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TO MUCH of the world, they are the face of Kenya. With an unflashy and relentless style forged on the verdant paths of the Great Rift Valley, Kenyan distance runners have had unprecedented success over the last 40 years. Since Nafatali Temu won the 10,000 meters in Mexico City in 1968, Kenya has won 39 of a possible 120 Olympic medals in races of 1,500 meters or more. Kenya has also won 20 of the last 22 men's world cross-country titles and 23 of the last 40 men's and women's Boston and New York City Marathons. An image of a runner appears on the back of the country's 20-shilling note. But the Kenyan athlete has largely remained a one-dimensional figure to most non-Africans. Says two-time Boston marathon champion Moses Tanui, "Many Europeans, many people from the U.S. or from the whole world don't know our ethnicity. They don't know Kikuyu or Kalenjin [two of the 42 ethnic groups in Kenya], they only know Kenyan."
Lately, in that nation of 37 million, a person's tribal origin has become tragically relevant. In the wake of Mwai Kibaki's disputed reelection as president, Kenya has descended into lawlessness. Rampaging mobs armed with iron bars, poisoned arrows, and swords have wreaked havoc throughout Kenya; nearly 1,000 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Nairobi on Jan. 22 to try to broker a peace deal between Kibaki and the opposition, but his presence has done little to curb the violence.
Prominent members of any tribe are likely targets, and in Kenya some of the most high-profile citizens are the runners. Elite athletes from all tribes are being threatened—and some killed—because of their heritage. Lucas Sang, who ran the 400 meters at the 1988 Olympics, was hacked to death with a machete on New Year's Day. Three days earlier Luke Kibet, who won the marathon at last August's world track championships, was struck on the head by a rock during a training run—only his speed saved him. "The police were shooting at the road," says Kibet. "Then I saw a man lying there, and I saw an ambulance and I tried to stop the ambulance to assist him. Three minutes later I was lying on the road myself [after being hit by the rock]. Then I saw people coming at me." Kibet rose and ran to a nearby car.
Last week marathoner Wesley Ngetich, 34, was killed by a poisoned arrow in his hometown of Transmara near the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Meanwhile, William Mutwol, bronze medalist in the steeplechase at the 1992 Olympics, received a text message saying his "head would be turned into soup." Kenyans say they can identify a killer's ethnic origin by his weapon. Says Tanui, "If somebody has been shot, that's police—nobody else has a gun. If somebody has been cut with a machete, that's a Kikuyu killing. If you find somebody with an arrow, that's Kalenjin."
Violence has raged since the Dec. 27 election. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga had a substantial lead over the incumbent Kibaki, when, three days after the vote, paramilitary police stormed the ballot-counting center. Minutes later Kibaki was declared the winner. The country, once one of the more stable in East Africa, exploded in tribal warfare and unimaginable brutality.
Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe, the largest in Kenya, making up 22% of the population. Kikuyus have dominated government and business since the country's independence in 1963. Odinga's supporters—who have felt excluded from economic and political opportunities for decades—attacked homes and businesses owned by Kikuyus and other Kibaki supporters. Kikuyus retaliated. Tens of thousands of Kenyans are now homeless.
The crisis has been compared to the Rwandan genocide; Kenya is seeing ethnic cleansing with no group spared. "No athlete now is safe, everybody has been threatened," says Tanui, a Kalenjin. Tanui, who was raised in a one-room hut with 10 siblings and now lives in a five-bedroom house in Eldoret in the Rift Valley, says, "[Kikuyus] had wealth and were doing business. Now our athletes have started buying houses, doing business. This is why we are being targeted."
Kalenjin or Kikuyu, all athletes are terrified. Says three-time world steeplechase champion Moses Kiptanui, now the owner of a farm in Kenya, "When I was running, I was running for this country as a Kenyan, not for some tribe. And they were playing the national anthem not because I was a Kalenjin but because I was a Kenyan."
All training has been disrupted. Many training camps are in the Rift Valley, the area in the most turmoil. Dutchman Pieter Langerhorst, husband of world cross-country and world half-marathon champion Lornah Kiplagat, closed his camp in Iten, in the western part of the Rift. Ezekiel Kemboi, the reigning Olympic steeplechase champion, is now training once a day instead of his usual three times because of threats against him. Other athletes may miss international races because they can't get visas after the shuttering of some embassies. Last week authorities placed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Rift towns—hampering marathoners who typically run 150 to 175 miles per week, much of it in the evening and early morning.
The attacks and counterattacks, allegations and counterallegations, are destroying the Kenyan running community. It is absurd, of course, amidst this horrific violence, to talk of Kenya's prospects for upcoming races, including the Beijing Olympics, but this is a country whose international identity is inextricably tied to athletic achievement. Says Tanui, "Without these athletes, Kenya would be like any other African country that nobody knows in the world."