All eyes are on Faith Kipyegon at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. That’s because the Kenyan 1,500 metre and 5,000 metre star broke three world records in less than two months on her way to Hungary.
As expected, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya are spearheading Africa’s hopes for medals, continuing their dominance in middle and distance running events. At the 2022 champs, Ethiopia finished second and Kenya fourth in the medal table. Between them they won 20 of the 28 medals lifted by African athletes.
Over time, Africa is earning fewer gold medals at the event, even from Kenya’s famous male distance athletes. Kipyegon, however, is set to buck the trend. Considered by many as the greatest female 1,500m runner in history, she is the one athlete who has been consistent for the last eight years. Kenya’s hopes hang heavily on her.
As a sport scientist with a research focus on Kenyan athletics, I have followed Kipyegon’s career with interest. But who is she, what drives her and how did she manage to achieve this level of success despite taking a break from competing to start a family?
World record spree
Of the last five World Athletics Championships or Olympics dating back to 2016, the 29-year-old Kipyegon has only missed out on 1,500m gold once. That was in 2019 when the championships took place 15 months after she gave birth to her daughter.
She comfortably won Olympic gold medals in 2016 and 2021 as well as two world championship titles – in 2017 and 2022. She broke the 1,500m world record in June 2023 and just a week later stunned the stadium – and herself – by smashing the 5,000m world record. It was only her third race over the distance. Her season has simply been outstanding – also smashing the world record for the mile.
The 2023 World Athletics Championships presents her with an opportunity to cement her legacy and single season success – which already compares to other historic feats such as US stars Usain Bolt’s 2009 and Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 1988 performances.
Who is Faith Kipyegon?
The eighth of nine children, Kipyegon grew up on a farm in Ndabibit, a village in the Rift Valley province of Kenya. Like many kids educated in rural areas, she walked and jogged many miles to and from school. Little did she know that this would instil the fundamental locomotion and physical skills that would form the foundation of her athletics career. This walking is enhanced by the physical education and sports activities that children engage in while in school.
By 14, Kipyegon had tried her hand at football when, during a physical education class, she took part in her first 1km race. She finished far ahead of everyone else in class.
In the words of Kipyegon, winning that race created an awareness that she could “run fast and be a good athlete”. Just two years later, she came fourth in the World Cross Country Championships under-19 event. At 16 she was the youngest finisher in the cross country top 21. Running barefoot, she started her winning trend at a cross country event the following year and achieved 1,500m Olympic gold in 2016.
After world 1,500m titles in 2016 and 2017, Kipyegon took a break to give birth to her daughter, Alyn. She faced the conflict of many women athletes, between family and career. “I was so afraid, maybe I will not come back, I will just disappear,” she said. “I thought it was the end of my career, but it was the beginning.”
It took great mental strength to take a year off and gradually rebuild her stamina, strength and speed. In a vibrant comeback, she seems stronger than ever. Winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics and last year’s world championships made her the first woman to claim four global outdoor titles in the 1,500m, thus the greatest female mile runner ever.
Kipyegon spends five days a week training, separated from Alyn and her husband Timothy Kitum, the 2012 Olympic 800m bronze medallist, who serves in the army in Kenya. For all three of her world records, she wore a bracelet adorned with her daughter’s name and the colours of the Kenyan flag. Alyn wears a matching bracelet while doing schoolwork back home.
Well deserved victories
Her successes on the track have brought riches to her and her family. The Kenyan government has rewarded her excellent performances with cash and a house.
During a recent speech she broke into tears, saying:
Now I can buy my father a car. I promised him when I was going to break a world record that I’m going to buy a car for him. So now I can fulfil my promise.
Kipyegon’s humble background meant that her parents couldn’t watch her win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games because they didn’t even have electricity in their rural home. It is inspirational to see what her vision, focus and application have yielded over time. Her training environment at Kaptagat in Kenya also reveals her humility. She’s part of a group of 30 or so athletes who largely live together and share chores, along with marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge.
Gold or no gold, world records or not, Kipyegon’s story is worth telling as she heads into the finals in Hungary. She stands as an inspiration to countless girls back home and, indeed, a continent.
Wycliffe W. Njororai Simiyu, Professor and Chair of Kinesiology and Health Science, Stephen F. Austin State University