• Ereng says the abundance of prize money and appearance fees has greatly changed the athletics landscape. Only a handful were earning from appearance fees, he says, adding that he rarely got winnings or such appearance fees.
• He reveals how he got sucked into the sport after attending football matches, at City Stadium, as well as boxing events at the various training venues in Nairobi.
The introduction of science in sports has been received with mixed reactions by athletics stakeholders from yesteryears and the current generation.
For Paul Ereng, the 1988 Olympic Games 800m champion, the entry of technology has put the sport in unprecedented heights, which were unimaginable when he surged to the Olympic title in Seoul and two world indoor crowns; in 1989 (Budapest, Hungary) and 1991 (Sevilla, Spain).
At the moment, there is a huge debate on the use of high-tech shoes. Some have even termed it as a form of anti-doping rule violation, but Ereng disagrees.
Instead, he feels science has only helped establish the limits that a human body can go, especially in training, without breaking.
“With science, we have been able to study how much pressure an athlete can take in training and moreso how the body adapts to these pressures without breaking,” says Ereng.
The former world indoor record holder says he doesn’t think athletes of yesteryears were not as good as the current crop, regardless of whether their records are being broken right, left and centre.
This is just a result of science, which has helped coaches and athletes understand the human body better for maximum performance.
“There is the issue of equipment, especially the shoes, that has been the talking point lately, as well as pacing with lights. These have only served to help current athletes reach great heights without damaging the body. These (technological advancements) were not there during our time,” he says.
“In addition, current coaches are professionals; they are learned; they know how to check athletes’ functionality, especially heart rate and will therefore be in a better position to push the athletes to the limit, safely. They are also able to figure out when something is wrong and whether there is need to visit a doctor or not,” says Ereng. “Before that, we could only know something is wrong when someone is completely sick.”
He observes that an injury back then could mean the end of a career or a lengthy layoff. But at the moment, he feels athletes can even figure out the extent of their injuries, the duration they could be sidelined as well as the availability of modern medical treatments including surgical procedures which significantly improve the turnaround time.
In addition, Ereng says the abundance of prize money and appearance fees has greatly changed the athletics landscape. Only a handful were earning from appearance fees, he says, adding that he rarely got winnings or such appearance fees.
“I don’t remember getting any winning money. Maybe some little cash, unlike nowadays where there is big monies in nicely spelt out structures benefiting numerous athletes over a season,” says Ereng.
Ereng was born August 22, 1966, in Cherangany, where he grew up under his mother’s care following the death of his father while in Class Two.
He attended Starehe Boys Centre in Nairobi, where he started his career as a 200m and 400m runner but this changed in 1987 when he joined the University of Virginia.
Ereng recalls how nobody believed in his potential in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics but he had the urge to realise his dream of being an Olympian.
“I was a novice since I had just started running 800m in the same year. I was moved from 200m and 400m to 800m after I went to the USA eight months prior to the Olympics,” says Ereng.
“That’s why nobody expected me to deliver but I was determined. I kept on learning about it and took data and drew graphs, ticking things that were on my paper with every race I ran.”
He reveals how he got sucked into the sport after attending football matchesat City Stadium as well as boxing events at the various training venues in Nairobi.
“We could go to the City Stadium from Starehe to watch football over the weekends and I could see people running. I got interested and started running and the rest is history,” he says.
“At Starehe, we used to have inter-house or dormitory championships from where we could raise a team to represent the school at inter-school championships. This is how I found myself at the Nairobi Provincial Athletics Championships and then at the national level where I finished on the podium,” says Ereng.
Ereng recalls how Kenyan runners used to move to the USA in the 1980s, competing for university teams.
He realised this is where he belonged, buoyed by the performances of pioneers like Henry Rono, Mike Boit, Billy Konchella, and Sammy Kosgey.
“In the USA, one would pursue education and athletics, and I achieved that. This changed my life. Were it not for athletics, I don’t think I would be a responsible citizen that people can go to for advice,” says Ereng.
He observes that many of the country’s runners come from humble backgrounds and he was no different, especially after losing his father at an early age.
“Losing my father was a big challenge. But growing up in the village was much better than in the city. The air in the village is fresh and there were neighbours who would help with this and that, unlike in the city where everyone is focused on him/herself,” recalls Ereng.
He says circumstances forced him to mature before his age. “I needed to get out of that place, but with dignity,” he says.
After retiring from athletics, in 1992, Ereng returned to Eldoret, where he met an Italian who was a technician with the IAAF, now World Athletics, and who wanted to set up high-performance centres in Africa — Kenya (middle and long distance), Senegal (hurdles and sprints) and Mauritius (combined events).
“They wanted somebody who could handle the middle distance, a position I got after interviews alongside other retired athletes like Patrick Sang. I started with the likes of Ezekiel Kemboi, Janeth Jepkosgei and a couple of other kids from South Sudan and Eritrea, whose careers went on to blossom,” he said.
He then returned to the USA, where he worked as a link between American universities and talented Kenyan runners. He is currently working for the University of Texas at El Paso.
“The US system required students who could become good athletes and, therefore, we had a cut-off of at least a C+ in KCSE. I kept on coming back to Kenya to look for good athletes and that’s how I landed the likes of Emmanuel Korir,” he says.
“I have taken many more to the USA. Some become good athletes, others don’t but all in all, they get themselves a career. Some change citizenship once they get opportunities,” he says.
Ereng says the American university system is quite robust and favourable for upcoming athletes.
“It is like a national athletics camp, where you are about to go represent the country. You don’t have bills to pay. There are no questions on what will happen tomorrow, like paying electricity bills or what to eat. But in Kenya, it’s different. One must pay for everything including school fees and hospital bills,” says Ereng.
“This need to pay bills sometimes puts pressure on athletes, who find themselves at the mercy of doping advocates. And with their naivety and promise of a quick fortune, the athletes fall for it. We were successful and I think the current Kenyan athlete is so talented and amazing. They don’t need to use drugs to succeed. They just need to be consistent in what they do,” he says.
And despite the numerous ups and downs he faced during his career, Ereng insists he has nothing to regret.
“I don’t regret anything in my career despite what I have gone through — whether negative or positive. It’s part of life... enjoy and move on. It becomes negative when you don’t move on. When you get something wrong in life, find a solution and move on,” said Ereng.
Date of birth: August 22, 1966
Place of birth: Cherangany, Trans Nzoia county
Event(s): 400m, 800m
College team: UVA
Coaching: University of Texas at El Paso
Personal best(s): 400m: 45.6, 800m: 1:43.16
Gold: 1988 Seoul 800m
World Indoor Championships
Gold: 1989 Budapest 800m
Gold: 1991 Sevilla 800m