Kip Keino: Trailblazing legend who opened the floodgates

Kip Keino: Trailblazing legend who opened the floodgates

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Flashback to Mexico, 20 October, 1968.

The effects of Mexico City's high altitude were getting to be felt, and Kenya's distance running sensation Kipchoge Keino was battling illness triggered by the thin Aztecan air.

Despite having trained at high altitude, principally at Kiganjo in Nyeri (1,788 metres or 5,869 feet), the thin air of Mexico's Olympic Stadium at 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) posed a huge challenge for Kip.

On the day of the 1,500 metres final, Kip was feeling unwell, and had to struggle to make his way to the Olympic Stadium.

Doctors had told him to abandon his mission for the treble (all three Olympic final races inside a seven-day window), having fought for silver in the 5,000m final, losing to Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi three days earlier by just 0.02 seconds in a sprint finish.

He had earlier dropped out of the 10,000m final on October 13.

"As he crossed a street, oblivious of the red light for pedestrians, Kip was stopped by an angry policeman who asked for his ID and drew out a notebook and pen, ready to book him for a traffic offence," John Velzian, Kenya's pioneer track and field coach recalls.

"What's your name?" the policeman asked.

"I'm Kip Keino," the Kenyan legend replied.

"But the policeman, visibly angry asked him again: Stop joking, what's your name?," Velzian narrates.

When Kip produced his Olympic identification, the Mexican policeman quickly stretched out the notebook, looked up at Kip and handed him a pen: "Could I please have your autograph?"

That's how famous Kipchoge Keino beyond the borders.

After the traffic incident, Kip went on to overcome illness and traffic inconvenience to win the 1,500 metres gold medal, opening up a 20-metre gap from another legend, American world record holder Jim Ryun, who later went on to join politics, elected in Congress in 1996.

It was the biggest ever winning margin in the 1,500m at the Olympics to date.

The naming of the Nairobi Continental Tour leg in Kip's honour, therefore, couldn't have come at a better time that the year Kip the legend celebrates his 80th birthday.

Kip needs no introduction in his home country Kenya, and more so in the minds of many athletics lovers around the globe, especially those who have followed and studied the history of the sport.

His prowess and dominance in the sport still memorable even half a century since he hanged up his spikes back in 1973.

Kip was born Hezekiah Kipchoge Keino in Kipsamo, Nandi County, in the Rift Valley region of Kenya.

His name, Kipchoge, in Nandi implies "born near the grain storage shed."

His parents died when he was a youngster and was hence raised by an aunt.

After finishing school, he joined the Kenya Police Service as a fitness instructor.

Eventually, he realised he needed something more physically challenging, and chose to pursue running more vigorously.

Before taking up athletics, he played rugby.

He began his international career at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, where he finished 11th in the three-mile race .

At the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, he finished fifth in the 5,000m and just missed qualification for the 1,500m final.

In August, 1965, Keino lowered the 3,000m world record by over six seconds to 7:39.6, in his first attempt at the distance.

He won two gold medals (1,500 and 5,000 metres) at the inaugural All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo in 1965.

Later in that year, he broke the 5,000m world record held by Ron Clarke, clocking 13:24.2.

At the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, Kip won both the mile and three-mile runs.

In the next Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1970, Kip won the 1,500m and was third (bronze medal) in the 5,000m.

Though he made his international debut in 1962 during the Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, Kip had to wait for six years before bagging an Olympic medal.

His steady growth over the years saw him quickly raise into a force to reckon with, if his world record over the 3,000m in his first attempt over the distance in 1965, is anything to go by.

By 1968, the then 28-year-old was already aware of his abilities.

Having bagged two medals (gold in the 1,500m and bronze in the 5,000m) of the Commonwealth Games two years earlier, Kip appeared for the Mexico Olympic Games with a mission at hand.

Though having received numerous doctor's warnings to withdraw from racing following his constant abdominal pains, he turned a deaf ear, registering for five races in the distances between the 1,500m to the 10,000m race events.

In fact, his doctor's threats became so real during the 10,000m, his first race of the Games, in which the pain became so unbearable that he collapsed with two laps to go.

Though a disappointing moment, this outcome did not deter him from competing in other two events – the 5,000m and 1,500m.

Kip went ahead to bag a silver medal in the 5,000m before winning his first Olympic gold medal after beating race favourite Jim Ryun in the 1,500m race.

On his way to this victory, he created a 20-metre gap between himself and rival Ryun, the largest winning margin ever registered in the history of the distance.

At the age of 32 years, Kip went ahead to add on to his Olympic medal cabinet, bagging gold in the 3,000m steeplechase final of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, and a silver in the 1,500m final.

He then retired from active sports in 1973.

As a way to give back to the society, Kip opened the Lewa Children's Home for orphans, the Kipkeino Primary School in 1999, and the Kip Keino Secondary School in 2009.

His leadership skills also came in handy after he was elected as president of the national Olympic of Kenya in 1999, a position he held to till 2017 when he made a decision not to vie for re-election.

Even in his retirement, Kip has continued to command respect in the sport, with World Athletics (then known as IAAF) naming him among other inductees in the Hall of Fame back in 2012.

He was also awarded the first Olympic Laurel, for outstanding service to the Olympic movement during the 2016 edition of the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Not forgetting the freedom of the city honour awarded to him by Bristol City Council, making him the first to receive this honour from Bristol since Sir Winston Churchill.

He was also awarded Doctorate Honours by Bristol University.

He was featured on the cover of the October, 1968, issue of Track and Field News, the first issue following the Olympics.

He later shared the cover of the September 1969 issue with compatriot Naftali Bon.

In recognition for his work with orphans, he shared Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsmen and Sportswomen of the Year" award in 1987 with seven others, characterised as "Athletes who Care."

- By Wanjiku Mwena for Kip Keino Classic (Martin Keino, Chris Mbaisi and Elias Makori contributed to this article)

Kipchoge Keino Bio

Name: Hezekiah Kipchoge Keino
Date of birth: 17 January, 1940
Place of birth: Kipsamo, Nandi County
Nationality: Kenyan
Sport: Track and field
Disciplines: 800m to 10,000m
Sports leadership positions held: President, National Olympic Committee of Kenya (1999-2017); Member, International Olympic Committee (2000- 2010); Honorary Member (since 2011); Member of the following IOC Commissions: Athletes' (1982-2000), Olympic Solidarity (1983-2001), Coordination for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing in 2008 (2002-2008); Culture and Olympic Education (2009); Chef de Mission, Team Kenya (Commonwealth Games 1994 in Victoria, Canada and Olympic Games in Atlanta, 1996).
Honours: Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Egerton University; Honorary Doctorate of Law, Bristol University, United Kingdom; Distinguished Service Medal (DSM); Order of the Burning Spear (OBS); Olympic Order (2011); The Olympic Laurel (2016).
Coaching: Kenyan team at the Olympic Games in Montreal (1976) and Los Angeles (1984); Brisbane Commonwealth Games (1982); All Africa Games in Nairobi (1987); World Championships in Rome (1987).

Kipchoge Keino's honours

Olympic Games
3,000m Steeplechase: Gold: 8:23.64: 04 Sep, 1972
1,500m: 3:34.91: Gold: 20 Oct, 1968
1,500m: 3:36.81:Silver: 10 Sep, 1972
5,000m: 14.05.16: Silver: 17 Oct, 1968
5,000m: 13.50.4: Fifth Place: 18 Oct, 1964
World Records
3,000m: (7:39.1) August, 1965
5,000m: (13:24.5) September. 1967

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