By Jack Oyoo
NAIROBI, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Weeks of bloody unrest in Kenya have cast a pall over the country’s sporting ambitions and could haunt some of its leading athletes well beyond the end of the crisis.
In a nation famed for its middle distance and distance runners, athletes have been unable to train and sports fixtures have been cancelled because of the violence, triggered by President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election on Dec. 27.
“Sports and tourism are what have given this country a name internationally. But with these problems, things will never be the same again,” Patrick Sang, Kenya’s 1992 Barcelona Olympics steeplechase silver medallist, told Reuters.
“People can’t move freely as they used to. Roadblocks are erected everywhere. Athletes can’t train in the forest in the morning without looking over their shoulders. The psychological effect is incredible and the scars will remain forever.”
Sang runs a camp where steeplechase world champion Brimin Kipruto, who won silver in the last Olympics in Athens, former world 5,000m champion Eliud Kipchoge and twice world junior cross country champion Viola Kibiwott all train.
Funded by Dutch-based Global Sports International, the camp is in Eldoret in the Rift Valley province, home to Kenya’s great runners and the area worst affected by the unrest.
Lucas Sang, a 4x400m relay finalist at the 1988 Olympics was killed in the melee that rocked Eldoret on New Year’s Eve. Some 30 people, including women and children, were burned to death when the church they were sheltering in was torched by a mob.
On Tuesday, Athletics Kenya announced that a second athlete, marathon runner Wesley Ngetich, had been killed by a poisoned arrow in post-election violence in his home town of Trans Mara on the edge of the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
Some athletics camps have been forced to close.
Top managers such as Englishman Ricky Simms and Italian Gianni Demadonna, whose camps have the cream of Kenyan athletes, are closely watching events.
Dutchman Pieter Langerhorst, husband of world cross country and world half-marathon champion Lornah Kiplagat, closed down his camp in Iten, 30 km north of Eldoret.
Simms and Demadonna said they might relocate their athletes if the situation worsens.
“Some of the athletes...have been having problems and delays getting their visa and may miss some early-season races as a result because some embassies have closed,” said Simms.
Other sports have not been spared the effects of the unrest.
The Safari Rally on March 21-23, a race that dates back to 1953, has been dropped from the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) calendar.
“I feel sorry for the event organisers, who have put in so much work to make the rally a success but the safety of our competitors will always be our primary concern,” said Jacques Behar, president of IRC series promoter Eurosport Events.
The Kenya Open Golf tournament, due to kick off the European Challenge Tour in Nairobi in March, has not been cancelled but there are fears it could suffer a similar fate.
Kenyan soccer champions Tusker have delayed preparations for the first round of the African Champions League, in which they play Al Tahrir of Eritrea, next month. Some players who went upcountry for the Christmas holidays were unable to return to Nairobi in time to start training.
The athletics federation had to cancel two legs of the cross country circuit in Eldoret and Nyahururu, a big drawback for preparations for the March 30 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland.
There are also worries about the east African nation’s preparations for the Olympics in Beijing in August.
David Okeyo, Athletics Kenya secretary general, who was named Kenya’s delegation leader for the Games, has summoned an emergency meeting of the management team.
“We’re getting concerned that there seems to be no quick solution to this. We must make a quick decision,” he said.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall)