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Forget for a moment all that the great runners of Africa will
take away from the Olympics, those shiny souvenirs of gold,
silver and bronze. Savor instead what they will leave behind
with us: a sense of wonder. In a world growing smaller and less
mysterious by the day, the African runners show there are still
things on earth with the power to confound and amaze us.

Ron Clarke, the great Australian runner of the 1960s, calls the
present "a phenomenal era, the best for distance running we've
ever seen." It is also, as the accompanying chart makes clear,
an era of African dominance. The Atlanta Games should see the
coronation of three great African runners: Noureddine Morceli of
Algeria in the 1,500 meters, Moses Kiptanui of Kenya in the
3,000-meter steeplechase and Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia in
the 10,000 and probably also the 5,000. All three hold the world
records in their specialties, and each has won several world
championships. The only thing missing from each runner's trophy
case is an Olympic gold medal.

African runners first grabbed our attention in the 1960s, awing
us not only with their times but also with their style, their
apparent disregard for science and common sense. The first great
African runner, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, won the 1960 Olympic
marathon racing barefoot through Rome. He wore shoes to win the
'64 marathon, in Tokyo, in world-record time, then declared that
he could have gone another 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Four years later at the Mexico City Olympics, Kenyan
steeplechaser Amos Biwott did what no other man has done: He
sailed over the water jump lap after lap and won the race with
two dry shoes. Then came fellow Kenyan Kip Keino, remembered for
his ritual of tossing his cap into the infield as well as for
his '72 Olympic steeplechase victory, and Tanzanian Filbert
Bayi, whose seemingly suicidal front-running helped him break
Jim Ryun's mile record in 1975.

These days, the stories come not just from Kenya and Ethiopia,
those high-altitude cradles of cardiovascular supermen and
superwomen, but from throughout Africa. In the last decade there
have been marathoners from Djibouti, Namibia and Tanzania, and a
superb 400 hurdler from Zambia, Samuel Matete. Out of Burundi
comes 22-year-old Venuste Niyongabo, who fled the charnel house
his country has become and now offers Morceli his greatest
challenge in the 1,500. And from Mozambique there is 800-meter
favorite Maria Mutola, plucked at age 14 from a dusty soccer
field and plunked down a few months later at the 1988 Olympics
in Seoul.

Just when you think you've seen the most precocious athlete of
the lot, he tells you that his little brother is even faster but
had to stay home to help with the cattle. "Kenyans," says
Morceli with a sigh. "There are always new Kenyans."

Why are the Kenyans so good? "I think they have a genetic
predisposition," says Steve Holman, the top-ranked U.S. miler,
who says that although he is an African-American, he is
different from the Kenyans. "I know that's not politically
correct, but their bodies seem to have been designed for
distance running."

Kenyan men took the first five places at this year's Boston
Marathon, and the Kenyan team has won the world cross-country
championship for 11 straight years. Where else but in Kenya
could a young man have a childhood friend who is an Olympic
medalist, a cousin and a teacher who both set world records for
10,000 meters, and another cousin who won the 10,000 in two
world championships? That is true of Kiptanui, whose pal William
Mutwol won bronze in the '92 steeplechase in Barcelona, whose
cousin Richard Chelimo and schoolmaster Samson Kimobwa set world
records in the 10,000, and whose other cousin Ismael Kirui won
the 5,000 at the '93 and '95 worlds.

A further explanation for the dominance of Kenyan and other
African runners is economic. Outside of soccer, there is
virtually no professional sport in most of the countries we are
talking about. Running provides athletes "the one opportunity to
make what you might call 'proper money,'" says Kim McDonald, a
London-based agent for about 30 world-class Kenyan runners.
Kenya's per capita income is $292 a year; Kiptanui can command
$50,000 per meet in appearance money alone.

African runners are forcing us to rethink our basic assumptions
about racing and about what is humanly possible. For some time
the model has been a year-long buildup to a peak racing period
of, say, a month. We've also assumed that distance runners are
not ready to start smashing records until they are well into
their 20's. Last year Gebrselassie exploded those two myths. At
age 22 he set a world record for two miles (8:07.46) in late
May; set another world mark, in the 10,000 (26:43.53), in early
June; won the 10,000 world title in early August; set an
astonishing 5,000-meter record (12:44.39) in mid-August; and
finally, in early September, beat Kiptanui in the 5,000.
Gebrselassie is the first man to hold the 5,000 and 10,000
records simultaneously since Kenya's Henry Rono in 1982.

Gebrselassie's 5,000 record deserves a closer look. The
Ethiopian hacked an amazing 10.91 seconds off Kiptanui's
two-month-old record. It was the most significant lowering of
the 5,000 mark since 1932, when Laurie Lehtinen of Finland
chopped 11.2 seconds off the record, dropping it to 14:17.0. In
averaging 4:06.3 per mile, Gebrselassie ran progressively faster
miles of approximately 4:11, 4:05 and 4:01. "I was afraid to
slow down," he said. "There were 10 Kenyans in the race."

Gebrselassie's early life has much in common with that of other
great African runners: altitude, a hardy lifestyle and a strong
running tradition. Gebrselassie grew up in Assela, a village
9,000 feet above sea level. His father raised sheep. The family
had no car and there was no school bus, so Gebrselassie and his
four brothers and five sisters ran everywhere. It was nearly
four miles to get water, six miles to school. Gebrselassie
listened to the 1980 Olympics on the radio and still recalls
countryman Miruts Yifter's victories in the 10,000 and 5,000,
which Gebrselassie hopes to duplicate in Atlanta.

As it is in Ethiopia, life in many African countries is
physically demanding. John Velzian, an English-born coach who
has lived in Kenya since 1958, says African runners "are
expected to come to terms with a harsh way of life, to accept it
and to learn to live with it." When Josh Kimeto, a Kenyan
distance runner who competed for Washington State in the '70s,
heard a Cougar teammate complain of a sore knee one day, he
said, "Pain is when you're 12 years old and they take you out in
the jungle, cut off your foreskin and beat you for three days."
Is any more explanation needed?

African dominance starts in the 800. You have to go back to the
'84 Olympics--to Joaquim Cruz of Brazil--to find a world
champion or Olympic gold medalist in this event who was not
Kenyan-born. The dominance grows stronger as the distances grow
longer. At 26, Morceli is already the greatest middle-distance
runner in history. Before he came along, no one had ever been
ranked first in the world in the 1,500 for more than three
straight years; Morceli's streak is now up to six. In those six
years he has won all three world titles and set five world
records, at distances from 1,500 meters through 3,000. His mile
record (3:44.29) disorients the veteran track fan, since it
looks like a misplaced 1,500-meter time. Track & Field News has
said Morceli's 3,000 record (7:25.11), set two years ago, is the
metric equivalent of 7:57.60 for two miles.

If there is a stronger favorite in Atlanta than Morceli, it is
Kiptanui. Like Morceli, he has won the last three world
championships by huge margins. Last summer he became the first
steepler to break eight minutes, clocking 7:59.18. Incredibly,
in an era in which most record attempts involve not one but two
rabbits, Kiptanui requested a rabbitless race. "I didn't want
anybody getting in my way," he explained. Behind Kiptanui,
meanwhile, are only his countrymen. Last year Kenyan steeplers
ranked one through eight in the world.

No one dominates forever: First it was the Europeans--the Finns
ruled running in the 1920s, the Swedes in the '40s and the
English in the late '70s and early '80s. But the current crop of
Africans seems on the verge of pushing the frontiers to where
Western runners can't go, for cultural reasons as well as
physical ones. "European runners might be just as fast," says
Irish distance runner Frank O'Mara, "but they are not showing
the same interest in doing it."

In Atlanta the African runners will show us precisely how far
ahead they've run, and whether the gap is too large for us to

COLOR CHART: CHART BY NIGEL HOLMES AS THIS CHART SHOWS, GEBRSELASSIE (RIGHT) AND OTHER AFRICANS HAVE DOMINATED THE DISTANCE EVENTS OVER THE LAST DECADE, WITH ONLY THREE WORLD TITLES BEING WON BY RUNNERS FROM OUTSIDE THE CONTINENT [Chart not available--Chart showing predominance of African runners among major event winners and record holders at 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and 3,000 meter steeplechase from 1987 through 1995]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above--Haile Gebrselassie in race]

COLOR CHART: CHART BY NIGEL HOLMES IN THE STEEPLECHASE ALMOST ALL ROADS LEAD TO KENYA, AS THIS CHART OF THE '95 WORLD RANKINGS--TOPPED BY RECORD HOLDER KIPTANUI (LEFT)--INDICATES [Chart not available--diagram showing map of Africa with Kenya and Morocco highlighted and names of world's top ten steeplechasers]

COLOR PHOTO: NORBERT SCHMIDT [See caption above--Moses Kiptanui in steeplechase race]