BY PETER NJENGA
Two months before the 1992 Summer Olympics, a forlorn black figure deep in the New Mexico desert, United States, graced the cover of TIME magazine. His name: Ibrahim Hussein Kipkemboi from Kapsabet, the first Kenyan non-political figure to be featured in the magazine.
It was a period of political turmoil and uncertainty in Kenya. The first multi-party general elections were six months away. The opposition was fragmented and the only positive thing uniting Kenyans were the forthcoming Barcelona Olympic Games. Expectations were high after the success of Seoul four years earlier.
For Hussein to appear on the cover of TIME was not a coincidence. It was a mark of approval by the Americans. Five years earlier, in 1987, Hussein had become the first black man to win the New York Marathon.
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Nobody expected him to win, including a leading American TV channel that concentrated on the leading white pack, thereby missing Hussein crossing the finishing line. This did not escape the predominantly black population who cried racism against a “brother nigger”.
In a make-good effort, the station carried post-race interviews, which only helped Hussein’s visibility as a black messiah and generally an international sporting hero.
In 1988, he won his first of three Boston Marathon races, effectively opening the floodgate for Kenyans’ domination of the marathon to this day.
And in faraway Japan, Douglas Wakiihuri was also opening even more doors in the Far East, reaching dizzying heights. In a sense, Hussein went to the US and conquered but returned home to nurture talent and exhibit his exemplary managerial skills, which he honed at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
Ibrahim Hussein is among many athletes on the hall of fame in New Mexico.
Others who conqured the American dream are Paul Ereng, gold medallist in the 800m at the Olympics, now resident in London; Peter Rono, another Olympics 800m gold medallist, now resident in the US; Julius Kariuki, Olympics gold medallist in the 3000m steeplechase, now a farmer in Moi’s Bridge, and Mike Kosgei, former national head coach who is now a farmer and coach in Kapsabet
Hussein returned home to set up a business. He led by example, showing young athletes how to invest in educational facilities, real estate and education. He is now the regional director of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Regional Development Centre for 23 English-speaking African countries based at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani.
For Ibrahim, education was what took him to the US through links developed by the Catholic lay preachers at St Patrick’s High School, Iten, 30km north of Eldoret. The Americans wanted a sporting link with Kenya after the great Airlift of the ‘60s which took many young Kenyans to the US, including President Barrack Obama’s father.
The US Embassy also had a strong cultural attaché who produced a sporting and cultural programme, which helped many young Kenyans head for the US and invited international greats like Mohammad Ali to visit Nairobi.
But when it comes to matters education, none of the “American airlift” athletes of the ‘70s through to the ‘90s’ has offered so much to young Kenyans from maginalised areas than Mike Boit.
Like Hussein, Boit was born in Nandi and chose St Patrick’s Iten, a school known for its academic and co-curricular activities excellence. He later joined Kenyatta College (now Kenyatta University) and graduated with a diploma in physical education. He earned a scholarship for a bachelor’s degree at Eastern New Mexico.
His thirst for education was matched by his desire to conquer the international athletics tracks, winning the 800m bronze in the Munich Olympics of 1972, and proceeding to become the world number one for four years. But the political boycotts by African countries protesting against apartheid in South Africa denied Boit a possible 1976 Olympic gold.
Before returning home to take a job as a physical education tutor at Kenyatta University in the late ‘80s, Boit got his masters degree from Stanford University in 1978, and his Ph.D from the University of Oregon.
He teamed up with journalist, coach and educationist John Manners, who was once a Peace Corps member in Kericho in 2003, to set up an educational trust to give poor but sports gifted Kenyans a chance to join Ivy League colleges in the US.
The trust – Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project – has successfully placed 103 students in elite colleges including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst and Carlton among others. One of Kenya’s most charismatic athletes of all time, Paul Ereng, was actually head hunted by a top United States college – University of Texas at El Paso – to return there after a decade in Kenya to coach future champions.
Sample this. In 1988, Paul Ereng, as a student at Virginia State University, won the 800m gold medal only one year after leaving Starehe Boys Centre in Nairobi.
In August 8, 2003, Ereng returned to the US to become the first Kenyan to take a collegiate coaching job in the US where he was named UTEP’s cross-country and distance coach. He quickly adapted and started producing startling results to become Track and Field Associate Head Coach on April 14, 2010.
His credentials: Ereng has trained a National Collegiate Athletics Association champion, 27 NCAA All-Americans, 73 conference champions and four NCAA regional champions. He has had five athletes named conference Athlete of the Year and six gain conference Freshman of the Year honours. He has also had two runners earn conference Newcomer of the Year honours and two C-USA Outstanding Seniors.
Additionally, Ereng has had 26 individuals qualify for the NCAA track and field championships and 15 individuals qualify for the NCAA cross-country championships. In the 2006 season, Ereng was named the national Assistant Coach of the Year for distance by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
Ereng has led the Miners to back-to-back Conference USA titles in cross-country and has been on staff for four conference track and field titles.
Ereng coached Janeth Jepkosgei, the 2007 800m world champion and moulded current Olympic 3,000m steeplechase champion Eziekiel Kemboi. He is certified by the IAAF with a level two standing for coaching middle and long distance events.
As an athlete, Ereng was a three-time NCAA champion, a four-time NCAA All-American, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist in Seoul, twice the World Indoor Champion and a former world record holder.
As a freshman at the University of Virginia, Ereng won the 1988 NCAA Outdoor 800 title. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies with a minor in sociology in 1993, and received a master’s degree in education administration from UTEP in 2010.
At the 1989 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungry, he established the world record in 1:44.84. A few days later he claimed his second NCAA indoor title in the 800m and then the NCAA outdoor crown in the spring.
Ereng lost only one 800m race during the 1989 outdoor season in 15 tries. He also had the world’s fastest time of 1:43.16 during the season.
The list of the American dream continues. At Washington State University, Henry Rono, Patrick Muturi and Mike Kosgei ruled in the ‘70s and ‘90s. In the 1990s, naturalised Barnard Lagat, winner of the 1500m gold for US, reigned.
Another perfect example of those who lived the American and Kenyan dreams is Barnaba Korir. He is the Nike Inc representative in Kenya and a top manager with a sports, arts and entertainment Brussels-based firm, Golazo Sport. He is former senior accountant at Kenyatta University, top athletes manager, chairman of Athletics Kenya Nairobi County and sits on the Athletics Kenya Executive Committee.
Julius Kariuki, winner of the 3000m steeplechase gold in 1988 Seoul Olympics, is a prominent farmer and businessman in Moi’s Bridge near Kitale. Patrick Sang, a silver medallist in the same event four years later, is an athletics manager, businessman and sports administrator in Eldoret.
Martin Keino, son of legendary Kenyan athlete, Kipchoge Keino, is a sports marketer.