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Wednesday June 3, 2009

Running blind

Meet Henry Wanyoike, world class distance runner, who happens to be blind.

RUNNING as a sport or a hobby is one of enjoyment, but it’s not without its challenges. Mental and physical preparation is paramount, as with any serious sport. Now imagine managing all that when you are running without sight.

Come June 28, two popular and widely recognised runners, Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja, will display to Malaysians their special capabilities when they participate in the Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2009.

Wanyoike is a world-class Kenyan distance runner and has participated in many distance races around the globe. He is hailed as one of the most accomplished athletes of any generation, in any sport, and has won numerous medals, distinctions and awards. Yet, people may not even realise that he is blind.

Inspiration: Blind runner Henry Wayoinke (right) from Kenya, being assisted by his childhood friend Joseph Kibunja who acts as his guide. They will be in KL for the Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2009 on June 28.

Wanyoike is supported by his childhood friend Kibunja, who runs alongside him as his guide.

Over the years, the two men have helped raise awareness and sight-restoration initiatives worth millions of dollars. They are an inspiration to people and runners, both sighted and visually impaired.

Wanyoike was born with full sight but became blind overnight in 1995 at the age of 21 when a stroke badly damaged his optic nerves. While still a child (and sighted), he was put through rigorous preparation to join the ranks of elite runners in his homeland. The loss of sight would have devastated anyone, but Wanyoike rose to the challenge. A counsellor advised him that he could still run using another person as a guide. Connected to his guide by a tether on his wrist, he learnt how and where to move based on the direction of the tether.

Overcoming initial stumbles, Wanyoike’s star rose rapidly after his debut at the Olympic Day Run and he soon competed at the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, winning the 5,000m gold. With his ready smile and determination to succeed, he rapidly became the best-known disabled athlete in Kenya. His accomplishments led to his being awarded the Presidential Order of the Golden Warrior in 2000.

At the Athens Paralympics, he won gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m, breaking the world record in both events.

None of this would have been possible without Kibunja’s consistent support. They have run many races together across different categories – 1,500m, 5,000m, 10km, half-marathon and full marathon.Wanyoike’s performance has so impressed Standard Chartered Bank, the official sponsors of the marathon, that he was approached to be a goodwill ambassador for its Seeing is Believing initiative that seeks to restore sight to a million people.

The bank has since sponsored Wanyoike in a number of international athletics meetings around the world, including marathons in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Singapore where last year, he placed second overall in the 10km road race.

In 2004, he won the Hong Kong half-marathon and in the first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, he came in fourth, even after losing the way and having to run two extra kilometres.

Wanyoike has demonstrated on numerous tracks around the world that disability is not an inability and that life can go on even after the most devastating of calamities.

“I cannot adequately express my gratitude to Standard Chartered Bank for what they have done for me over the last year,” he says. “They have given me new confidence to face my situation and exploit my potential as no other organisation has done for me.”

Seeing is Believing, a global initiative aimed at tackling avoidable blindness, comes under the banner of The Standard Chartered Trust Fund (SCTF) which identifies and channels financial support and aid to deserving community programmes in Malaysia. Launched in 2003, the campaign has raised over US$17mil (RM59mil) for blindness initiatives and plans to invest a further US$20mil (RM70mil) by 2012. In Malaysia, Standard Chartered is working with hospitals and associations to fund restorative eye surgery, provide computer training and books for the visually-impaired. Annually, employees from the bank contribute personal pledges to a Keratoconus Fund to help patients undergoing eye surgery at the Tun Hussein Onn Eye Hospital.

Julian Wynter, chairman of the SCTF, says, “Henry and Joseph are true inspirations. Being goodwill ambassadors of Seeing is Believing, they affirm the invaluable work that the initiative does. While there is a staggering 161 million people who are visually-impaired worldwide, over 75% of blindness is avoidable through prevention or treatment.”

Malaysians can also contribute to Seeing is Believing by sponsoring a marathon participant running for the SCTF in the “Run For A Cause” category at the upcoming Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2009. The category allows runners to raise funds for a charity of their choice through online donations.

This article was contributed by Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2009. Kuala Lumpur will host its inaugural Standard Chartered Marathon (June 28), the ninth in a series around the world. June 15 is the closing date for registration for the KL marathon where the prize money totals RM350,000. For details go to kl-marathon.com.

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