners, Keino's tribe, the Nandi, most of whom live at an altitude of 7,000 feet or more in a small area near the northeast corner of Lake Victoria.
Nandi athletes have won nearly half of Kenya's Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals. But in recent years, champions have begun to come from other tribes. Ngugi and Julius Kariuki, the steeplechase victor in Seoul, are Kikuyu, as is the 1987 world marathon champion, Douglas Wakiihuri. The 800-meter champion at Seoul, Paul Ereng, who blossomed at the University of Virginia, is of the Turkana, an aloof, nomadic people only now coming to see any value in sport.
Kibor embodies this expanding excellence. He is Marakwet, from the mountainous district to the north of the Nandi. Though Kibor's tribe is of the Kalenjin group, there has never been a superior Marakwet runner. "The Nandi are very tough," Kibor has said. "But I hope to be for the Marakwet what Kipchoge was for the Nandi."