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Athlete recalls day he kept US President waiting

By | March 19th 2009

By Vincent Bartoo

Mr Moses Tanui, one of Kenya’s retired outstanding athletes, says it takes more than speed to glory.

Tanui, one of Kenya’s athletic icons, says sports legends who are feted abroad are barely recognised at home.

Back in the 1990s, his exploits were widely recognised the world over, but back home he was all but ignored.

Mr Moses Tanui (right) with immediate former US President George W Bush (centre) and fellow athlete Mr Paul Tergat at the White House. [PHOTOS: PETER OCHIENG’/STANDARD]

He recalls his most memorable encounter abroad to illustrate how well athletes are treated. In his hey day, when his fan base mostly comprised foreigners, his biggest fan was immediate former US President George W Bush.

On December 17, 2001, Bush invited him and fellow athlete Mr Paul Tergat to the White House. Both were in Washington DC to promote Operation Smile, an organisation that performs reconstructive surgery on children with lip deformities around the world.

Very apprehensive

"They were in Kenya performing operations and asked me to be their goodwill ambassador. They also asked me to get a fellow athlete to travel with to the US for a fundraising," he says.

Once in Washington, they participated in a 10km race to raise awareness of Operation Smile activities.

"It was a successful race. Many turned up just to see us. Americans are big fans of Kenyan athletes," he says.

The following day, a Sunday, Mr Bruce Smith, a top defensive player of the Redskins (a football team) who was an Operation Smile volunteer, invited them to a game.

Little did the athletes know that President Bush had directed his aides to find them and invite them to his home.

However, by the time they arrived at the venue of the game with the invitation, Tanui and Tergat had already left.

No one knew the athletes’ itinerary apart from their host, a Dr MacGay. The President waited patiently as the aides tried to locate the sportsmen.

"They finally got Dr MacGay’s number and called him on Sunday evening. But since it was late, we were invited to the White House for lunch the next day," says Tanui.

Initially, they thought it was a joke. They never imagined the President of the most powerful nation in the world would find time to meet them.

"The only times we had been to the State House was before leaving the country as a team, to take part in international championships. The team captain would be given the traditional Kenyan flag by the President," Tanui recalls.

The next day, they were picked from their hotel in a stretch limousine and driven to the White House.

"We arrived at the magnificent house very apprehensive. The President was said to be busy, so his aides led us to a room where we had lunch with them," says Tanui.

They were finally escorted to the Oval Office where a jovial President Bush, whom he describes as a "down to earth person", ushered them in.

"I was so surprised when he told us he had been following our careers on the track. He said he was impressed by our accomplishments and that he was a big fan of Kenyan athletes," says Tanui.

"He told us he had longed to meet us and had always wanted to run with us," he says.

Felt embarrassed

The President told them he had been free the previous day and had hoped to run alongside the world’s best.

"He said he had prepared a track suit and shoes to race us in a field somewhere in Washington," he says.

Bush told the duo he considered himself an athlete and at one time ran a competitive marathon, finishing in three hours, 44 minutes, when he was 46-years-old. The President further tickled them when he expressed shock at the time the athletes clocked on the track.

"This was after Tergat told him he broke the 10,000 metres world record in 26 minutes. He said he felt embarrassed by his own record," adds Tanui.

Bush chatted with Tergat about being defeated by Ethiopia’s Haile Gebreselassie at the Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney," he continues.

The private meeting lasted about half an hour, after which both men posed for pictures with the US President.

"Afterwards, we felt like we were on top of the world. We even forgot to ask how we would get the pictures, but they were later sent to us by the White House photographers," he says.

Hung his boots

Now retired, Tanui reflects on his VIP treatment abroad and has no kind words for our country’s sporting authorities.

"They ignore Kenya’s heroes. It is so shameful," he fumes.

Although he appreciates the Government’s initiative to honour athletes who bag gold for the country, he said the move came a little too late.

"I also do not like how they are rewarded then ignored until another awards ceremony. Many athletes are in dire need of training facilities that are lacking."

After he hung his boots following a knee injury, Tanui did not retreat to his rural home.

The 43-year-old rolled up his sleeves and embarked on a mission to assist young athletes develop their talent.

He established the Kaptagat High Altitude Training Camp to train youths and scouts for athletes with the help of his contemporaries in the North Rift region.

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