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    Tuesday, February 3, 1998

    Kenyan skiers begin medal quest

     HELSINKI (AP) -- Just two years after they saw snow for the first time, two athletes from the equatorial country of Kenya headed for Nagano on Tuesday to become Olympic skiers.
     Philip Boit and Henry Bitok don't expect to end up with medals draped around their necks. "Not right now, but give us time," Boit said, showing the spirit that has driven them through their winter dream.
     The quest started in 1995 when Kenyan running coach Mike Kosgei approached a Finnish trainer who was supervising his runners in the Kenyan highlands. Could Kenyans' famed running skills be adapted to cross-country skiing, he wondered.
     Boit, 27, and Bitok, 29, gave up their running careers to head for new frontiers. Neither of them had seen snow before arriving in Finland in February 1996 to begin training.
     Boit had been a middle-distance runner and Bitok a steeplechaser. Both had the necessary stamina and speed, but lacked the technique.
     "There's a bit of a problem with motor co-ordination and skiing technique," said Lasse Mikkelson, a former Finnish running coach. "You can compare Philip and Henry to cars. Their engines are too big for the driver's skills."
     But they've made impressive progress. "I can't do better myself, even if I practise," said their coach Juha Lehtinen, who like most Finns has skied since early childhood.
     In Nagano, Boit is to compete in the 10-kilometre classic-style race on Feb. 12 and in the 15-kilometre freestyle pursuit on Feb. 14 -- if he recovers from a bout of hepatitis that's forced him to take it easy in recent days. Bitok is the reserve.
     Even at his best, Boit isn't close to the world's best. In the 10-kilometre event, his times have been about 10 minutes slower than those of Norway's Bjorn Daehlie, the world's fastest.
     The Nike athletic shoe company is the main backer of the Kenyan skiers, and some believe that the venture is merely a marketing ploy of the huge multinational sports equipment manufacturer.
     "It's possible," said Mikkelsson. "It may be a step by Nike toward making contact with winter sports."
     But, Mikkelsson said, not a lot of money is involved.
     Boit and Bitok have certainly enjoyed the project.
     "When I started training really hard, I found out that skiing is a very good sport," Boit said, but added that it was harder than running.
     "There are so many things to accomplish, so much to learn about technique," he said. "But the cold weather has been the most difficult."
     Boit's top running times before trading spikes for skis was 46.20 seconds in the 400 metres, 1:47.46 in the 800 metres and 3:46.52 in the 1,500 metres.
     Bitok ran the 3,000-metre steeplechase in 8:17.28 in 1993.
     "We are taking skiing seriously, trying to make it a career sport," Boit said. "This is something that has not been done before in Kenya, and it's interesting.
     "We want to make a go of it and encourage young boys in the country to do the same."