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Runner Bounces Back From Sickness

August 23, 1999

SEVILLE, Spain (AP) _ Flat on his back 18 months ago with malaria and pneumonia, Wilson Kipketer thought he might never run again. At least, not in this world.

``After being sick, I was almost going to another world, and I didn’t know if I was going to run in that world,″ said the Kenyan-born Dane, the two-time defending world champion at 800 meters and world record-holder at the distance (1 minute, 41.11 seconds).

``But I’m still running here,″ he added. ``This is the most important thing. After that (malaria), I thought maybe my career was finished in running and I’d have to do something else. ... Everything was gone. I had to start from zero.″

Unbeatable in 1996 and ’97 _ but dead last a year ago in the European Championships, still suffering the side effects of the disease he caught visiting Kenya _ Kipketer is back.

With the top time in the world this season (1:42.57), he’s a prohibitive favorite to win Friday’s 800 final at the World Championships, setting the stage for his first Olympic gold next year in Sydney.

If there’s one word to describe the new Kipketer, it’s ``happier.″ He’s healthy again and has begun to manage his own business affairs, cutting out the middleman.

``I was really sick and I thought I was not going to run again, but I’m running and that’s the most important thing. And that’s why I’m happy,″ he said.

Famous for curt answers, he almost seemed to enjoy himself in an interview Monday. He got Danish citizenship last year _ after missing the 1996 Olympics because he didn’t have it _ has a Danish girlfriend, speaks passable Danish, but lives mostly in the tax haven of Monaco.

When he was put on the spot by a Danish journalist and asked to name the most famous athletes in Denmark, he cracked a wry smile.

``There are many best athletes,″ he said. ``I cannot name them because there are lots.″

Even when a follow-up question might have drawn a frown, he smiled and tipped his sunglasses farther back on the top of his head.

Does he plan to stay in Denmark for life?

``I have to take one thing at a time,″ he said. ``It’s still a long time to decide where I’m going to live when I finish running. ... Things change any time.″

Should more of Kenya’s super-talented distance runners seek citizenship abroad, forsaking the homeland?

``I cannot say it’s the right choice or not the right choice,″ said the 26-year-old Kipketer, who first went to Denmark in 1990 as a student. ``Athletes have to decide where they can feel comfortable or where they can train better. Everywhere you can run good. It depends where people feel comfortable.″

Kipketer described his physical shape ``as just as good as it was before,″ but said this alone would not guarantee a title or another world record.

``It’s not only being in shape,″ he said. ``You can be in good shape. But if you’re not strong enough mentally ... you will not have concentration and focus on the race.″

Kipketer should be ready on both counts. And it’s almost certain he will have to run faster than he did to win his last two golds.

``All the time the athletes are getting better,″ he said. ``In ’95, I won in 1:45, ’97 was 1:43. I don’t know what it will be now, but it will be very fast.″

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