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It was not always a walk in the park as Kip Keino lifted Kenya to world athletics glory

ATHLETICS By World Athletics | December 2nd 2021 | 5 min read

September 4, 1972: Kipchoge Keino of Kenya raises his arms in triumph as he wins the final of the Olympic games 3,000-meter steeplechase event ahead of Benjamin Jipcho (574), another Kenyan, at the Munich Olympic Stadium, Germany. [AP Photo, File]

It was a year of world record-wrecking carnage. Every global men’s mark from 1000m up to 30,000m was savaged in the track and field frenzy that was 1965.

The rampant Ron Clarke was the chief culprit, claiming 11 of the 23 ‘victims’, all the way from two miles to one hour. The towering Australian had the first word, clocking 13:34.8 in the Tasmanian state capital, Hobart, on January 16. The final say, however, belonged to his great rival Kip Keino.

Wednesday marked the 56th anniversary of Keino’s 5000m world record run in Auckland.

The anniversary coincides with the revered father of Kenyan distance running making a generous donation to World Athletics Heritage Collection and the Museum of World Athletics (MOWA) of the silver trophy he collected for one of the sizzling performances with which he set European tracks alight in the northern hemisphere summer of 1965.

Running the Morley Mile at the White City Stadium in London on August 30, 1965, Keino became the first African to run a sub-four-minute mile, wowing the packed English crowd with a 3:54.2 clocking that made the middle distance novice the third-fastest man of all time: behind Frenchman Michel Jazy’s two month old world record of 3:53.6 and New Zealander Peter Snell’s former global mark of 3:54.1. “I didn’t know I could run anything like as fast as that at a shorter distance,” he said.

He returned to London the following year, won the race again and was given the trophy in perpetuity.

Three days before his 1965 victory, Keino had made the first of his two marks on the world record books, smashing East German Siegfried Hermann’s 3000m time by six seconds with 7:39.6 in the Swedish coastal town of Helsingborg.

Keino beat Clarke in two out of three races on the European circuit, but by the time he travelled to New Zealand in November, the Australian had made two further improvements to the 5000m world record, running 13:33.6 in Auckland in February and then 13:25.8 in Compton, California, in June.

Running at the Western Springs Stadium in Auckland 56 years ago, Keino registered mile splits of 4:16.0, 4:17.8 to reach two miles in 8.33.8. Though he tired significantly, with a 4:24.5 third mile, he closed with a final lap of 63.5 to break Clarke’s record with a time of 13:24.2. Kiwi William Baillie was second in 14:01.2, with Yugoslav Franc Cervan third 14.02.0.

The clamour for a head-to-head was satisfied when Keino met Clarke over 5000m in Melbourne a month later.

There was no world record this time but Keino, sporting the lucky orange baseball cap he bought as a souvenir from the Tokyo Olympics, was a decisive winner, prevailing by 40m.

Clarke reclaimed the world record decisively eight months later. The 13:16.6 he recorded in Stockholm in July 1966 stood for six years, until Lasse Viren chipped 0.2 from it as a homecoming celebration in Helsinki in September 1972, on the back of his first Olympic 5000m-10,000m double in Munich.

Kipchoge Keino. [Internet]

As for Keino, he proceeded to become a double Olympic champion himself – four years and two disciplines apart.

The ‘flying Kenyan policeman’ with the long, loping stride had already established himself as a formidable force and a hugely popular performer on the international circuit before his astonishing heroics at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

Fifth in the 5000m at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, where he failed to reach the 1500m final, and winner of the mile and three miles at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, Keino chose to take on the daunting challenge of the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m in the punishing thin air of Mexico City.

The fact that he had to run the last mile to get to the stadium in time for the 1968 Olympic 1500m final, after his bus got stuck in traffic, was the least of the psychological (or, indeed, physical) obstacles he had to overcome before executing his most famous victory.

A week earlier, Keino had collapsed two laps from the end of the 10,000m final, suffering from acute stomach pains which proved to be the result of a severe gall bladder infection. He collapsed on the infield but, when the stretcher-bearers arrived, he insisted on picking himself up and finishing, even though he had been disqualified. His compatriot Neftali Temu went on to win, claiming Kenya’s first Olympic gold medal.

Four days later, despite being unable to digest solid food, Keino took the silver medal in the 5000m behind Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, with Temu in third.

As the long-time trailblazing standard-bearer for Kenyan track and field, Keino felt it his duty to bring home 1500m gold. He was still suffering stomach pains on the morning of the final three days later. The West German team doctor warned he would be risking his life if he competed and told him to stay in bed and rest.

When the doctor left, however, Keino jumped out of bed, got dressed and caught the bus to the stadium. “I must run for my country,” he insisted.

Despite his physical frailty, and the race to get to the stadium, Keino proceeded to produce one of the great middle-distance runs of all time.

Blitzing clear of the pack after his Kenyan teammate Ben Jipcho’s blistering 56-second opening lap, Keino finished 20 metres clear of Jim Ryun, the US favourite who held the world records for 800m, 1500m and the mile, and who had been unbeaten at 1500m and the mile for three years. Keino knew the only way to neutralise Ryun’s deadly finish was to amass an unassailable lead. He won in 3.34.9, an Olympic record, with Ryun a distant runner-up in 3.37.8.

Asked how he summoned such a stunning performance, Keino replied: “I was thinking to myself, ‘This is the race of my life. If I die here, I die here’.”

Such fearlessness came naturally to the son of a Nandi herdsman who escaped death at the claws of a leopard at the age of 12. The young Keino came across the wild cat preying on a goat and had to flee and hide up a tree to escape.

At the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Keino defied death threats to run in the 5000m final. “A man only dies once,” he told the Kenyan officials.

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