KAPSABET, Kenya (Reuters) - Before her Olympic 800 metres title in August and $1 million (553,000 pounds) Golden League jackpot in September, few people were interested in the family of Kenya’s Pamela Jelimo.
Now suitors are trooping to her village in Kenya’s Rift Valley to offer marriage and seven men have claimed to be her father, locals say.
Potential husbands have been told to ease off, though one — an athlete named Percy Murei — was in the background as the village of Koyo held celebrations recently to mark the 18-year-old Jelimo’s success as Kenya’s first female Olympic champion and first Golden League winner.
There have also been rival claims about who first noticed that Jelimo, the third of nine children of single mother Esther Cheptoo Keter, could run.
A local coach, Zaid Kipkemboi Aziz, is widely credited with discovering her talent but a retired, 57-year-old teacher, Elijah Kipsang Langat, says he helped her three years ago, before Aziz knew her.
“Jelimo was brought to me by her mother Esther in 2005. Her request was that I get her girl a pair of spikes and track suits,” Langat told Reuters in Kipletito Primary School, some 45 km south of Eldoret, Kenya’s centre of excellence for distance running, where he was coaching a group of barefoot runners.
“Jelimo was among my first athletes here. Some of them have been employed by institutions like the police and armed forces.
“I could not afford those things so I put the request to (games master) Philip Ngeno. He approached the headmaster who gave out 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($68.40). This was enough for my return fare to Eldoret, two pairs of spikes and track suits for Pamela and another athlete, Jeremiah Sang,” said Langat.
From then on, Jelimo dominated schools’ championships and won in every event she entered — 100 metres, 200, 400, 400 hurdles, 800 and heptathlon.
Jelimo’s first taste of international victory came in Burkina Faso last year where she won a 400-metre race. Langat says he urged Jelimo to take up the 800 and target a place in the Kenyan team for the Beijing Olympics.
Charles Kibiwott Bungei, a former teacher at Koyo Secondary School, is one man to have publicly claimed to be Jelimo’s father.
“I am her father. Whatever people say, the truth is I am her father,” said the 62-year-old Bungei, fondly referred to in the village as ‘Professor’, as prayers were held inside the Full Gospel Kabuson Church.
Jelimo, who has had a street named after her by the local authority, was the first Kenyan to be awarded the jackpot given to athletes who win at all the Golden League meetings in a season.
Kenya missed out in 1999 when steeplechaser Bernard Barmasai was disqualified from the jackpot after admitting in a radio interview that he had persuaded compatriot Christopher Kosgei to slow down so he could win one of the races.
The native Nandi people of Jelimo’s area have a tradition of athletics success which dates back to the years of double Olympic champion Kipchoge Keino and former multiple world record holder Henry Rono, who blazed the trail as the east African nation established itself as a major force in distance running in the 1960s.
Janeth Jepkosgei, who won silver behind Jelimo in Beijing, earned Kenya’s first world title by a woman when she won the 800 metres in last year’s world championships in Osaka, Japan.
Another local runner, Wilfred Bungei, won the men’s 800 metres gold in Beijing, while Henry Kirwa and Abraham Tarbei shared five Paralympic gold medals.
“Our athletes have done us proud and the entire community is celebrating after the Olympic Games ended in Beijing,” Mike Kosgei, former national coach, told Reuters.
Kenyan-Dane Wilson Kipketer was born and raised in Kapchemoywo village, where Keino and Rono hail from. Renowned marathoners Rodgers Rop and Felix Limo are also both Nandis.
“We’ve heard many theories, some as absurd as they are ridiculous, but I think this success has a lot to do with genetic relationships,” said teacher Langat.
Editing by Clare Fallon