Wednesday, February 11, 1998
Kenyan skier finishes last but remains confidentNAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Phillip Boit looked every bit the Olympian as Kenya made its Winter Games debut. It was the winter part that gave him trouble.
Boit ushered Kenya into the Winter Games on Thursday with considerable effort, finishing a very distant last -- 20 minutes behind gold medalist Bjorn Dahlie of Norway in the 10-kilometer classical cross-country race.
An exhausted Boit, who didn't see snow until two years ago, not surprisingly struggled in a cold rain, laboring not just to stay on the course but to stay on his feet.
He was wobbling noticeably about 500 yards from the end, nearly falling off his skis before pushing strong to the finish line, where he was greeted enthusiastically by Dahlie.
Boit's time of 47.25 was nearly enough for Dahlie to start and finish two races.
Boit looked natty in his country's colorful red-and-green Olympic garb, but fell quickly behind at the start and never saw the leaders again after about 400 meters into the race.
He couldn't stay in the groove that the leaders carve out in the snow, and his skis sometimes were so askance they knocked over the flags lining the course. At one point, it seemed he couldn't get his skis to work, so he returned to his roots as a distance runner by jogging on skis -- something never seen before in an Olympic race.
But Boit insisted afterward that Kenya is serious about competing in the Winter Games, and said he didn't enter just to cash in on a sponsoring shoe company's largesse.
"Yes, of course," he said, when asked if he thinks he will win an Olympic race someday. "I will be the first one, I think so. I'm dreaming for that and I'm aiming for that and I'm serious about it."
He knew it would be difficult for a man from a tropical nation to learn such an unnatural discipline as skiing, but he said he remains undeterred.
"When you are a sportsman and have decided you are going to do something, you have to do your best," said the 26-year-old Boit.
Boit and fellow Kenyan skiier Henry Bitok, an alternate here, have been encouraged by Kip Keino, one of the greatest Olympic runners ever. Until now, Keino never thought he'd see the day when homeland Kenya competed in the Winter Games.
Of course, like most Kenyans, he never thought he'd see winter.
"We don't have winter, but that doesn't mean we cannot do well in the Winter Olympics," Keino said. "The whole world is changing."
Still, the thought of tropical Kenya, where a cold front means temperatures in the 70s, competing alongside winter wonderlands Norway or Finland seems as implausible as Hawaii winning the NCAA hockey championship.
Some things in the athletic world simply are meant to be, and this wasn't one of them. Except to Kenya track coach Mike Kosgei, who noticed in 1995 that middle-distance runners and cross-country skiers possess similar assets: speed, endurance, strong leg muscles and mental toughness.
There were two problems with adapting natural born runners into unnaturally made skiers.
First, Kenya needed a lot of money to send them to a cold-weather country to train. Then, it had to find athletes willing to sacrifice a lifetime of knowledge, training and success in one sport to take up another in which they might know nothing but humiliation and failure.
"It was very hard," said Bitok, who apparently arrived in Finland in 1995 thinking he was training for running, not skiing. "I was told it was cross-country, and when I got there I found it was cross-country skiing. We didn't have any idea about it. The clothes that we were putting on were only for warm weather. We were really freezing so much."
"For them the most difficult was balance, just standing up on the snow," said Jussi Lehtinen, of Finland, the Kenyans' coach. "It is hard for them to compete against the skiers ... who were born with skis."
They can stand up now -- except to the competition. The Kenyans have finished last in all eight of their World Cup races this season.
"The mind of an athlete says he can do it, but it cannot be forced," Keino said. "You must accept that you will make mistakes, that you will fall down, that you will fail. They have accepted it. Now they will learn to do it right."