They boast many firsts in Kenya’s athletics history. From track, cross country to marathon; they dominated over the years.
One of the foremost stars Wilson Kiprugut Chumo delivered Kenya’s first ever Olympic medal when he won bronze in 800m in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964. The late Some Muge emerged as Kenya’s first cross country medallist when he won bronze at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 1983.
One of the leading lights of that crop of athletes is Paul Tergat, now on the verge of becoming president of the National Olympic Committee.
Yes, it is the Kenya Defence Forces. In the intervening years, however, non-military athletes have overrun the barracks and garrisons to leave the KDF playing second fiddle to Kenya Police and Kenya Prisons, let alone organised camps scattered around the country.
Kenya Defence Forces athletics shows have been on a steady decline in the past four years.
The deteriorating performance comes even as Tergat, the former world marathon record holder, sits as the youngest member of the executive committee at the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Add to the fact Rtd Lt.Gen Jackson Kiprono Tuwei, the former Kenya Army Commander, is the President Athletics Kenya and KDF’s decline leaves many baffled.
Celebrated coach Julius Kirwa, the Athletics Kenya head coach to the triumphant Rio Olympics and the upcoming IAAF World Athletics Championships in London, admits they are no longer a force to reckon with, but attributed it to international military duties.
“When we headed to Somalia for peace mission, most of our athletes were called upon for duty. We directed all our energies there. Remember our core mandate is to defend the nation and that’s primary for us. So, there is no cause for alarm. We have a lot of duties besides athletics,” said Kirwa., who has led national teams to major events since 2002.
William Tanui, the 1992 Olympic 800m champion, concurs with Kirwa. “When you are recruited into KDF, your core mandate is to defend the nation from external attacks. Sports and other issues are secondary. For this reason, KDF always send out soldiers for peace missions in various countries including those in sports. So, it’s difficult for an athlete to pick up top form after one year out of training.
“Again, it’s like they don’t recruit the right people for the right events, despite boasting the highest number of IAAF Diploma coaches in KDF,” said Tanui, formerly of Moi Airbase Eastleigh, Nairobi.
KDF has produced all Kenya’s male World Cross Country champions, save for Japhet Korir and Geoffrey Kamworor.
The others are the pair of five-time winners John Ngugi and Paul Tergat, two-time winner William Sigei; Joseph Ebuya and the late Some Muge.
Thomas Nyariki and John Kibowen, the four-kilometre winner at the 1998 world cross-country, are the other stars from KDF.
Gladys Cherono, winner of 2014 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships and Vincent Chepkok (World cross-country bronze medalist), Peter Mateelong, the younger brother of Commonwealth Games champion Richard Mateelong, have tried out to make the cut, but in vain.
KDF have since met their waterloo at national trials, missing out on slots to the World Cross Country championships since 2013.