Culture Clash: Kenyan Runners in Mexico

Alexis Okeowo, San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2008

Mexicans no longer turn their heads when the lanky black athletes walk down city streets here. Nor do they still drop their jaws when these foreigners hold conversations in Swahili.

Many world-class Kenyan runners have flocked to Mexico in the past 10 years—more than 130 male and female runners, according to the Mexican Athletic Federation, an independent body.

Mexico has become a lucrative base for long-distance runners because of its proximity to profitable contests here, in the United States and in South America. Kenyans can earn cash awards of between $1,000 and $10,000, and Mexico taxes race purses at only 14 percent, compared with the U.S. rate of 33 percent.

The country’s high-altitude areas and crisp air also provide an ideal training ground, runners say. Some 40 Kenyan runners now reside in Toluca, 39 miles southwest of Mexico City. The city of 470,000 is at an altitude of 8,793 feet and surrounded by green, hilly volcanoes.

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But for Lazarus Nyakeraka, 33, one of the first Kenyan runners to arrive in Mexico 11 years ago, the fun ended years ago.

“Mexicans feel resentment toward us. They complain about our dominance in the races,” Nyakeraka said.

So far this year, Kenyan runners have won 85 percent of long-distance races, causing at least 60 percent of Mexican runners to complain to race authorities, according to the Mexican Athletic Federation.

In many towns hosting races, the African athletes say they endure taunts and racial epithets from fans upset that they will beat Mexican national favorites. Indeed, the vitriol has become so intense that a number of domestic race officials limit payments to between one and three Kenyans no matter how many are eligible for cash prizes.

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Francisco Barra, who also represents Kenyan runners, says he has seen officials point to small print on entry forms that reads: “We will not pay any foreign athlete.”

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Most runners left families in Kenya that rely on the remittances they send home each month. Kenya is still reeling from mass violence after its 2007 presidential election that killed nearly 2,000 people and left 500,000 homeless.

As a result, most runners say they will continue to recruit their fellow Kenyans to move to Mexico.

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