NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) After striking gold at the Rio Olympics, marathon runner Jemima Sumgong underlined how her faith had helped her win the 26.2-mile run.
“Before the start of the race, I asked God to help me to get good results and I am happy my prayers have been answered,” Sumgong, 31, told Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper in Rio.
Kenya’s elite runners have been combining grueling training and abiding faith to build endurance for long distances.
Across the country, they are celebrated as champions. Some churches have installed TV screens for members of the public to follow the games.
But Olympic gold eluded the country until Sunday (August 14), when Sumgong crossed the finish line at 2 hours, 24 minutes, 4 seconds.
Her win resounded here, igniting celebrations among thousands of citizens, who were returning home after church.
The East African nation is 80 percent Christian and clerics and their followers say they had been praying for the athletes.
The Olympic team is largely Christian with runners drawn from Roman Catholic, Protestant and evangelical churches. In recent interviews, the athletes have expressed their belief that faith allows them to endure and persevere.
Most of them hail from around Eldoret, a city in the Rift Valley — a high-altitude region — famous for producing middle- and long-distance champions, including marathoners.
“We have been praying for them,” said Catholic Bishop Cornelius Korir of Eldoret.
The runners have been key to uniting the nation, which is often wracked by ethnic divisions.
“We have used sports — including athletics — to build peace. The athletes have done a good job in this area,” said Korir.
Mombasa Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu said athletes were using their gift from God to bring respect and fame to Kenya.
“I am praying for the team. I will cheer them throughout the games,” Kalu said. “These are God-given talents. I think they should be used for spiritual development of the individual and the church.”
Kalu encourages sports chaplains to support the runners.
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)