Bittersweet return for Olympic star
Xan Rice, The Guardian, October 4, 2008
KOYO, Kenya - The most celebrated woman in Kenya is not a politician, nor a pop star. She is a humble 18-year-old with a devastating sprint and a million dollars in the bank.
In the two weeks since returning home from a season where she not only won the 800m Olympic title but also scooped all the lucrative Golden League athletics jackpot, Pamela Jelimo has met the president and been flown by helicopter to a huge homecoming parade. In a first for a Kenyan runner, she has received a diplomatic passport and even had a street named after her.
In Kapsabet, the nearest town to her Rift Valley village, the government has erected a giant billboard. Newspapers track her every move, on the front page and the back. But while the Olympic victory, remarkably the first by a Kenyan woman, is being lauded, the $1m (£560,000) prize for remaining unbeaten in European competition appears to have attracted as much attention - and caused controversy.
At least three coaches are claiming credit for nurturing Jelimo's career. Several men are claiming to be Jelimo's father, breaking cultural norms and enraging her mother. And others in the lush, tea-growing area that has produced so many athletics greats, from 1960s Olympian Kip Keino to current London marathon champion Martin Lel, are dreaming of wedding bells.
Marcel Kipkorir, a 21-year-old man who went to primary school with Jelimo in Koyo village, said: "Guys want her now because of her fat wallet."
The fascination with her prize has grown so acute that Jelimo, who a year ago was struggling to pay off her school fees, has appeared overwhelmed. "Don't ask about the money," she told journalists last week in one of her few public statements.
Her rags-to-riches tale is even more remarkable considering her family's background. Her running genes come from her mother, Esther Cheptoo Keter, a once-promising athlete whose path in life was dictated by the customs of her Nandi ethnic group.
As the last-born daughter, Keter was not allowed to take a husband. Deemed "married at home", she was required to look after her parents as they got old - although she was allowed to have children by different men. Essentially a single mother, she always struggled to educate her children, including Jelimo, the third of nine siblings.
By secondary school in 2003, the "shy girl" was showing great potential as an athlete. Her games teacher, Philip N'geno, said she excelled at sprinting and pushed herself by training with boys. "I was afraid to run alongside her, because for a boy to be beaten by a girl is very shameful," said Eric Rugut in Koyo this week.
The family's money problems meant that she was regularly sent home from school for failing to pay fees but was always allowed back because of her prowess at athletics. Daniel Maru, the headteacher at Koyo secondary school, who permitted Jelimo to graduate while still owing more than a year's fees, said that her mother had had to sell her last cow to enable Jelimo to sit her exams.
It was a risky investment, as the mother acknowledged to Maru, for there was no guarantee that Jelimo would find a job after school - and there seemed little likelihood of a lucrative running career. Even a 400m win at the African junior championships last year caused no great interest, for while Kenyan girls have often won world titles they have never translated that dominance at senior level - unlike Ethiopia, the country's main rival on the track.
But Jelimo, who has an unusually powerful build for a middle-distance runner, proved spectacularly different. In April she ran her first 800m and went on to win all 12 events she entered this year, including all six Golden League events - something no Kenyan man has done. In Zurich in August, she ran the third-fastest 800m ever, coming within a second of breaking the 25-year-old world record. Her rivals rarely finished within a few metres of her.
Mike Kosgei, a former national team coach, said he had seen a sharp rise in the number of local girls training since Jelimo's win in Beijing and described her achievements as akin to winning the Nobel prize. "Olympic champion and jackpot winner! It's amazing!"
Jelimo has built her mother a brick house, near the family's old round hut. The state power company has promised to connect it to the national grid. But her mother's proud moment has been somewhat ruined by reports of different men claiming to be Jelimo's father. One of them, John Busienei, told reporters: "She [Jelimo] is my daughter and I love her so much". He was speaking at her parade, where men held up "Marry me" placards. Another alleged father, Charles Kibiwott Bungei, a 62-year-old former teacher, said: "She is my true girl."
When the Guardian went to her home this week, her mother exclaimed angrily: "I am the mother and father of Jelimo!"
Success, it seems, always has its price.