Forgotten hero who opened Olympics door for Kipchoge Keino

Wilson Kipkurgut won Kenya's first Olympic medal before Kipchoge Keino tool the world by storm.

As Peter Kosgei brushed past the tape to win the 12th Standard Chartered Nairobi International Marathon yesterday, a man over three times his age was coming to terms with the reality that in his sunset years, his country is yet to fully appreciate his heroic efforts. Wilson Kiprugut arap Chumo 75, is the shujaa (hero) that time forgot, living up to the adage that no one remembers who came second or third in a race.

And this is despite the fact that his feat at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964 opened the door for Kenyan athletes including the legendary Kipchoge Keino, to put Kenya on the map of medal-grabbing long distance running.

After coming away empty-handed from the Olympics in Melbourne Australia in 1956 and Rome in 1960, Kenya won her first medal on October 16, 1964 in the Tokyo games, a bronze in the 800m courtesy of Kiprugut.

On the Golden Jubilee of this historic win and 85 Olympic medals later, The Standard caught up with Chumo at his home in Kipchebor village, Kericho County. His story is in some measure a sad indictment of a nation and officialdom that completely neglects those who lay the foundation for future generations.

Born in 1938 to Chumo Cheptelmet and Martha, Kiprugut attended Kapteswoa Intermediate Schools in the present-day Sitotwet sub-county. A young Chumo had to walk nine miles (14.5km) to school.

Photographic memory

"If you wanted some form of education back then, with schools few and far between, you either covered the daily distance or stayed home and looked after your father's herds. And of course you were never going to walk nine miles, so running it was," he says.

Interviewing this living legend was a walk in the park for this writer. Using his photographic memory, Chumo narrated past events in perfect chronology that made the writer feel he was there. This father of nine (one deceased) could even recall the specific dates.

A member of Kenya's contingent to the 1962 seventh British and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Western Australia, Chumo's budding talent had seen him recruited into the Kenya Army, then known as the Kings African Rifles, in 1959.

In Perth, Kenya won five medals, with the two most memorable one's being at the 110 and 220 yards (today's 100m and 200m) gold double by Seraphino Antao from Mombasa, a town not well known for athletics.

"After Antao's double gold sprint from Perth and with hurdler Kimaru Songok in super form, we were sure of glad tidings in Rome. Sadly for the team, both Antao and Songok fell sick while in Tokyo," says Kiprugut.

"I broke the existing Olympic record with a 1:46.01 run in the semis and was very confident of a possible gold in the final. This was never to be because in that final on October 16, 1964, I lined up against the world's finest middle distance runner of the day, New Zealand's Peter Snell," he adds.

Kiprugut gave it his all "shifting gears several times" but Snell remained a gear higher.

"He broke my short-lived Olympic record and such was his speed that whereas I too broke my 1:46.01, the clock stopped for Snell at 1:45.1, Canada's Bill Crother's at 1:45.6 and my own 1:45.9," he recalls.

Snell, three years younger than Chumo and now living in the US, retired from active athletics after a brief but blistering career.

Shoulder high

He held five world records, won three Olympic titles and is the only man to have won the 800m and 1,500m in the same Olympics. That was in Tokyo, where he was not only the defending 800m champion from four years earlier in Rome, but also the existing world record holder.

With a historic Olympic medal, Kiprugut got a hero's welcome at Nairobi's Embakasi airport.

"My feet never touched the ground for I was carried shoulder-high by members of the Kenya Hockey team from the plane into the airport lounge and later into our team bus," he says wearing a broad smile.

Kiprugut was Kenya's team captain at the inaugural All Africa Games in Congo Brazzaville in 1965.

"I received the country's flag from President Jomo Kenyatta at Gatundu and I recall him telling me, 'Watoto wetu nendeni salama na mlete sifa yetu' (Our children, go in peace and make us proud)," he says.

Back then, their daily allowance was a mere Sh7 "but mercifully this was later increased to Sh20".

"After Brazaville, Kipchoge Keino and I represented Kenya at the world games in Helsinki, Finland. In Brazzaville where I fell ill, I won a team relay silver and my first 800m gold, maybe because Snell was not there," he says, laughing.

"After Helsinki my next international competition was the 8th Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica in 1966. I took silver in the 800 yards (the precursor to today's 800metres)," he adds.

Kenya's immense athletic prowess was growing and as a result, athletes took the world by storm in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. By the time the Olympics ended on October 27, Kenya had won nine medals in total, with all but one from the track.

The late Naftali Temu became Kenya's first ever Olympic champion by winning the 10,000m on October 13, 1968 clocking 29;27.4.

Amos Biwott then established himself as the father of Kenya's marvellous steeplechase tradition, winning Kenya's first gold in 8:51.02 four years after Kiprugut's historic bronze in Tokyo in 1964.

In 1968 on Mashujaa Day (then Kenyatta Day), Kenya produced another track shujaa. Kipchoge Keino became the country's third Olympic champion after scooping gold in the 1,500m race and setting a new Olympic record of 3:34.91.

On October 15 in the same year, Kiprugut was milliseconds away to Olympic glory and could already smell victory but had to settle for silver in the 800m clocking 1:44.5 behind Australia's Ralph Doubell (1:44.3). USA's Tom Farrell took bronze in 1:45.4.

Retired honourably

However, Kiprugut became the first Kenyan to win two Olympic medals. Two days later, Kipchoge Keino joined Chumo in that category.

Keino and Naftali Temu, who were late entrants for the 5000m race, chased each other home for silver and bronze respectively. Keino clocked 14:05.2, while Temu's managed 14:06.4.

In 1972, then 34 years old, Kiprugut attended the Munich Olympic not as an athlete but as an honoured Olympian. Upon returning home, he continued to serve in the Kahawa Garrisons Transport Battalion from where he retired honourably in 1974, after 15 years (1959-1974) of unblemished service, as a Warrant Officer Class II.

He then joined British multinational Unilever, putting in 22 years of uninterrupted service, from 1975 till retirement in 1997.

He worked as a field administrator in the Kericho Tea Plantations and upon retirement he was assistant Manager.

A Church elder and born-again Christian, Kiprugut has been married to Ruth since September 19, 1961 and their eight living children are Sarah, Samuel, Emily, Anthony, Eric, Beatrice, Josephine and Gideon.

"None of my children took after me on the track preferring hockey, volleyball and basketball instead," he says.

But Kiprugut is not jealous of Kipchoge Keino's success.

"Kip remains Kenya's most celebrated athlete of the past 50 years. Unlike me and indeed many others from back then, Kip competed in more than one discipline. He had the speed for the one mile (1,500m), the endurance for the three miles (5,000m) and the toughness of the steeplechase," says Kiprugut.

Kiprugut was inducted into the Sports Journalist of the Year Awards (SOYA) Hall of Fame in 2010 at a function presided over by then Kenya Vice-President Moody Awori and was given Sh75,000.

His gracious wife Ruth suffers from an orthopedic condition that has left her on crutches and was hospitalised last year in Eldoret.

Her medical bills to date are over Sh400,000 ($5,000) and she still requires specialised attention and further surgery.

Last word

"I have no regrets other than a motorbike accident at work in 1987 that required surgery to my right knee. I am by God's grace in very good health. I met Jomo Kenyatta and would not mind meeting President Uhuru Kenyatta. If I did, I would make just two requests of him and mark you none of them would be for money!"

One would be to facilitate a return visit to Tokyo's Olympic Stadium. "The other is only for the President's ear," he jokes.