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Kenya mourns as marathon world record-holder Kelvin Kiptum given state funeral

Updated: 2024-02-25 11:14
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A service assistant prepares the hearse during the funeral proceedings of late Kenyan marathon runner Kelvin Kiptum in Chepkorio on February 23, 2024. [Photo/Agencies]

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya's world marathon record holder Kelvin Kiptum was given a state funeral Friday following his death in a car crash earlier this month, as many Kenyans urged the government to do more to protect the country's famous athletes.

Hundreds of dignitaries — from Kenyan President William Ruto to Sebastian Coe, head of World Athletics — joined family, friends and fans of Kiptum in paying their last respects as he was interred in Naiberi, about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from his hometown of Chepkorio in western Kenya.

The 24-year-old runner and his Rwandan coach, Gervais Hakizimana, were killed in the crash two weeks ago near the town of Kaptagat in western Kenya, in the heart of the high-altitude region that's renowned as a training base for the best distance runners from Kenya and across the world.

Kiptum was one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in road running in years, having broken the world record in what was only his third appearance in an elite marathon. His record of 2 hours and 35 seconds, set last October at the Chicago Marathon, was ratified by international track federation World Athletics just days before he died.

Kiptum had hoped to break the two-hour marathon ceiling in Rotterdam in April and make his Olympic debut in Paris this year.

His death reverberated through Kenya, where runners are the biggest sports stars and where many have sadly gotten used to tragedies involving their top athletes — several have died in road accidents or cases of domestic violence.

Kiptum was driving on the night of Feb. 11 when the car veered off the road into a ditch and then hit a large tree, authorities said. He and Hakizimana were killed instantly. Another passenger, Sharon Kosgei, was injured in the crash.

Kiptum, an only child, leaves behind wife Asentah Cheruto and their two children. A High Court on Thursday declined to delay the funeral pending a woman's legal claim that Kiptum had fathered her child.

Kiptum had the fastest time as a marathon debutant at the 2022 Valencia Marathon. The following year, he won the London and Chicago races, two of the most prestigious marathons in the world. He set a new course record at the London Marathon last April and, months later, he set the world record in Chicago.

He became the latest Kenyan star to die in tragic circumstances.

David Lelei, an All-Africa Games silver medalist, died in a car crash in 2010. Marathon runner Francis Kiplagat was among five people killed in a crash in 2018. Nicholas Bett, who won gold in the 400 meter hurdles at the 2015 world championships, also died in a car crash in 2018.

Many Kenyans said they believe the authorities should do more to protect athletes who bring international recognition to the country, including providing them with security, drivers and advisors.

Elizabeth Wairimu, a vegetable vendor in the western Kenya town of Nakuru said so many deaths of athletes in road accidents was shocking.

"I am asking myself what is the problem with our athletes," she said. "The government should look into this ... investigate what is killing our athletes. Where are we heading to?" She said it was sad that instead of Kiptum, who had promised to build his parents a new house, the government was now doing it in a rush.

Wairimu's sentiments were echoed by others on the busy market.

"The government should not wait until the legends are dead to start rushing to look after their welfare," said George Thuo, a merchant at the market.

Jimmy Muindi, a six times Honolulu Marathon winner from Kenya, said young athletes who reached Kiptum's level need support in managing their newly found celebrity status. Former marathoner Isaac Macharia agreed, saying a support system is needed to nurture stars.

Jack Tuwei, head of Athletics Kenya, asked President Ruto and legislators to come up with a solution that would ensure the welfare of the athletes and "allow them to have all that they need to be safe." Ruto said an endowment fund would be set up for athletes and Kiptum's widow would be given another house by the government and $34,000 in support.


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