After Kenya sweeps NYC Marathon, stars arrive in New York for a unique diplomatic sprint

Dep. Ambassador Dominique Favre

UNITED NATIONS -- In the dark, chilly, early-morning hours in New York's Central Park on Thursday, Kenya's running stars Tegla Loroupe and Paul Tergat shook out their muscles and blew warm air into their hands as they prepared for a run with the United Nation's diplomatic corps, mainly Ambassadors.

Since the Cold War, diplomats have used sports to try to make peace; there has been ping-pong diplomacy, pin-down diplomacy, skating, water-polo, rugby and, in the last few years, a new sprint diplomacy.

Finland's former U.N. Ambassador and one of the organizers of the diplomats' sprint, Kai Sauer, who returned to New York to run in the Sunday Marathon, told CBS Sports that the run is a way of connecting.

"Sure we talk some politics … usually after the run," he said. "It is a way of humanizing global tension, which is very serious business these days."

So, with a definite chill in the air on Thursday, Tergat became an instant coach to the diplomats, gathering them into a circle on Fifth Avenue and 60th Street for the pre-run stretching exercises … to a few groans.

It is 6:30 a.m. ET, and Kenya's Ambassador to the U.N., Lazarus Amayo, arranged to have his Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Monica Juma, the former U.N. Ambassador and the star athletes join what is the weekly diplomatic jog -- days after Kenya swept both the men's and women's New York Marathon -- with the goal to show Kenya's prowess as the global long-distance running champions as well as to launch the country's two-year campaign for a coveted place on the U.N. Security Council for 2021-22.

The weekly running group, self-dubbed as "PRunners" have T-shirts with country members on the back, inscribed with a note of discipline "6:30 sharp" and "#NoExcuses," a necessary reminder in order to get them the shower and change of clothes to start their diplomatic tangles by 10 a.m., 2 miles across town at United Nations Headquarters on the East River.

"All of us must run for humanity…we look forward to joining the Council and we are ready to serve," said Juma, who ran with the diplomats, after the race.

Kenyan rugby celebrity Collins Injera joined the runners. "It's a good thing getting Kenya out there, just having a fun day in the park," he said.

Sprint diplomacy  

Kenya's runners added some star power to what has become a small-group U.N. tradition for just over two years.

The idea of a running group started in 2015 with the New York Road Runners "Sprint to the Finish," a 5K race that starts at U.N. Headquarters in Turtle Bay on 42nd Street and First Avenue and goes to the Finish Line of the NYC Marathon on the Saturday before the big race, says Maher Nasser, the director, outreach Ddvision of the Department of Global Communications & Commissioner-General of the U.N. at Expo 2020, one of the few U.N. staffers in "PRunners" group.

By 2017, two U.N. Ambassadors, Finland's Sauer -- then permanent representative (as Ambassadors are called) and now an Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy in Helsinki -- and Christian Wenaweser, then Ambassador of Liechtenstein to the U.N., created an ad hoc running group. The U.K.'s then-Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, now with the U.K.'s Department for International Development, joined in the organization of the diplomatic sprint.

It was not until 2019 that the U.S. had a runner in the mix.

During the two and a half years that the group has been running, it has had representatives from Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Latvia, Laos, Lebanon, Mongolia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Portugal, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Several of those countries have dropped out because of time constraints, politics or injury, leaving a core group of about a dozen countries and a handful of U.N. staff.

This past week, both traditions merged; first on Saturday, when diplomats and staffers -- 350 of them -- ran the day before the Marathon in the 5K "Abbott Dash" as part of U.N. running diplomacy. This time it included the relatively new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft, who also runs with the Ambassadors weekly event.

The showcase event was Thursday, when Kenya wanted to make it special. 

In the run, the group stays together, but when one new runner had to stop, the group's current leader, Lebanon's Ambassador Amal Mudallali, stayed behind to walk the distance.

When the group decided to clarify the working name "PRunners" to add an "R" -- since it is about "permanent representatives" running -- there were divisions within the group and no consensus (not unlike issues at the U.N.), and they decided to leave well enough alone the interest of world peace.

The Special Run: Why Kenya dominates long distance

The addition of the star runners -- and a rugby star -- to the group of diplomats was Kenya's way of showing the flag.

In Sunday's Marathon, Kenya swept: Joyciline Jepkosgei won her first NYC Marathon and Geoffrey Kamworor took his second marathon in three years.

Kamworor was met at the finish line on Sunday by fellow Kenyan and training partner Eliud Kipchoge, who completed the first marathon in under two hours last month, although as a race, it did not qualify for the record books. Kipchoge, now a world racing phenomenon, sent a video for the Kenya launch event, happening on Thursday.

Kenya's Ambassador for the Security Council Campaign, Special Envoy and Diplomatic Secretary Tom Amolo, explained how the fact that over 80% of Kenyan runners were born the region where the altitude is 8,000 feet above sea level contributes to their success: "Being born in these high-altitude regions of Kenya is definitely a plus."

Diplomacy: connection and competition

So why did the Kenya Mission pull all stops out by bringing these elite runners to New York?

"We are launching our bid for one of the ten elected places -- the Africa seat -- on the U.N. Security Council for 2021-22 on Thursday evening, and our runners are our best Ambassadors."

Amayo said that Kenya has a strong candidacy -- a point also made in a brochure I saw placed at the hob-knobbing Delegates Lounge coffee bar on Wednesday.

"It is our proud national gold," Amayo said. 

Americans think that U.S. elections start early, but campaigns to garner one of the prized 10 elected seats can be intensive, since they are the only ones up for a vote. The five permanent seats on the most powerful body at the U.N., the Security Council, are occupied without election by the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China.

The Djibouti Mission, which is launching its bid for the same Africa place that Kenya is seeking, said that they will launch their campaign in early December. Moussa Mohammed, Counsellor at the Djibouti Mission to the U.N. said that both countries have support from regional groups.

"Maybe Djibouti will start running in the "PRunners" sprint, one of its members who preferred to remain anonymous said at the beginning of Thursday's run.

"Personal connection" not politics

The visiting runners appeared to see the diplomatic foray as a collegial show of athleticism.

Tegla Laroupe, called "one of the greatest female long-distance runners in history" by the  International Olympic Committee, runs her own peace foundation for "peace through sports." She was the first African woman to win the New York Marathon and was named a U.N. Ambassador of Sport in 2006.

Laroupe told CBS Sports: "It is sports, but it is a serious message because we want to help our country show its best and to be on the U.N. Security Council."

So what was the benefit of such a short, slow-ish run like this for these heroes of running, CBS Sports asked Tergat. His answer: "This was plain fun. It is a walk in the Park, Central Park."

"We are here to be our country's Ambassadors of Sport," he added.

With so many threats around the world from nuclear proliferation and terror, some analysts of international affairs believe that persuasion through economic and cultural influence is more relevant today. 

One of the two non-country runners in the group is Chris Harland, the International Committee of the Red Cross' Deputy Permanent Observer and Legal Advisor. He seems to think so: "It's excellent diplomacy. ... If you talk about 'soft power,' this is kind of a definition of it."

Macharia Kamau, former U.N. Ambassador for Kenya, now Principal Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, returned for the Security Council launch. "This is running diplomacy. This is what Kenyans do best. This is how we take up campaigns in the world. We run everyone down," he said with a laugh.

Asked if they negotiate on the run, the group leader, Lebanon's Ambassador Mudallali, told CBS Sports, "Of course we do."

"But what happens in Central Park stays in Central Park," Mudallali said.

Pamela Falk is U.N. Resident Correspondent & CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst, based at the United Nations.

Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations. Full Bio

Our Latest Stories