What happened to Shaheen?
Sometimes he trains, but he is often injured and has lost motivation. He started a business. Now things have changed. He used to focus too much on training. He used to stay for 30 days each month in Iten. He only went home one day each month, even though home was only 30km away! He has a beautiful home near Eldoret, bought from an Indian businessman millionaire. When the South African tv crew interviewed Shaheen to ask why he did not reside in his nice home, he told them "to be number one in the world, I just need four walls, a roof, a bed and a blanket, because it gets cold sometimes in Iten. I don't need anything else!"
Shaheen added that he needed 'total concentration' to focus on training at the time. This was the Shaheen who remained undefeated for five years, with 25 wins in the steeple chase. After that, he started getting involved with other activities, which he cannot give up now.
What really contributed to this, were problems with Qatar, and because of that, Shaheen is no longer interested in athletics.
Was Shaheen's choice to run for Qatar the best choice?
He did not make the choice for money, unlike what many people thought. Don't believe in the tales about money in Qatar. There was a lot of talk, but in the end, a lot of promises (from Qatar) were not fulfilled, because Qatar does not have a real culture of athletics. If a runner (competing for Qatar) did not run well once, no one tried to understand the reasons why this happened. The only answer would be for the runner to be taken out of the team.
This meant not only a loss of salary, but also a loss of nationality, no more Shengen visa to go to Europe. Steven chose Qatar because Wilfried Bungei, undefeated for three years, never beaten by another Kenyan, was sick during the Kenyan trials, and he had left the Kenyan National team. This is what pushed Steven to run for Qatar, because he wanted to be sure to be able to run in the World Champs and the Olympics.
What are your thoughts after training the Qatari team?
Originally, I had no goal to train in Qatar. Everything happened in 2003. I was already Steven's coach, but I was not happy with his negotiations with Qatar. The day before the Zurich meet, he told me that the next day, he would be running for another country, under another name. I though he was joking! Then he showed me the official documents (new Qatari citizenship) which had arrived by fax just 20"mins earlier, with the new name which had been given to him.
After the World Championships in Paris (2003), the Qatari officials approached me, but I only worked for them from August 2003 to April 2004 (one year). This was because I could not understand exactly what they wanted. It was not a money problem, because I have never been interested in money. I was Stephen's coach for no money at all. I asked them if they were willing to pay for the training camps, physios, or were they interested that I try to build somethng in Qatar. The Emir had a real passion for track and field. But when the Emir passed the reins to his son, his son was interested in other things. He wanted to buy Manchester United. He is the owner of PSG (Paris St Germain). Qatar wasted a lot of money without a real development plan. For example, when Shaheen was winning, he should have been earning a bonus. But then they did not want to pay him because it was not the original plan.
We had to make a two year plan in October, without any possibility to modify the plan! For example if you planned a training camp from June 15 to July 15, you had to keep those dates strictly. If there was snow, and you needed to change the dates, they would not let you. I explained this many times, that track was not like football.
I no longer wanted to keep fighting a battle with people who knew or understand nothing about track and field. Because in my life I have always done track, not for money but because it is my passion. It is all my life!
Is it true that you decided to become an athletics coach at the age of 12 years?
Yes, it's true. This was in 1956. I was a runner and often went running near my home, in Turin. I used to do a loop around my house and keep records of the times. I wanted to see if I could beat my time around the 600m loop. My parents gave me money to go to school, but I saved the money and bought 'Tuto Sports' (newspaper). There was a lot of information on track in that newspaper. There were always stat lists about the best Italians and top world times. This started my passion with statistics. I also took part in track but I was not very talented. I have a pr in every track and field event. Absolutely every track and field event!
And you used to train the decathletes. as well as middle distance runners?
As a coach I started out with the National Italian team first with the relay teams, and then at the Olympics in 1972, where I was coach to Tito Morales. After that, I was head decathlon coach for 10 years, and I was also a middle distance coach in my club. I am the only Italian coach who has coached all events, so I possess a very broad view and experience of track and field. This included the throwing and technical events, but of course, middle distance was my favorite event for coaching. The decathlon was also a passion.
You went to Poland and France to look at other training methods
I always liked studying, and when I studied PE at University my aim was not to become a teacher, but a coach. I always read everything, studied everything, and tried to understand the mechanics and physiologie. Aside from this, another important factor was experience, and during that period in Italy, we had many opportunities, because it was a golden period for athletics in Italy. In the beginning we did not know much about training, so we tried to learn from the best people. We went to training camps in France with Frassinelli, Michel Jazy's coach. In Poland, I was among a group of Italian coaches, and I was the youngest. There was Lucio Gigliotti, Bruno Cacci, who was the husband of Paola Pigni.
We started to greatly increase the mileage in training, especially for the marathon, and then we won two Olympic titles in the marathon! Before that, there was no marathon culture in Italy. We started doing tests to try out new methods. And now we see that we made ridiculous mistakes at the time. For example the special diet - for three days - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we ran 40-45km per day, and we ate absolutely no carbs. We only ate fats like bacon fat. Then the last three days, we only ate pasta. I remember, during one training camp, one athlete consumed 500grams of pasta, and even drank the water in which the pasta had been cooked! But he was not able to finish the race! We ran a lot of km at the time - 300 - 350km per week. But there was no quality to the running and mileage. That was the big difference with these days. These days we are only at 200-220km per week, but there is quality.
After that, why did you decide to go to Kenya?
I went to Kenya when I was the technical director of the Italian Federation. Ten years ago we had very good results in Italy. And then, in 1995-1996 we were not winning anymore. We could not recruit new athletes anymore. In 1998, the Italian Press, started criticizing our training methods, calling them 'obsolete'
I was already a lecturer in the IAAF, and travelled the world on coaching seminars, in Africa, and elsewhere. In 1996 I started training Kenyans in Italy. Then in 1998, Gianni DeMadonna offered to pay for me to do 15 day training camps in Kenya every two months, to train the athletes he was looking after.
What was your first approach to training the Kenyans?
I had to understand the methods the Kenyans were using. I formed several groups of athletes. I used Christopher Kosgei as an aide, as by that time he was completely finished as an athlete (clocking only 8.48 in 1995). I wanted to see if we could rebuild everything.
Then I took talented athletes, in the world top 20 group, to see if they could progress even further. Like Kenneth Kiweit, 1.43 in the 800. David Lelei, who had a serious accident, and ran 3.32 for 1500 with me, he also ran 3.31 and then 1.43.97 for 800.
Then I started a third group with young athletes, who started at that time without using the Kenyan system. Among those young people there was John Korir, Robert Kipchmba, who later became World Junior cross country champion, and also over 10,000 in 2000. And then we started with the marathon. The marathon at that time was not a very strong event for the Kenyans, because when I arrived all the best athletes already had contracts. So I started with the guys without contracts, who were already 30 years old. And despite this, some of them ran 2.08, and after 3 years I had several athletes running 2.06, and also a female running 2.27, and first in the Paris marathon, and that was a good time at the time. The experience started well. But the real opportunity came with Qatar, because I was able to spend 200 days a year in Kenya. We had a training camp the whole year. I decided to settle in Iten, because this was where Shaheen was training. It was then that I was able to give full focus to training Kenyans.
Was living in Kenya the best way to train the Kenyans?
It wasn't just the problem of methods, but if you want to coach a Kenyan, you really have to get to know the life of Kenyans, the family and the problems. You have to constantly solve practical problems, very different from Europe or the U.S. Many people think it's easy to train a Kenyan because they are so strong. It's true that it's easy to train a Kenyan to beat a European, but if you want to make them a World or Olympic champion, it's not easy. You have to first start training them to beat the other Kenyans, and then the Ethiopians. It's not simply a method problem, but rather a situation which needs a lot of tweaking on a constant basis. I don't give an athlete a training program longer than two weeks. This is because I always have to make modifications during the course of that two week period. There will be around 50% changes to the original planned two week program. To be a top athlete you have to be a bit of a savage.
What is your definition of savage?
You cannot just stick to a rigid plan, because you will then lose your instinct to kill. During the time we had top Italian athletes, like Bordin, Panetta, they had an african mentality - they were savages. But now things have changed in Italy. 25 years ago the Italians were tough and liked to fight and challenge each other in training, just like the Africans. For example, a group goes for a recovery run, and meets another group which is running faster. They slipstream the faster group and start running faster. At the end of the day you have to make constant adjustments to change the training. During the wet season in Kenya, the conditions are bad, and you have to run in the mud every day. You also have to educate the athletes, you have to be a teacher, not just a coach. If you just give a training plan without talking with the athlete, you can never succeed. This is the reason that there are few European coaches with african athletes. Because you have to be there. You have to create an atmosphere which is similar to when you work with young children.
How has Iten changed since you first came there?
Since 2004, when I first came, things have changed a lot. 8 years ago, Iten was a small location. Now it is a real town, and a town in which 80% of the people run. The whole world comes here. I have contributed to that. When I worked for the IAAF, foreign athletes and their coaches started coming here, based on what I told them. It is not only the altitude, because you can find altitude anywhere else in the world. Iten is special place. 80% of the Kenyan runners stay in Iten. They all come because of the groups. And nearly all the Kenyan medallists train in Iten. There are groups and the special atmosphere of Iten. None of the athletes are originally from Iten but they all go there. At 6am you have around 20 groups, ready to run. You see fast groups, slower groups, young runners, school kids, and even older athletes.
On Saturday morning it is the long run - we decide where to go and then take 3 or 4 matatus, pick up trucks with 30 people. Sometimes there are more than 100 runners training in the same place. When you go to the University running track you might find 500 athletes on the track! When the last runners in a group start their 400m interval, the first one may have already completed 200m. And among that group of 500, there might be 5 or 6 world champions! As a European or American, you get here, and you see that these are normal people. You cannot be a spectator. You become an actor. If you just go there (to Iten) for the altitude - you can forget about it! Because the experience is to do with the atmosphere, and to change the sprit of your mind. This is the real life experience.
Part two - coming soon.
source - (VO2 RUN LIVE, translated from French, by Ghost)