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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kenyans Expecting Long-Distance Success

ELDORET, Kenya -- Every morning, often in the first soft light of dawn, teenagers fill rutted streets and red-dust roads of this East African country, squeezing in their morning workouts before school. They train as if they are running for their lives.

They are.

For in this nation of 25 million people, most of whom make less than $1 a day, running has become the way out, the road to respect and riches. It has become for Kenyans what basketball is to those dream-driven youths who crowd the playgrounds of southside Chicago.

"When I was a boy, the main thing on my mind was how to grow up and help my family live a better life,'' said Moses Tanui, 30, who won the 1996 Boston Marathon, earning $100,000. "That is all I was thinking about.''

At this summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta, Tanui and Kenya's other top long-distance runners are expected to turn in sterling performances against world-class competition, as they have consistently done for the past three decades.

This year the Boston Marathon, which Kenyans have won four straight times, epitomized their supremacy. They placed first, second and third. They took seven of the first 10 places. Fifteen Kenyans finished in the top 20.

Between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, they took home five world cross-country championships. Kenya has won the 3,000-meter steeplechase in three straight Olympic Summer Games. In 1992 the Kenyans grabbed eight Olympic medals, the most of any African country, primarily because of their long-distance dominance.

Kenya's female runners, once banned from competing abroad, also have made their mark. Tegla Loroupe, who won the New York City Marathon in 1994 and '95 and placed second in this year's Boston Marathon, will compete in the 10,000 meters in the Summer Games in Atlanta.

The dominance of Kenya's runners has prompted numerous theories about their success. Some credit the mile-high altitude in many of Kenya's cities and towns. Some extol the Kenyans' rigorous, three-workouts-a-day training regimen.

The athletes say it is probably a mix, with special emphasis on their training and a consuming desire to win, born out of growing up as some of the poorer people on the world's poorest continent.

In fact the same could be said of runners from other East African countries -- especially Ethiopia -- that consistently produce first-rate middle- and long-distance champions.

Ethiopia, which owned the marathon in the 1960s, garnering three Olympic gold medals, will be led in Atlanta by Haile Gebrselassie, who holds five long-distance records.

"Ethiopia will definitely be our main rivals,'' said David Okeyo, secretary general of the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association. "When it comes to the middle and long distances, they absolutely produce some of the best in the world. We never take them for granted.''

During their youth, the singular passion of Kenya's runners is stoked by a national training program that starts with primary- and secondary-school races sponsored by Okeyo's organization.

Every summer, schoolboy standouts and seasoned champions compete against each other in the national championships. Okeyo says that allowing the champions to see upcoming talent sharpens the veterans and inspires the comers.

Kenya's youngsters, who have watched their countrymen win Olympic medals for three decades, yearn to emulate such legends as Kip Keino, Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 in 1968 and 1972, and Matthew Birir, 1992 Olympic champion in the steeplechase

"Every young person grows up wanting to be a great runner, because in Kenya it is such an important sport,'' said Ezekiel Bitok, 30, who finished second in Boston this year and will run the marathon in Atlanta. "Our most famous athletes are runners.''