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Pamela Jelimo, First Kenyan Woman to Win an Olympic Gold Medal

January 01, 2010
by Liz Colville
Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic track and field gold medal with her 800-meter win (in the time of 1:54.87) in Beijing.

How She Got There

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Pamela Jelimo was born in a village in the Rift Valley region of Kenya, home to some of the most celebrated middle distance and distance runners in the world, including Kip Keino and Martin Lel. Her mother, Esther Cheptoo Keter, comes from the Nandi ethnic group, which dictates that the last-born daughter never marry and instead take care of her parents, according to a profile of Jelimo in The Guardian. So Keter, a single mother and a promising runner herself, raised nine children, the third of whom was Pamela.

When the “shy” Jelimo reached secondary school, she started to assert herself as a talented sprinter, training with her male classmates. Despite the fact that her mother couldn’t afford the school fees, Jelimo was repeatedly invited back to school because of her athletic skill.

Unlike many Kenyan girls, who show promise in world junior events but are outdone by their Ethiopian rivals as they get older, Jelimo won every race that she entered in 2008. She ran her first 800-meter race in April, and in June, after just five races at that distance—including heats—she won the Berlin meet of the prestigious International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Golden League series in 1:54.99.

“Only five women have ever run faster,” the IAAF reported at the time. “No one has run faster in nearly 11 years, and in just her second race on the international circuit, she has already supplanted legendary Maria Mutola as African record holder.

What She Did

By the time she reached the Beijing Olympics, Jelimo had already won numerous 800-meter events. In the Olympic final she beat her mentor, Jepkosgei Busienei, also a member of the Nandi tribe, who last year encouraged Jelimo to move up from the sprinting events, The New York Times notes. Jelimo’s time of 1:54.87 was the ninth fastest ever, and just a second over the world record set in 1983 by Jarmila Kratochvilova of the former Czechoslovakia.

Weeks later, Jelimo capped off her Olympic bid with the IAAF Golden League series crown, having won the 800-meter race in every meet in the series, a feat worth $1 million. The 18-year-old dominated the race and finished with a time of 1:55.16, setting a meet record. Though she didn’t top the world record, she did finish almost four seconds ahead of fellow Kenyan and world champion, Janet Expose.
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