Commentary

With public office hopes dashed, Wilson Kipsang returns to running

Originally Published: May 4, 2017
By Bill Donahue | Special to ESPN.com

Wilson KipsangIan Walton/Getty ImagesWilson Kipsang will now focus on training for the Berlin Marathon in September.

Marathon ace Wilson Kipsang failed in his first bid for public office, finishing a distant third out of about a dozen candidates in an April 24 primary held by Kenya's ruling Jubilee Party.

Running for a seat in the Kenyan parliament, the 35-year-old Kipsang received just 3,621 votes, falling behind winner Daniel Rono, the businessman who earned 14,450 votes and appears to be the top contender heading into an August general election that will decide who will fill the vacated seat in a district called Keiyo South.

Kipsang's loss came amid chaos within the Kenyan political scene. The Jubilee Party primary in Keiyo South was supposed to take place on April 21, but across Kenya that day many polling places opened hours late. Angry, impatient voters then found that party officials had not brought enough ballot papers. In protest, voters burned their ballots at five polling centers in Kenya's remote Laikipia County, home of the famous, cattle-herding Maasai. Bitter accusation was rampant nationwide; some voters alleged that delays were a ploy to aid incumbents, while others claimed blank ballot papers were stolen by thieves intending to steal votes. In Kenya's capital, Nairobi, a fight broke out between politically divided voters outside a polling place. One man was stabbed and then, while fleeing, was hit by a car and died

Jubilee had no choice but to redo its primaries last week, and the voting was still a mess. Polling officials had insufficient data on voters, meaning cheaters could easily vote at several stations and unscrupulous non-Jubilee members could cast votes, even though they were forbidden to do so. Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper called the Jubilee vote "shambolic," and Festus Biwott, a political analyst in the North Rift Valley, where Kipsang was running, suggested the corruption in his region was deep. "There is a general belief that the nominations were highly manipulated," Biwott told The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper. 

Kipsang's campaign manager, Elias Kiptum, blames the electoral mayhem for the athlete's defeat. "We lost," he told ESPN.com via email, "due to some irregularities at the tallying center and polling centers."

But with Kipsang receiving little more than 25 percent of the vote scored by Rono, was the polling place chaos that bad? "I don't think so," said Elias Makori, a North Rift regional editor for the Daily Nation. 

So what happened? It's possible that voters in the North Rift, which is home to virtually all top Kenyan distance runners, have become blasé about athlete politicians. Four years ago, when 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir ran for a parliamentary seat in the Rift Valley's Cherangany district, promising clean water and new hospitals, he was regarded as a savior, in part because he was running as a political independent and thus perceived as aloof from the tawdry scuffle of Kenyan politics. He won, handily. This year, Korir ran in the Jubilee primary. He was defeated, along with Kipsang and two other North Rift runners -- Wilfred Bungei, who struck 800-meter gold at the 2008 Olympics, and Elijah Lagat, the 2000 Boston Marathon champ. 

More than 40 failed Jubilee candidates are now disputing primary results before Kenya's National Elections Board. Other failed candidates are meanwhile planning to run as independents in the August general election. Kipsang will do neither. "The only thing we can do is to wait for 2022," Kiptum said. " For now, Wilson will focus on breaking the world record at the Berlin Marathon in September."

It's a reasonable goal. Kipsang won the Tokyo Marathon in February, running 2:03:58, just 61 seconds off the world record (2:02:57). Berlin is a flat, fast course. Each of the past six times the world marathon record has been broken, it has happened in Berlin.

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