(photo credit: )
Mugo Samuel Muturi returns to the 31st Tiberias Marathon as a Kenyan national on Thursday morning among a record 1,000 competitors and 53 wheelchair participants, including 100 runners from the Israel Defense Forces. Muturi arrives hoping to defend his title, break the course record of 2:12:48 and win the $40,000 prize, as well as shrug off the saga of his 2007 participation.
A native Kenyan who had changed his name to Mushir Salem Jawher, the 21-year-old runner emigrated to Bahrain and claimed an historic win at the 2007 Tiberias Marathon, when he became the first athlete representing an Arab nation to even compete, let alone win, in his first marathon competition. He had previously focused on the 3,000 and 10,000 meter events.
However, upon his return from Israel, Muturi's pride and excitement quickly turned to disaster due to the intense backlash from the Bahrainian government, who have no official diplomatic ties with Israel.
"I lost my Bahrainian citizenship and was without a country for four months and two days after returning from Tiberias," said Muturi, who has since reverted back to his Kenyan name. Kenya was hesitant to give Muturi back his citizenship during a period which the young runner has described as "a terrible time."
In a pre-marathon press conference, Muturi expressed thanks to the Israeli government for their support and sending letters to the International Athletic Association on his behalf to convince Kenya to reinstate his citizenship.
"I'm happy to be back in Tiberias," Muturi said at the press conference. "I hope all goes according to plan tomorrow."
Muturi has been training in Kenya for the last eight months, which has not been difficult despite the recent rioting. The only hurdle that Kenyan runners experienced was a challenge obtaining visas to travel to Israel, as Nairobi's embassies have been closed for security reasons.
Hardly the only high-profile runner at the Marathon, Muturi joins notable Israeli participants such as annual female champion Nili Abramski. Abramski, who has won nine of her last 10 attempts, is hoping to break 2hours 37mins to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "If there is good weather, it could happen," said Abramski, "but if there is wind, there is no chance."
Even if she does not qualify tomorrow, she will run in the Paris Marathon in April in hopes of qualifying there. Weather is always a significant concern for competitors at Tiberias, where the course takes them around Lake Kinneret from the Tiberias boardwalk to Kibbutz Ein Gev and back.
Though last year there was talk from Israeli Athletics Association general secretary Jack Cohen about potentially changing the course in 2008 to avoid the windiest parts, Cohen avoided all talk of course changes before the event. Abramski tested the course on Wednesday morning and noted that although it was calm at 9am, by noon it was significantly windier.
Seasoned marathoner Haile Satayin, who recently qualified for Beijing at the World Athletics Championship in Osaka this September, will also compete this year after sitting last year out due to injury.
Satayin is set to provide serious competition to top runners Simon Bor, Stanly Leleito and Benajmin Kipketer Bor of Kenya and nine-time national champion Asaf Bimro. Bimro took the national crown from Satayin last year with a time of 2:17:34, five minutes faster than Satayin's Osaka time of 2:22:24.
Known for its international competition, Tiberias breaks ground this year by hosting two male Jordanian runners for the first time.
"We're happy to be here," said Jordan's Aryan Club owner and president Majid Al Shahar. "This is a message of peace."
Dr. Yehoshua Dekel, Head of the Sports Administration of Israel, had hoped that 2007's Marathon would not be the only year with Arab participants and had planned on encouraging other Arab nations, particularly Jordan, to compete in 2008. The Jordanians will join runners from Israel, Kenya, Ethiopia, Finland, Poland and Japan. In addition to the full marathon, there will also be a 10km race and a 4km race for children.