Sometimes you have to fight your body to win, sometimes you have to fight others.
Over the last 60 years, Kenyan athletes have conquered, and then absolutely dominated most mid-to-long-distance races globally. No one truly knows why a single community in the Rift Valley produces 90 percent of Kenya’s runners, but its been blamed on everything from altitude to a “supergene.” But “The Kenyans are drinking your beer” has become a familiar poster in races where most people finish when Kenyan runners are already on their flight home.
With such a rich history, there’s bound to be unbelievable stories from the tracks, and from Kenya’s checkered history at the Olympics. Here’s a few of them.
- Nyandika and the Late Race
One of Kenya’s first Olympiads, Nyandika Maiyoro, starts off this list for something he did three years before he represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics.
Nyandika had dropped out of school to run, and so with it had missed the chance to learn English. So when he turned up at the Indian Ocean Games in Madagascar in 1953, he only understood Kiswahili and Kisii. That meant he needed his handler, a colonial administrator, to translate instructions for him.
But a few minutes before the race was called, the handler had to dash off for a bathroom break. He came back to find the race had started, but he couldn’t see Nyandika among the runners. Nyandika was a strong runner, most comfortable in the lead. But he simply wasn’t there. So the handler got frantic and started calling out Nyandika’s name. When he did find him he screamt: “Nyandika, mbona haukimbii? Hizi ndizo mbio zako!”
Nyandika, realizing what had just happened, ran to the start line and started off. Here is the crazy part; everyone else had already done the first turn. Nyandika was starting 100 meters behind his opponents. Anyone else would have considered the race already lost, but Nyandika wasn’t just anyone. He simply sped off after the pack, caught up and won. No, you didn’t read that wrong. A man who started a race almost half a minute after everyone else, and with 100 meters to catch up, caught up and left everyone behind. If that’s not badass, I am not sure what is.
Other than this absolute badassery, Nyandika holds the record as the first Kenyan to compete in an Olympic final when he qualified for the 5,000m final in Melbourne in 1956. He was also the captain of the Kenyan team.
- Kenya’s Gold Rush Begun in Sprints
You might not know it now by looking at Kenya’s dominance in mid and long-distance races but the country’s gold rush in athletics begun in sprints. And with a Coasterian no less. In the image above, the Kenyan is the tall guy in middle.
At the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, Kenya had a secret weapon. A tall, lithe, and incredibly fast Goan from Mombasa called Seraphino Antao had had simply no competition in the country. Neither did he have any in the Empire because he won two gold medals, in 100 and 220 yards.
The 100 yard-dash (91.44 meters) and the 220-yard-dash (218.723 meters) were sprint races that were part of the Olympics’ triathlon until 1904 and the Commonwealth Games until 1966. Antao clocked 9.5 seconds in the 100 yards and 21.1 seconds in the 220 yards. The current world best for 100-yards, now obsolete but still measured by enthusiasts, is Asafa Powell’s 9.07 seconds in 2010.
For the 220-yard dash, the most common conversion is to subtract 0.1 seconds to equate it to the 200m. Antao’s time would have been 21.0 seconds; Usain Bolt’s current world record is 19.19, and Antao was actually slower in the final than he had been in the semis.
Antao’s gold rush sparked off dominance in longer races though, and has never been repeated. The only other time Kenya has had remarkable success in sprints is when the 4*400 team won silver and gold in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics respectively.
- Henry Rono and the Money Amnesia
One of the many reasons you’ve never heard of Henry Rono is that Kenya boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. But Rono was still successful in track and road races, and had an endorsement deal with Nike. He was on an unstoppable superhuman spree, winning races across distances. In the span of 81 days in 1978 alone, Rono smashed four world records in 10kms, 5kms, 3kms steeplechase and 3kms.
Three years later, in 1981, he broke his own world record in the 5kms while 13kgs heavier than he had been at his prime. That year alone, Rono made a total of $150, 000. He had had it stipulated in his Nike contract that he would be paid his annual salary at a go, with five different cheques. That wasn’t exactly the problem though. The problem was that Rono had no experience managing money, and it didn’t just start with budgeting. He would also forget the name of the banks where he had opened accounts, but he could recognise some by location.
Part of the reason is that he had a serious drinking problem. Although he managed to still run after a night out, it got serious to the point of him turning up for races still slightly drunk and dehydrated.
The drinking part of this story might sound familiar because it echoes the years before Samuel Wanjiru’s tragic fall. But Henry Rono was lucky. He was arrested in the 1980s in a few mistaken cases of fraud, then he ran away from four rehab centers in two months. He eventually cleaned up and is now a high school athletics coach in New Mexico.
- Hyvon Ngetich Refuses to Quit
Hyvon Ngetich is simply so badass that she has no memory of what she did. The reason she’s on this list is because on February 15, 2015, at the Austin Marathon, she refused to quit.
Leading the pack for most of the race and all but assured of a win, her body gave up when she had only fifty meters to go. Weaker people would have quit right there, and accepted the wheelchair the race medics rushed to her side. By Hyvon was having none of it.
She refused to quit and crawled the rest of the way until she crossed the finish line. Here’s how absolutely crazy this is, she still placed third! In the time it had taken her to crawl the last fifty meters, only two people, one of them a fellow Kenyan, had managed to pass her. How badass is that? Your blood sugar decides to conk out while you can see the line, and you still beat all but two other people.
Then when she was asked why she had chosen to crawl she said “I don’t remember all that crawling or whatever even the collapsing I don’t remember.” Then she added “Running, always you have to keep going, going.”
The race organisers doubled her prize money saying she “ran the bravest race and crawled the bravest crawl” they had ever seen. They should have just said “that had ever happened in recorded history.” Hyvon Ngetich might have won third place on the track that day, but she won first place for absolute badassery.
3. Machuka Punches Gerbesallasie
Running can be a frustrating sport. Unlike most other sports where the score is just numbers, say like 4-2 in football, in running you see the opposition actually run past you and a likely fortune. At elite levels, you are racing against the clock, the competition, and against yourself. It can be frustrating, and sometimes, human beings don’t do frustration well.
It might be hard to believe now but there was a time when the Kenyan athlete the Ethiopian king of the track Haile Gerbresellasie was most afraid of was a Kenyan called Josephat Machuka. They were almost evenly matched in the 10,000 meters, and would often fight it out at the last lap.
At the World Junior Championships in 1992, Machuka was fighting for first place with Gebreselassie when he saw his lead melting infront of him, with just meters to the finish line. When he realized he had lost to his main opponent, he took the fight a notch up (which is an understatement really). He punched him in the back of the head!
The punch, though legendary, was not sportsmanlike and Machuka was disqualified from the race. But he knew that already. Imagine how frustrated you need to be to not even want to settle for second place. Machuka went on to have what qualifies as a remarkable career, but he is often remembered for that single punch. You can see the moment at 0.09 seconds on the video when he makes the decision to punch Gebreselassie. He simply has no more fucks left to give.
Gebreselassie himself no stranger to playing dirty against the competition. At the 10,000m race At the World Championship Final in 1993, with four laps to go, he started clipping Moses Tanui’s feet. Tanui told him to stop but he continued, ripping a hole through Tanui’s left shoe. You can see the moment it happens in 3:11 in the video below, and Tanui throws up his hands in anger. He discards the shoe and runs the final lap with one bare foot, finishing second to Gebreselassie. Unlike Machuka though, he kept his cool and only shook his remaining shoe at Gebreselassie.
- Kip Keino and the Unwilling Gall Bladder
The legend of the Kenyan track, Kipchoge Keino, doesn’t just deserve that title because of his wins but how he won them. By completely ignoring all the alarms his body was sending him.
When he arrived at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, he started suffering abdominal pains. He still ran in the heats because they weren’t severe, or at least he convincingly pretended they weren’t. With only three laps in the 10,000m final to go though, and well on his way to winning Kenya’s first Olympics gold, his body gave in. He collapsed and fell outside the track, disqualifying himself in the process. But he still stood up and finished the race which was won by his teammate, Naftali Temu.
Despite this close call, and with total disregard for his body, he entered the 5,000m final and won silver with only a 0.2 second margin. His body had completely given up on trying to warn him, at this point. Even as he ran the 1,500m semi-final and qualified.
He told his doctor he wouldn’t run the final. He had been diagnosed with gallstones, and any more stress could kill him. Kip Keino understood those words, but Kip Keino hadn’t come to Mexico City to quit because of a single uncooperative organ.
A few hours to the race, he changed his mind and caught a bus to the stadium. The bus got stuck in traffic and Kip hopped out and ran the rest of the way. He should have been at a disadvantage: his main challenger, Jim Ryun, had already beaten him many times before. What’s more, Ryun was fresh. Kip got to the starting line having already run 3.21 kilometers to the stadium, and more than eight races in the previous week and a half with a body that was close to just switching itself off.
But Kip Keino and his body had come to an impasse at this point. They didn’t care for each other at all.
Keino had his fellow countryman Ben Jipcho set out early as a rabbit (pacemaker). They pulled through the first 400 meters in 56 seconds, an Olympics finishing pace for a starting line. Ryun had a disastrous kick at the end, and Kip knew this. He needed to set a lead long enough to neutralize it. Ryun, on the other hand, expected Kip to keel over as he had done in the 10k.
You can see the moment Ryun realized he had been outmatched. When he kicks up his speed but the man with the uncooperative gallstones is still ahead. In fact, the 20 meters between them when Keino crossed the line is the widest margin in the history of the sport, to this day.
- The Tragedy of Robert Wangila Napunyi
This is the only tragic story on this list.
Robert Wangila was only 20 years old when he won Kenya’s first and only, to this day, non-track Olympic gold medal in 1988. With the Olympics gold, he turned to professional boxing in the United States, with the nickname Kidd. The welterweight boxer was quiet in life but loud with his fists.
He should have been fine but something changed in the years after the 1988 Olympics. As an amateur, 165 of 175-5 record were knockouts. At the Olympics, he was a heavy hitter. But as a pro, Wangila was knocked out more than four times. He thought about retiring as early as 1990 but didn’t, a decision that ended up costing his life.
In 1994, he faced an opponent called David Gonzales at the Aladdin Hotel in Nevada. Gonzales was a hard pounder too, focusing on the arms, chest, and head. When the fight was awarded to Gonzales, Wangila looked fine enough to lodge his protest. But 45 minutes after the match, he collapsed and fell into a coma. He died 2 days later.
What’s even crazier about this story is that Wangila was not even the first man to die by Gonzales’ hands. A month before Wangila won the Olympics gold in 1988, a boxer called Rico Valquez had also collapsed after an eight round fight against Gonzales and, then died two days later. He, like Wangila, had gone into a coma after the match, although he first collapsed in the ring. Gonzales was only 18 years old at the time.
Oh, to make it even crazier than it already is. Wangila and Valquez were actually the second and third people Gonzales killed. When he was 16, he killed a friend when he accidentally fired a handgun while sitting at the backseat of a car. The bullet blew off his friend’s head, killing him on the spot. But it was accidental so he was never charged.
To Wangila’s friends though, the boxer should have quit long before the Gonzales fight. Even at 26, he was no longer in form, and some of them even think he died because of injuries he sustained before his last fight. One of his promoters said “but the guy who killed Robert Wangila is Robert Wangila.” He could never relive his one, golden, TKO-strewn flash that gave him an Olympics record that remains untouched to this day.
P.S: The featured image shows Nixon Chepseba at the 1500m round 1 heats in London 2012. The two people lying on the ground are Diego Ruiz (Spain) and Carsten Schlangen (Germany). The story behind it isn’t as badass as it looks: Chepseba tripped, sending Diego and Carsten scrambling, and then falling, to avoid him. Chepseba finished 9th but was awarded a semi-final place on appeal. He was second-last in the final, just ahead of Asbel Kiprop.
But it is an absolutely badass image anyway.
One story is good,
till Another is told.
Last modified: October 7, 2021