Grooming Africans into world-beaters

Valentine Kipketer. the winner in the women's section of the Mumbai Marathon.-VIVEK BENDRE

“I understand that there are 80 million people living at high altitude (in India), so there must be good talent in these areas. I am convinced that in future, with right scouting and training, Indian marathoners will be running 2:10, but it will take some years,” says Jos Hermens, who manages elite marathoners. By Nandakumar Marar.

Jackson Kiprop of Uganda was initially identified as a potential pacesetter for the elite athletes — mainly the Kenyans and Ethiopians — chasing records and rewards at the 10th Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon recently. However, it was not surprising that the training partner of compatriot Stephen Kiprotich, who had stunned the world by winning the marathon gold at the London Olympics, was later singled out for special attention by Jos Hermens, the co-ordinator for elite athletes.

Hermens, the Director of Sports at the Global Sports Communication (GSC), the firm managing the elite athletes at the Mumbai marathon this year, explained: “We looked at Jackson (Kiprop) as a possible pacemaker, but looking at his training, decided to let him compete as one of the elite runners.”

Kiprop had moved from Uganda to Kenya to practise at Eldoret, where GSC has a training base that hones the running and tactical skills of handpicked African marathon runners. Competing in the first marathon of his life, the Ugandan paced himself like a seasoned runner and fought off a spirited challenge from fellow-debutant Jacob Cheshari of Ethiopia at the 36 km mark to win the Mumbai marathon in 2:09:32s. In the process, Kiprop overhauled Girma Assefa’s meet record of 2:09:54 set in 2011.

GSC manages the career of Kiprotich and also has the Ethiopian distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, as one of its clients. It has bases in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Eritrea for tapping long-distance running talent in Africa.

Identifying pacesetters is part of Hermens’ job. The former 10000m runner from the Netherlands, who took part in the Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976) Olympics before switching to management of athletes, spoke to Sportstar about his job and grooming young African runners.

Question: Does GSC have bases in traditional African hotspots famous for marathon runners? How do you go about talent spotting and recruit world famous names like Gebrselassie?

Answer: We have training camps in the most important African countries — three in Kenya, one each in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda. Athletes train there with our very experienced coaches. Finding Haile 20 years ago was more difficult, as we did not have the same infrastructure. I saw him for the first time at a junior national championship in Addis Ababa. He did not win, but his style struck me as very promising. We started to work together since 1991.

The African long-distance champions came from a background of hard life — kids running many miles from home to school and back. Has the situation changed to organised training camps, like Eldoret, for grooming young talent?

Talent is most important, but also living at (high) altitude is. The way they live and eat is also very important. Walking and running to school helps develop the running skills at a young age. Training camps help athletes to concentrate and focus completely on the sport. They train in the morning, then eat and rest and train again in the afternoon.

Jackson Kiprop set a course record in his debut marathon — the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. He is from Uganda. The current Olympic champion, Stephen Kiprotich, is also from Uganda. Are we seeing the emergence of a new nation in distance running?

We will see more good athletes from Uganda, but, maybe, not as many as from Kenya. However, we will definitely see more of them.

Longdistance runner Haile Gebrselassie, who is a huge role model for the whole of Africa.-AP

Kiprop and Kiprotich train in Eldoret, Kenya, and they went on to defeat the Kenyan marathoners. Since when did the Ugandans shift base to Kenya and why?

We brought Stephen Kiprotich to our training camp in Kenya. The reason he went to the camp in Eldoret is because we saw that it was very difficult to train and focus in Uganda. Since then, he has been improving a lot.

Could you explain the extent of Gebrselassie’s impact on the African youth? Since your company is managing his career, can you tell us what are the qualities that set him apart from the other long-distance champions?

Haile is of course a huge role model for the whole of Africa. He has been the number one sportsman for many years and has a big influence on not only young athletes but also the youngsters in general in Africa. He understands long-term planning. Sometimes it is difficult to focus and plan for more than 10 years and athletes tend to look at one or two years at a time. Haile from the beginning was very good in making long-term plans; he is also very patient. Even when there were setbacks, he had the patience to recover and come back. So, the qualities that set him apart are most importantly his talent, discipline, long-term vision and patience.

Haile’s smile is also very important; it makes him a good communicator.

In the women’s marathon in Mumbai, Valentine Kipketer, at 20 and only in the second race of her career, showed quality to leave her rivals from Ethiopia far behind. Can we expect more from her?

There is always a good fight between the Kenyan and Ethiopian marathoners. They respect each other very much, but in a competition, they fight hard to win. Valentine’s performance was incredible on the Mumbai course. I am sure she will run sub-2:20 within the next two years.

India has a couple of high altitude training bases for distance runners and the Army Sports Institute has a long-term programme managed by a Cuban coach. Can we do anything different within the setup to send more Indians to the Olympics and world marathons?

It is great that India has (high) altitude camps; it is a fantastic initiative. I would like to know more. I understand that there are 80 million people living at altitude, so there must be good talent in these areas. The most difficult part is finding those talents. I am convinced that in future, with right scouting and training, Indian marathoners will be running 2:10, but it will take some years. It would be interesting to take in a few talents in one of our training camps. You will see for sure much progress. We would love to invite them.