Sat, Feb 28, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Kenyan steeplechase pioneer lives life of squalor

LOST AND FORGOTTEN Amos Biwott won Kenya's first Olympic Gold in an event the nation has dominated ever since, but not much remains of his glorious past

REUTERS , NAIROBI

The man who pioneered Kenya's dominance in the 3,000m steeplechase has fallen on hard times.

Amos Biwott, now 55, is so poor he sometimes cannot afford the 100-shilling (US$1.20) bus fare to watch athletics meetings in the nearby town of Eldoret, the capital of Kenyan distance running.

Biwott's 3,000m steeplechase gold medal in Mexico City in 1968 was Kenya's first Olympic title over the distance. Kenyan athletes have won the event in all subsequent Olympic Games.

Now, he wonders whether the glory he and the athletes of his generation brought their country was worth the struggle.

"Maybe only God can help us out of this miserable life because the government, it appears, is not able to help," Biwott said in his home near Eldoret some 350km northwest of the capital Nairobi.

"We really struggled for this country. We were not being paid allowances. All we got was two weeks' leave from our place of work and then life would continue.

"There were no incentives. Very few of us, maybe two or three, were given land by the government but that was all."

Financial concerns have spurred several modern-day Kenyan athletes into moving abroad.

Among them is world 3,000m steeplechase champion Stephen Cherono who has defected to Qatar and adopted the new name of Saif Saeed Shaheen in return for better training facilities and the promise of US$1,000 a month for life.

Kenya's government says it is working on plans to help retired athletes, but has yet to provide details.

"The Minister [for sport] Najib Balala made it clear late last year that a special fund will soon be set up for the welfare of retired athletes who brought this country glory. The logistics are being worked out," the government's deputy commissioner for sport Gordon Oluoch said.

For Biwott, such words provide little comfort. He says he does not know where his next meal will come from. Friends helped him to build the house he lives in some 20km south of Eldoret.

Like many other veteran runners, he argues that the government should use ex-Olympians as a resource for the current generation of sportsmen and women, giving them a monthly stipend in return for advice on athletics.

"Something like a monthly payment of a modest figure can be arranged for us," Biwott said.

"If that is not possible, our children can be employed in the civil service to assist us."

A government income would have been especially useful in the three years of joblessness Biwott has suffered since being dismissed from his last job as a watchman at a sports center.

"The government should buy us tickets to attend this year's Olympics in Athens, but more important is for the government to find a solution to the abject poverty athletes who brought it glory are left to endure," said Biwott, bitterness and hunger etched on his face.

Some say Biwott has done himself no favors. He spent a year in jail after committing a theft and lost his job because of what his bosses described as absconding from duty.

But his defenders say his mistakes do not erase the prestige his medal brought Kenya.

Born in September 1948 in Nandi, Biwott was 20 years old and still attending Lelmokwo Secondary School when he and compatriot Benjamin Kogo won Olympic gold and silver respectively in Mexico.

Naftali Temu, who died a year ago, won Kenya's first Olympic gold in the 10,000m at the same Olympics.

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