NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Climate-linked temperature increases in Kenya’s highlands are hitting one of the world’s major training grounds for the world’s long-distance runners, Kenyan athletes and officials say.
"Our country is known for its high performance around the world in middle and long distance,” said David Okeyo, the Secretary General of Athletics Kenya. “However, climate change associated with hot weather spells is bringing a lot of complications.”
Kenya has seen its fortunes in long- and middle-distance running dip recently, with its Olympic team picking up only two gold medals last summer in London, down from six golds in Bejing in 2008.
Commentators have attributed that decline to a wide range of problems: injuries, poor pay for Kenya’s athletes, competitors figuring out better running strategies, and particularly infighting and corruption in the selection of Kenyan athletes for international sporting events.
But climate change, the country’s athletics officials say, is also playing a role by making Kenya’s highlands a less effective and attractive place for athletes to train.
Iten, a small town with a cool climate east of Eldoret, attracts runners in training from throughout the world. About 1,250 Kenyan athletes train and another 250 foreign athletes train there each year, according to David Okeyo, current Secretary General of Athletics Kenya.
Last year, British gold medal winner Mo Farah and celebrity runners including British marathoner Paula Radcliffe were among the elite athletes training in Kenya, Kenyan officials said.
But over the last 11 years, the average annual temperature in Kenya’s Rift Valley has risen from 13 degrees Celsius to 14.5 degrees Celsius, according to a study by the Kenya Meteorological Department and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
That “is a serious matter. It has affected the performance of our athletes as practice become difficult for them,” Okeyo said.
"When it's basically hotter than usual, the body has less energy to perform high energy demanding tasks," he said during an interview at his office.
Hotter practice temperatures can mean athletes take shorter runs or train less often, affecting their performance, Okeyo said. That is part of the reason that Kenya, which has won more Olympic medals than any other African country, is now seeing its medal tallies decline, he said.
Elite runners still flock to Iten, but a share are looking elsewhere – including to Japan – for better training conditions, said Paul Tergat, a renown Kenyan marathoner and silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics.
David Rudisha, who broke the 800 meter world record at the London Olympics, agreed that rising temperatures are a problem.
"There is a big aspect of climate change affecting one not to perform as they should athletically," he said, during an interview with AlertNet.
Daniel Olago, a geologist and specialist in climate change issues at the University of Nairobi, said his institution is undertaking several studies to determine the magnitude of the emerging problem.
Climate change “is in all spheres, including food security and water availability, and even affects social activities such as sports," he said.
Warming temperatures are expected to particularly affect winter sports by reducing snowfall. But distance running also is at risk, and “if climate change continues at the current level, we are to face worse scientific, cultural and social consequences,” Olago said.
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.