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Editorial: Running for their lives / When a Kenyan woman runner wins, all Kenya wins

Friday, May 10, 2002

Sports are more than fun and games. They are metaphors for the greater struggles of humankind, and as such they have the power to change lives. In the United States, athletes -- Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson come to mind -- helped break down racial barriers. In Kenya, women runners are transforming a traditional male society.

Kenyan men have dominated distance running for 30 years, a triumph of physiology and conditioning that is not completely understood. There's less mystery about why Kenyan women only recently have begun to share in the acclaim. In a poor agrarian society dominated by men, women's expectations have been circumscribed by domestic duties.

That is changing -- thanks to a few sublimely talented female athletes who have left the old habits and attitudes in their dust. Staff writer Lori Shontz and photographer Martha Rial told their extraordinary story over five days this week in the Post-Gazette.

Ms. Shontz went to Kenya as a recipient of a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. Ms. Rial was renewing her interest in Africa, where in 1996 she took haunting photographs of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and won a Pulitzer Prize. The Post-Gazette team found a story of hope in Kenya, one that speaks to the strength of sports to inspire social change.

They found Catherine Ndereba, a world record holder in the marathon and a breaker of social norms (atypically, her husband stays home and looks after their daughter when she travels to compete). And they found Lornah Kiplagat, a champion who has used her earnings in races to set up a training camp to make other young women runners (and some boys) champions as well. Her interest is not just in coaching her charges to win medals; she also helps them secure an education.

Ms. Kiplagat's camp underscores one difference with the male runners, who are apt to use their winnings more for themselves once they have taken care of their immediate families. International development agencies have learned from experience that women tend to invest more wisely in enterprises that raise the standard of living in impoverished communities.

Her camp also hints at the potential for sports to generate improved living conditions in many parts of the developing world. If wealthy sports stars, both women and men, and their national sports federations worked with development agencies when they set up training camps, and if they made sure young people got an education while honing their athletic talents, they could produce more than just the next generation of athletic champions. They could produce productive citizens and better lives for untold thousands.

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