NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–Sally Barsosio, a 26-year-old Kenyan long distance runner, is an early bird. By the time the morning sun rays warm the cold Ngong hills on the outskirts of Nairobi, she is already drenched with sweat after hours of training.
The army private, a mother of two and a wife to a Kenyan army captain, says the “race is won long before the athletes assemble on the tracks.” The slim, long-legged Barsosio is one of Kenya’s female long distance runners, who arecreating ripples on the international running circuit.
For about 30 years, long-distance running in Kenya has been associated with men, but in the recent past, women have started to dominate. Several young female athletes have won international races earning fame, prizes and money. Locally, these women have become models of success for many young women. But to achieve the same status as men, they will have to win a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. Men have won every 3000 meter steeple chase in all the Olympic Games they have participated in since 1968.
One hopeful is Barsosio, who clinched the 10,000 meters gold medal in the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championship in Athens in 1997, winning the admiration and respect of many young women in Kenya. Barsosio had hoped to win another gold medal at the International Association of Athletics Federation’s World Championship this month in Paris. Unfortunately, she didn’t qualify for the Kenyan team. She says she worked hard to compete for the race.
“I train twice a day and my son, Ricky and my husband, Vincent are always cheering me,” Barsosio says.
Discrimination Makes an Athletic Life Difficult
Like other many women in Kenya, Barsosio has to balance between family commitments, military work and athletics. In Kenya and most parts Africa, women are usually viewed as secondary to men. They are expected to marry, have children and take care of the family.
Asked how she manages, Barsosio explains that it takes a lot of personal discipline and self-determination. She builds these qualities as she trains in the quiet atmosphere of the Ngong hills.
Edith Masai, a 34-year-old runner, says she’d rather just ignore the status quo for women in Kenya. The unmarried prison warden, who has a 10-year-old son, won a gold medal in the 5,000 meters in the International Association of Athletics Federation’s World Championship in Dublin last year.
“We are happy when we win against strong challenges. Of course, this comes after days of hard training,” says Masai who hopes for a repeat performance in Paris later this month.
“We also face plenty of other challenges as women,” she explains. “Anxiety over nearing championships or our families are such challenges we encounter, but we deal with it through patience and perseverance.”
According to Masai, sometimes sports officials may stand in the way of talented young women. They may delay the acquisition of the travel documents when an athlete is set to complete outside Kenya.
Jelagat Kigen, a 22-year-old runner from Kenya’s Rift Valley, hopes to hit big money in athletics soon. But since last January, she has not been able to acquire a Kenyan passport to enable her travel out of the country.
The runner, who recently graduated from high school, says many young sport women like her lack the necessary support to enable them develop their talents. In 1997 Kigen started running while at Kipsoet secondary school in Rift Valley. Since then she has taken part in national athletics meetings around the country.
“We are fit to enroll in international competitions around the world. But we lack good managers to follow up such enrollments and make up deals,” she says.
Kegen says Kenyan families have been allowing the female runners to freely take part in sports. “Our parents let us run and give us all their support. They know it is a lucrative career,” she says.
“The stereotype held by some families that their girls should not take parts in athletic has died out. It’s all for the girls to prove themselves,” adds Barsosio.
According to Mike Kosgey, the national head coach of Athletics Kenya, the body charged with managing athletics, women in Kenya in the past were not taking sports seriously.
“They thought there were no benefits in athletics, many of them opted to get married. But this has changed, with many of them getting more dedicated,” says Kosgey.
Kosgey says there are now more opportunities for Kenyan female athletes than the men. He explains that Athletics Kenya has been encouraging young women take up running and look for scholarships in the field. Having seen some of the female runners he has trained being tricked into marriage by money hungry “suitors,” coach Julius Karuga has called for Athletics Kenya to initiate a program that will guide the athletes and counsel them about their careers.
“We urge young athletes to delay their marriages so that they can earn from their talents,” he says.
Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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