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Marathon star from Kenya runs into criticism

Pursuit of Korean citizenship puts Erupe at the center of debate

Apr 30,2015
In Turkana District, northern Kenya, Wilson Loyanae Erupe raised cows and sheep with his mother. But he was more interested in running barefoot.

Hoping to become a world-class marathoner, Erupe came to Korea in October 2011, which turned out to be a life-changing move. The 26-year-old now wants to run for Korea, a country more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) from his hometown.

However, it won’t be easy for him to represent his adopted country, judging by a fierce debate in the athletic community over allowing him to become a naturalized citizen.

While supporters claim Erupe could be the turning point for Korean marathoning after a decade-long slump, others say it’s wrong to “import” athletes just to make the country more competitive.

Erupe, who completed his first race in May 2011, rose on the scene in March 2012 by winning the Seoul International Marathon in a personal-best 2 hours 5 minutes 37 seconds. It was his third marathon and the fastest ever run in Korea.

Erupe, a two-time winner of the Gyeongju International Marathon, was suspended for two years by the International Association of Athletics Federations in January 2013 for doping. The Kenyan tested positive for erythropoietin, a hormone that acts in the bone marrow to increase production of red blood cells. Erupe blamed it on antimalarial injections.

In his first post-suspension race, Erupe won the Seoul International Marathon last month in 2:06:11.

The 180-centimeter (5-foot-11) Erupe ran his first marathon in 2010. Before that he wasn’t particularly interested in sports, but a Kenyan coach saw his potential and urged him to start training. Later, Erupe met Oh Chang-suk, who was running a camp for athletes in Eldoret, western Kenya, and began professional training.

“He is an athlete who is extremely disciplined,” said Oh, a Baekseok University professor of sports science and a director in the Korea Association of Athletics Federation (KAAF). “He doesn’t say anything when running on a 20-kilometer dusty road at an altitude of 2,000 meters [6,562 feet]. He has a sincere attitude like Koreans.”

Since meeting Oh, Erupe’s life has changed. In Korea, he won all four marathons he entered.

“Erupe thinks Korea is the place that made his dream come true,” said Oh. “He even refused to sign a contract from an agency that offered him more than 10 times the normal salary of teachers in Kenya. In his heart, he earnestly wants to run for Korea.”

Erupe will take steps to become a Korean citizen starting next month. According to Oh, he is already familiar with Korean food and uses simple Korean words.

In addition, Erupe signed a contract with Chungnam Sports Council earlier this month. He is training in Cheongyang County, South Chungcheong, while preparing to apply for Korean citizenship.

The KAAF held a meeting last month and decided to support Erupe.

“We are looking at the long term,” said Oh. “After world-class marathons like Berlin and London, he will go for the gold medal and a world record at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”

However, not all people favor Erupe’s naturalization. Critics point out the marathon has a proud history as a national sport in Korea. Starting with the late Sohn Kee-chung, who won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Korea has produced world-class marathoners like 1947 Boston Marathon champion Suh Yun-bok, 1992 Barcelona Olympics gold medalist Hwang Young-cho and Lee Bong-ju, winner of the 2001 Boston Marathon.

Critics say it would be difficult for Erupe to represent Korean identity in a short time. Furthermore, under Korea Olympic Committee rules, Erupe would not be able to compete in next year’s Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The rule precludes an athlete banned for doping from representing Korea for three years after the suspension ends.

“If an African-born player sweeps local events, who would aspire to be a marathon runner in Korea?” said Hwang Young-cho, now coach of the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation marathon team. “We need to think about Korea’s marathon future.”

But others claim Erupe could revitalize Korean marathoning, which has struggled to make an impact since Lee Bong-ju retired. The Korean record is 2:07:20, which Lee set in 2000 at the Tokyo Marathon. Meanwhile, the current world record is 2:02:57.

“At the Incheon Asian Games last year, Middle East nations collected 15 of 47 gold medals with naturalized athletes,” said Kim Jae-ryong, Korea Electric Power Corporation marathon team assistant coach and runner-up in the 1993 Boston Marathon. “We should try to improve through naturalization of foreign athletes.”

BY KIM JI-HAN [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]


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