Untold stories: why we should know more about East African runners


On the first night of the World Athletics Championships, the Ethiopian Jemal Yimer finished fifth in the 10,000m. He had judged his effort to perfection, riding the surges from the Kenyan runners and sprinting past World Cross Country champion Geoffrey Kamworor in the last lap before lunging desperately for the line, squeezing every fraction out of a 14-second PB in 26.56.11. As the camera focuses on Mo Farah, we can just see Yimer in the background, hands on hips, looking up at the screen as if to say: “Did I really just break 27 minutes?” As Farah jumps up and down, Yimer wanders off the track. He gets no mention in the BBC commentary at all.

On the final night of the championships, the Kenyan Tim Cheruiyot finished second in the 1,500m behind his teammate, Elijah Manangoi. In the press conference afterwards, he gestured to Manangoi and Asbel Kiprop, and said: “I sacrificed myself to uphold the honour and dignity of Kenya,” deferring to his more charismatic team-mates.

Yimer is back in Addis Ababa now, re-acclimatising to the altitude and quietly preparing for a 10km race in the Czech Republic. Cheruiyot is preparing for a big party to celebrate his achievements this year – he also won the Diamond League title for 1,500m – in his hometown of Bomet, Kenya. Both run for prison clubs in their respective countries, meaning they are technically employed as prison guards but are paid to run in domestic races for the prison team. But they take time out of training to learn to fire a rifle or to take part in marching drills. Both have burst on to the scene fairly dramatically over the past couple of years.



At the track near Rongai, Kenya: Tim Cheruiyot, Anthony Kiptoo, George Manangoi and, just in shot, Dominique (Cheruiyot’s cousin). Photograph: Moyo Sports

That we know next to nothing about them should surprise us, but doesn’t. Fans of athletics – and specifically of long-distance running – have become used to a lack of knowledge on the part of commentators that would be shocking in any other sport. The collective term “the East Africans” is used to describe a group of individuals diverse in both culture and personality. During the BBC coverage of the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow last year, Liz McColgan repeatedly referred to Moses Kipsiro, the Ugandan Commonwealth 10,000m champion from 2014, as “the Kenyan” when he raced against the Scot Callum Hawkins. In distance running, this hardly raises an eyebrow. Just before the World Championship 10,000m final, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend: “Ten phrases the commentary team are guaranteed to say in the next half hour.” We had ticked them off after 15 minutes.

Given that long-distance races go on for quite a while, you would think that the people paid to commentate on them would do their research, and find something out about the main protagonists. And yet we routinely watch 27 minutes of running (or more than two hours in the case of a marathon) and learn literally nothing at all. Part of the reason for this, I think, is the mythologising of the “loneliness of the long-distance runner”. Why else would a film about Kamworor – already World Junior Cross Country champion – be named The Unknown Runner’? We like to hold on to a romantic image of East African runners as enigmatic figures, spirit-like in their light-footedness, who strides down from the high-altitude plateau to race, before disappearing back into the mountains, silent and mysterious. We assume they have little to say, that their approach to running is simple – childlike, even. We know infinitely more about the US and European runners who toil in their wake.

Tim Cheruiyot after winning the Stockholm Diamond League in a then-world-leading time.



Tim Cheruiyot after winning the Stockholm Diamond League in a then-world-leading time. Photograph: Olaf Brockman

This is not all the commentators’ fault. When Steve Cram has a few details about an athlete, he does tend to say them; he mentioned that Cheruiyot trained in the Rongi hills during the commentary of every Diamond League race he ran this year. Yimer and Cheruiyot are both represented by Moyo Sports management, whose athletes I did research with last year. Malcolm Anderson, Moyo’s director, thinks the problem is one of communication across the board, and that managers have a big role to play in keeping commentators, journalists and governing bodies in the know about the best runners. While managers are in a “unique position”, with direct access to the athletes they represent, Anderson says they have “failed to prioritise media, PR and education” when it comes to East African athletes. He describes this as a “dereliction of their duty over the last 20 years”. But the managers are only partially responsible. When the IAAF was tweeting about events in the World Championships it used the Twitter handles of the US and European athletes, but Anderson had to contact them to ask them to use Cheruiyot’s.

Last time I sat down with Yimer in Addis Ababa, I asked him if he had any funny stories from his training. I was thinking of the times I’d been out running in the forest and encountered hyenas, or got lost and had to shelter with farmers. “Oh yes,” he said, laughing. “It was rainy season and we were in a bajaj (a small motorised rickshaw) coming back from training. The road was wet and the wheels slid and the bajaj fell off the road and started sliding down the hillside. The driver and my friend Ibrahim managed to get out but my leg was stuck between two pieces of steel. I shouted: “My leg, Ibrahim, my leg!” as I slid down the hill. But, thanks to God, I survived and since the surgery I’ve been enjoying my running.” I stared at him open mouthed as he continued to laugh. Hyenas are also a minor concern for both Yimer and Cheruiyot. “We train in the national park,” Tim told me. “Often we see hyenas. Buffalo are the problem. Absolutely no way are we running through them. Simply we stop and turn back.”

Hailye, Moyo Sports’s sub-agent, has been telling me for a while that Yimer is “special”, and it is this single-minded focus that sets him apart. If you have lived in the training camp of the Amhara Prisons club for two years, training morning and evening. eating a simple diet in the club canteen and surviving on US$50 a month, it can’t be the easiest thing in the world to suddenly see $6,000 in your bank account and to leave it there. But that is what Yimer did when he received his very first prize money. As he sees it, the money can wait, but his running can’t.

When I ask him what he wants me to write about him, Yimer repeatedly shakes his head and tells me to write about the camp, and his coach there, Habtemariam. The camp is a simple one – grass track, barracks-style shared rooms – but it is surrounded by the perfect distance-running environmen, according to Yimer: rolling hills at 2,800m above sea-level, kilometre upon kilometre of forest, and hills of varying severity for hill sprints. “Compared with Debre Marqos,” he says, “Addis Ababa is easy.” This is why he prefers to return to the club between races. Debre Marqos is where people who live at 2,500m above sea-level go for altitude training.

Cheruiyot took home $50,000 for winning the Diamond League this year, but intends to continue living in a one-room house in a compound outside Nairobi. Like Yimer, he puts his upward trajectory down to patience and consistency, and doesn’t want to change a formula that’s working. His “first flight”, as he puts it, wasn’t until 2015, for the distance medley race in the World Relays championships in the Bahamas. Team Kenya’s aim was nothing short of a win and a world record. Cheruiyot was on the anchor leg. Expectations couldn’t have been higher for his first race. He was nervous, and took off to run an astonishing 51-second opening lap of his 1,600m leg, and was caught by American Ben Blankenship in the final lap. Since then, though, his improvement has been remarkable; he got a PB in every Diamond League he ran this year except for the final in Zurich, which he won.

It is difficult to relate to someone who can run under 27 minutes for 10,000m, or three and half minutes for 1,500m. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to be among the five best in the world. As David Foster Wallace put it: “Athletes are in many ways our culture’s holy men; they give themselves over to a pursuit, endure great privation and pain to actualise themselves at it, and enjoy a relationship to perfection that we admire and reward […] and love to watch, even though we have no inclination to walk that road ourselves.”

For an Ethiopian or Kenyan long-distance runner, years of this sacrifice happen before they even get a chance – if they even get a chance – of actually running abroad. Both Yimer and Cheruiyot know their time in the top echelons of the sport won’t last forever.

The cliche that runners like to let their legs do the talking is sometimes true. In the cult-classic book Running with the Buffaloes, the coach, Mark Wetmore, frustrated with requests from journalists, tells his star runner, Adam Goucher: “If you run fast enough, one day you can go on Letterman and just sit there.” Yimer and Cheruiyot both have plenty to say, though, if journalists had the patience and inclination to sit and talk to them. If athletics is to remain popular in the post-Bolt/Farah era, we need to make more of an effort to engage translators, journalists and managers in getting to know the top East African athletes a little better.