By- Oma Akatugba
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is a proverbial phrase used to encourage optimism and a positive can-do spirit in the face of adversity or misfortune. This aptly describes the story of Kenyan long-distance track and road runner, Tegla Chepkite Loroupe.
While growing up, Loroupe was told by her father she was not good enough for anything other than babysitting.
She did not only prove her father wrong, but she also did grandly. Born in the West Pokot District of Kenya on the 9th of May 1973. As a member of a family of 25 children, Loroupe always had to do manual labour while caring for her siblings, She would pick her siblings from school daily, covering over 10 KLM in total by foot.
She would discover her athletic dexterity through doing 10klm daily and began to compete in footraces where she defeated older students. She did not initially get the support of Kenya’s athletic officials who deemed her too frail to succeed.
She continued to impress at local events and finally got the nod to represent Kenya at the IAAF World Junior Cross Country championship in 1989 and has since then gone on to setting and smashing all kinds of records
She became The first African woman to win a marathon by winning the New York marathon. she repeated the feat the following year and went on to capture marathon titles in Rotterdam (1997 and 1998), Berlin (1999), London (2000), Rome (2000), and Lausanne (2002).
I sat down with her at the 2020 edition of the Laureus world sports awards in Berlin.
What is the connection between Kenya and long-distance races?
It is that the kid starts to go to school at an early age and they have to run to school. One thing is that why Kenyans are doing very well is because of hard work. Before our athlete did not have a lot of encouragement and all of a sudden we realized it is possible. Before, Because was only Europeans and Americans that used to do well but Africans came later and we opened more doors for our athletes.
When you see children from the cities in Kenya, they don’t do as much as our kids from rural areas because they have everything.
While growing up, your dad said you were not good enough for success that you were going to end up a baby sitter.
Yes, I was first a babysitter but I later went to school and while in school, I used to make sure I pick up my brothers and other friends as well. I always did that on foot and i was running 10 Miles per day. I love sports and I also love challenges. I like to go over my limit.
Talking about liking challenges, did your dad´s statement challenge you into greatness?
One thing is that. I had to balance my education and sports. I didn’t want to fail my subjects in class so they do not say “oh is it because you are doing sport?” I was making sure I was ahead of everyone. I was number 1 but after standard 5, I began to repeat classes and then I remained at that level.
How do you think that sport helps to better the life of the girl child in Kenya?
If I was not a sports person, I could have been married with many children, I could have been living in poverty and I can say sport opened more doors. It gives us money to educate our families. It gives you another life that when you travel around the world, your eyes become open and you understand and learn many things. Sport has changed my life, my community and my country, because it was through me who fought very hard to open more doors for the athletes and women, and also running again clean. I Was competing at a very high level with many white women. It was not easy. They always asked me to go for doping control because they could not believe a black and Kenyan woman could be that good.
Do you think that is a way to show to the world that Africans can be good at what they do?
For sure, that is why after suffering so much discrimination, due to where i hail from in Kenya, a war conflict area, so coming out, I said that I would not run away from my problems at home. Now they say I am not a Kenyan, I am an Africa because when you are out, they say these Africans they are not good but I say no. I have two legs, they have two legs. We Africans we have strong air and our brains are strong as well. So I will do it and there are more Africans who will rise. I stood for Africa.
What do you think about racism in sports in society generally?
It is huge. For example in doping, they always talk about doping in Africa and Russia. It is all political. It is not just about sport. I am sorry to say this. If someone in America or UK fails a drug test, there will be less media attention but if it was someone from Kenya or Russia, the media will blow it out of proportion. They forget that sin is a sin regardless of who commits it. That in itself is racism and they should stop it. Because most of our athletes are working very hard and we are also human beings. I would like to challenge African people especially AU and all our leaders to have competitions in our countries. Create activities for our athletes to get better at their crafts. We also need to free ourselves from corruption so the world does not keep laughing at us. I like to say this because I am also a politician. Instead of our leaders to use our money in Africa, they take it to the western world. They have to develop sports in Africa so that we can invite our friends from the West. For example, we train in Germany, we can also invite Germany to train their athletes in Africa. So in that case, we have unity and people will respect our hospitality. Africa has very high hospitality.
You are going to lead the refugee athletes to Tokyo 2020 again. How do you think this initiative can change the lives of these refugee athletes and other refugees worldwide?
I am very happy and I want to thank Dr Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President for initiating this idea and standing by it. Since the inception of the Olympic games, no one ever thought of refugees and they have always been there. It was in 2014 when Thomas Bach became the president, he said that apart from their refugee status, they are also human beings and despite the fact they fled their countries, it does not mean we should be overlooked.
So their children should be represented at the Olympics and that way, other nations who host refugees can see that they are hosting refugees who are now Olympians. I am really happy that I am the African women who worked with the refugees and the “Chef De Mission” of the first refugee team to the Olympics in 2016. I am also going to lead the team again to Tokyo 2020.
How prepared is Kenya for Tokyo 2020?
Kenya we are preparing, we are trying and everybody knows the Olympics is the Olympics and you have to be prepared and how is Nigeria?
Me: We are not preparing well.
No, why? And this is a country that we always look forward to winning medals for the continent of Africa.
So what do you think is the problem with Nigeria?
I think it is the same problems we have in Kenya and that is politics. You are a rich country and your leaders should take the preparation of athletes seriously because they are ambassadors, they will not only Nigerian ambassadors, they are also going to be ambassadors for Africa because we count the medals collectively and it is Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco and Ethiopia that are the medal hopefuls for Africa at the Olympic games. You, as a journalist, do not stop telling the leaders the truth so they can do the right thing.
Which between Football and Athletics is more popular in Kenya?
Of course, many people love football but football never brings medals but athletics bring medals and the athletes work hard so let us support those who bring medals. Kids are kids but when it comes to athletics, they should support them from primary school till professional level.