After reigning over the field at the Yoma Yangon International Marathon for each of its first five years, you might think Joseph Gitau Kariuki would be tired of long runs in the Golden Land.
But in an exclusive interview with The Myanmar Times, Kariuki says he’s not finished just yet with Myanmar – in fact, the Kenyan national is interested in living here full-time.
“At the next Olympics, I may compete representing Myanmar,” he said. “I have felt this way for a while now … Myanmar has a special place in my heart. Someday I may decide to apply for Myanmar citizenship.”
The decision would surely be groundbreaking: The first instance of an international athlete applying for citizenship in Myanmar. But Kariuki says he likes the environment and fans here, likening it to his the east African nation of his birth.
“When I make that final decision, I will declare publicly,” he added, saying that he needed to consult authorities before making any sudden changes.
U Mya Than Htike, vice president of the Myanmar Athletic Federation, said that he has not been contacted by Kariuki or his representatives , adding that the federation was not aware of the champion runner’s interest in applying for citizenship.
“If he wants to change citizenship, first he should officially report to the government,” he told The Myanmar Times, adding, “Once he changes, he won’t be able to compete in international tournaments for at least two years.”
Born in Kenya, Kariuki already has experience living in Southeast Asia – he splits his time between Kuala Lumpur and his native country. The 30-year-old long-distance runner competes on a circuit of marathons that includes races in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore – as well as Myanmar, where he has to dominated the annual Yangon race for five straight years.
On January 8, he cruised to his latest victory with a time of 2:34:28, nearly 10 minutes slower than last year’s pace but still enough to put him ahead by nearly 11 minutes. To date, nobody except Kariuki has won the men’s race in Yangon.
“I am blessed to be a five-time champion [here],” he said. “The weather is perfect in Myanmar, and I’ll keep competing in future marathons as well.
“I love Myanmar. I’ll run here as long as I can.”
His supremacy in Yangon is even more impressive considering his inexperience: Kariuki didn’t get into the sport until after graduating high school in 2008. He said his training regimen includes three sessions per day, and he enjoys competing with fellow Kenyans each year in Yangon. For the last two years, he’s been trailed by countryman Kiptoo Nelson, while Valentine Jepkemoi Serem took the women’s title for the second straight year.
“I get to compete with my friends, which makes this tournament enjoyable for me,” he said. “But now I need a rest. Once I’m fully recovered, I will look into my next race.”
Over the years, Kariuki has noticed that his homegrown copmetition lacks the support they need to develop. He recommended state-sponsorship for trips to contests in neighbouring countries, such as Thailand and Singapore, in order to give local athletes more exposure. That experience, he said, will in turn boost their confidence and morale.
“Myanmar runners are very good, but athletes need other events to improve their endurance and confidence,” he said. “The Yoma marathon only comes once per year.”
The advice from a five-time champion may be welcome in Myanmar’s notoriously under-funded athletic federations, but U Mya Than Htike was less keen on the idea of a Kenyan representing Myanmar at the 2020 Olympics.
“I don’t think it’s a good plan,” he said. “He is Kenyan, and even if he changes to Myanmar citizenship, his medals in international tournaments would still not be representative of Myanmar runners.
“We want to be victorious with our nationality. Myanmar runners’ records are more important.”