On a cloudy day at a school in Elgeyo Marakwet county in Kenya’s west, children jump over wooden desks serving as hurdles placed on the course of a steeplechase race, as their classmates cheer excitedly from the side.
Boniface Tiren, who has moulded several of the East African nation’s world beating middle-distance runners as a coach, then shows one of the students how to position his legs and upper body for the optimum jump.
“Yes! That’s good!” he shouts when one girl executes the move flawlessly.
The rugged, hilly county of Elgeyo Marakwet has produced the bulk of Kenya’s nine Olympic gold medals in the men’s 3,000-metre steeplechase, an event the country had dominated at the Games since 1984 until Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali snatched the title in Tokyo this month.
Tiren believes that defeat will force Kenya to pay more attention to its athletics development programs, especially at the grassroots level in places such as Elgeyo Marakwet.
“It is a wake-up call, we need to go back to the drawing board,” he told Reuters.
Officials need to invest in training the girls and boys at a young age, equipping them with the skills necessary to progress into the next crop of gold medalists in the race, Tiren said.
Elgeyo Marakwet also hosts Iten town, a high-altitude training area frequented by global track super-stars including Britain’s Mo Farah and Kenya’s world record holder in the men’s 800-metres, David Rudisha.
Past Olympic gold medalists in the men’s 3,000-metre steeplechase who hail from the area include Conseslus Kipruto, the 2016 Olympic champion, Brimin Kipruto who won gold in 2008 and Ezekiel Kemboi, who took the crown in 2012 and 2004.
Other notable athletes from the area include multiple 3000-metre steeplechase world champion and Olympics silver medalist Moses Kiptanui, and Kenyan-born Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen.
For Tiren’s young athletes, their dreams of reaching the medal podium at future Olympics remain despite the Kenyan runners being edged out in Tokyo this month.
“I am expecting to become a great runner and I hope one day I will bring a gold medal to Kenya,” student Elizabeth Khatievi said.