Coronavirus: Iten no longer so welcoming to foreigners

By Celestine KaroneyBBC Sport Africa, Nairobi
Totti Corbalan
Conditioning coach Totti Corbalan says the hostility in Iten is different to the norm

The western Kenyan town of Iten is famous for producing an array of athletics stars - but its status as a magnet for foreign runners is being affected by the coronavirus.

While this has much to do with social distancing and local lockdown measures in the face of the pandemic, it is also because some Iten residents are associating westerners with the virus.

Many of the primary sources of coronavirus cases in African countries have been brought in by travellers from Europe and the United States, with Kenya - whose first case came from a citizen returning to Nairobi from the States via London - one such nation.

Over the weekend, a Spanish conditioning coach says he was pelted with stones and called "corona" by children during a run in the Kenyan town, which Olympic champion David Rudisha - amongst others - has called home in the past.

"A group of kids, maybe around 12-years-old, were hidden behind trees and when I passed by, they started throwing stones," Totti Corbalan told BBC Sport Africa.

"All these kids just call you 'Corona' and run away making fun of you, so we have to be aware of what is going on around us when we go out on a run."

Former athlete Elias Kiptum, who lives in the area and is worried about the impact such attitudes may have on Iten's reputation, says at least two other foreign athletes have approached him to complain about similar attitudes.

Totti Corbalan
Corbalan has lived in Iten since November, having previously been based in the town in 2016

Concerned by such incidents, the local government says it is advising foreign residents against racial profiling while also stressing the need for social distancing.

"We wish to assure all international athletes residing and training in Iten and its environs that racial profiling remains illegal as far as efforts to combat coronavirus is concerned," Vincent Bartoo, the local government's Director of Communications, told BBC Sport Africa.

"What the (Elgeyo Marakwet) County Government has only advised against is group training for both local and international athletes.

Athletes have been advised to undertake individualised training regimes after the athletics camps in the area were banned because of the outbreak.

Iten - which has produced dozens of Olympic and world champions - is famous around the world as a training hub for middle- and long-distance athletes, many of whom use the high altitude in the Rift Valley for advanced training programmes.

Others appreciate the simple way of life which affords excellent training opportunities, with Britain's Mo Farah among those to have made Iten a base in recent years.

World 800m record holder and 2012 Olympic champion Rudisha, two-time world champion Edna Kiplagat and 5,000m Olympic champion Vivian Cheruiyot are some of those who either train in the region and/or have called it home.

"It is very strange because I lived here in 2016, then moved back again last November, and people here are used to living with white people among them," added Corbalan.

The strength coach says he will not leave the area despite the incident, whose details he posted on Facebook.

Former athlete Kiptum has reached out to Corbalan in a bid to assure him of his safety.

"This thing has been going on since this problem was announced and it has not been painting a good picture - that young kids try to associate the coronavirus with white people," Kiptum told BBC Sport Africa.

"We've tried to speak to parents who are letting their children out to mock visitors yet they should be home - and we assured (Corbalan) there'll be no more of this."

Both Kiptum and Corbalan say that it is only a small minority of locals who are accusing those from the West of bringing in the disease.

German distance athlete Fabienne Konigstein, who has been training in Iten for a few weeks, says some kids cover their mouths when she runs past them during training, even though most locals were welcoming.

Corbalan is well-known among athlete circles in the area and says he knows "people are behaving like this out of fear" but he worries Iten's image might have been damaged by the time life returns to normal.

"When you live here for a while, it is difficult for you to be afraid because you really know that this is an exception and Kenyans are not like this in general," says Corbalan.

"So for us it is not an issue. The problem is for new people who come to train and if they don't feel safe, they won't come again."

Athletics has made the town globally famous and it also offers a source of income to residents who rent out lodging and sell food and other products to athletes who camp there.

"Visitors have a great impact here in Iten economically and hope that when this thing is over, our visitors will come and not get harsh treatment," Kiptum agreed.

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