The defending champion in today's Boston Marathon has an extra spring in his step this year after his recent election to Kenya's parliament, a symbol of just how much respect the East African nation holds for its international marathoners.
Last year, Wesley Korir stormed through the Boston Marathon course to win the race, adding his name to the list of Kenya’s celebrated long-distance runners. In 2010 and 2009, he won the Los Angeles Marathon, and in 2010, he was second in the Chicago Marathon.
Today in Boston, when the starting gun sounds at 10:00 am for the elite male runners, Mr. Korir will become the first-ever sitting Kenyan legislator to compete in an international marathon. He shows no signs of resting on his laurels, vowing to keep running in races – athletic and political.
“I am a different guy. I am two in one. Politics or leadership is my calling and athletics is my talent. I am trying to use both to serve the people of Kenya. I want to use leadership or politics … and athletics … to help the people of Cherangany,” Korir, referring to his constituency, told Kenya’s Citizen TV.
Cherangany is an area in the Rift Valley region, the hub of Kenya’s long-distance running, where as a boy he ran five miles to school and back each day.
For Korir, joining politics had come as an afterthought. He said he could not stomach the suffering of the people, which he believed resulted from poor leadership. He had attempted to make the leaders address the problems with little success. This prompted him to join the race for parliament.
Amid training for the Boston Marathon, Korir campaigned among the people, highlighting their problems and suggesting solutions. He had told the people that with good leadership, their problems, such as poverty, could be ended.
“I was born in poor family, I struggled with school fees. My brother died of snake bite because of lack of emergency medical services,” he said to Citizen's TV.
Analysts say the fame and celebrity status that Kenyan international runners are accorded back home helped Korir’s election last month.
“After winning Boston and Los Angeles marathons, he became visible. Athletes in Kenya are big heroes and I think the people were rewarding him for his performance. He also promised to help the youth,” says Ben Ocheing, Kenya’s Sports Monthly magazine editor.
“Everyone gets to know the athletes. So, for Korir, 50 percent of the work was already done,” says Col. Benjamin Muema, the party secretary of the New Ford Kenya party.
For Douglas Wakiihuri, a retired marathoner, Korir has done more for the community than putting them on the international map as an athlete. Korir founded, along with his Canadian wife, a children's charity called the Kenyan Kids Foundation to improve education and health care in his region.
“I think [there] is another bigger contribution" to his political success than the marathon, says Mr. Wakiihuri, "but I am happy the young runner is using athletics to become a leader."
“We need gold for our 11th parliament,” posted John Lopem on Facebook. Another poster, Irene Mungai, wrote: “Our prayers are with you. Do Kenya proud Mheshimiwa (MP)."