Mile High: How Kip Keino's 1500m gold changed running

Adharanand Finn
·13-min read
Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives
Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives

From Runner's World

‘THE DOCTOR CAME TO SEE ME IN THE MORNING AND HE SAID, “PLEASE DON’T RUN. IF YOU RUN, YOU WILL DIE.”’

The man speaking is in his late 70s, standing in the sports shop he owns on a bustling street in central Eldoret, high up in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. It’s not a fancy place with all the latest Nike and Adidas gear, but a simple shop, with trophies on a shelf on the back wall and one large cabinet that doubles up as the shop counter. Inside the cabinet, folded in piles, are non-branded school rugby tops and athletics vests.

The man wears a long, yellow shirt and talks so softly it’s hard to hear him over the noise of the street outside. But he smiles as he recounts the story behind one of the greatest moments in athletics history. ‘I was in serious pain,’ he says. That’s why I collapsed in the 10,000m.’

The shop owner, Kipchoge Keino, more commonly known simply as Kip Keino, had been leading in the 10,000m final at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, when, with a few laps to go, he felt a tremendous pain in his side and he collapsed on the infield. When the stretcher-bearers came to get him, however, he insisted on getting up and finishing his final few laps. His compatriot Naftali Temu went on to win the race, claiming Kenya’s first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Four days later, Keino was back on the track in the 5000m final and, despite a recurrence of his abdominal pain, he managed to stay the course and win silver, with Temu running strongly again to claim bronze. The Kenyan charge was beginning, but what happened next changed everything.

Keino wasn’t satisfied with his silver medal. He felt it was his duty, as one of Kenya’s best runners, to bring home gold. Three days after the 5000m, on the morning of the 1500m final, for which he had also qualified, Keino was still suffering stomach pains. He was visited in bed by a doctor, who told him he had a serious problem with his gall bladder and strongly advised him not to run. ‘But I told him,’ Keino recalls, ‘‘I’m running the 1500m. It’s a very short event, so let me run.’’’

Keino was told to stay in bed and to sleep, but when the doctor left, he got dressed and went to catch a bus to the stadium. However, on the way there, the bus got stuck in traffic. ‘I realised I was late,’ says Keino. ‘So I jumped out of the bus and I ran all the way, something like two kilometres, to the stadium.’

When he got inside the stadium, they were just calling the runners for the 1500m final.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

THREE YEARS EARLIER, Keino had broken the world records in both the 3000m and 5000m, but the overwhelming favourite for the 1500m title in Mexico was the golden boy of US track and field, Jim Ryun. Unbeaten for over three years, and with 47 consecutive victories in the 1500m and mile, Ryun had also recently broken the 1500m and mile world records.

Although followers of the sport knew Keino was a threat, especially those who had seen him win double gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games (in the mile and three-mile events), to most people Ryun was a shoo-in for gold.

One of those who did know about Keino was David Moorcroft, a future British Olympian and future world record holder in the 5000m. ‘I remember being taken to White City [in London] for a big track meet by our club’s team manager in 1967,’ he says. ‘I was just 14 at the time, and I remember Kip Keino was running in the Emsley Carr Mile. Jim Ryun won, but Kip ran him close. It was a packed house and the atmosphere was amazing. But what stands out about that race in my memory was how easy Kip looked.’

But to the wider public at the time, runners from east Africa were not considered serious contenders for middle-distance and distance medals. Although the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila had won the marathon in 1960 (famously running barefoot) and 1964, Kenya had only ever won one bronze medal, in the 800m in Tokyo, in 1964. Black runners may have been winning the sprints for years, but there was a belief at the time that distance running was more cerebral and so better suited to the supposedly more ‘sophisticated’ white runners from Europe and America.

In Mexico in 1968, the folly of such thinking was being shown up in race after race – Kenyan runners won eight medals in the Games, including three golds – but none had more impact on the sport than the 1500m final.

Derek Thompson, who was then a 10-year-old African American living in the projects in Harlem, New York, recalls watching the race on a black and white television with a fuzzy reception. ‘You have to remember this was 1968, the civil rights movement was happening in America. But we didn’t have any [black] distance runners – or we didn’t see them. It was incredible to see Kip Keino winning.’

‘Kip had no formalised training, no sophisticated coaching. He just grew up running to school and back, while Ryun was the darling of the US team – he wasn’t supposed to get beaten by some guy from a village in Africa. It was like Mike Tyson losing to Buster Douglas – it just wasn’t going to happen.’

Thompson would take the memory of that day into adulthood and would eventually meet the man who inspired him so much.

STEPPING UP

Kip Keino was born in Kipsamo in the Nandi Hills in western Kenya. In his local language, the name ‘Kipchoge’ means ‘born near the grain storage shed’. When he was still very young, both his parents died and so he was brought up by his aunt.

Like many children in rural Kenya, when he started primary school he had to run to get there. ‘I ran in my bare feet four miles to school in the morning,’ he once said. ‘Then I ran home for lunch, again for afternoon school and back at the end of the day. I did this every day until I left school.’

When he wasn’t running to school and back, Keino was often sent out to herd the family’s goats, which could involve trotting around after them for hours at a time. All of this physical activity, done in bare feet and at high altitude, laid the foundations for a career as a distance runner.

But in the early 1960s, athletics was still purely an amateur sport, so getting started for a poor Kenyan boy wasn’t easy. After finishing school, Keino became a physical training instructor in the Kenyan police force, where his running ability was soon noticed, and he became part of the police track team. Interforces sport was – and still is – taken very seriously in Kenya, so he was given time off from his duties to train, especially after he started winning races.

His first big success was when he made the Kenyan team for the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Australia, where he came 11th in the three-mile race. He then qualified for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, where he finished fifth in the 5000m but failed to make the final of the 1500m.

Photo credit: Popperfoto
Photo credit: Popperfoto

Fully established now as an international runner, on 27 August 1965, Keino broke the 3000m world record by over six seconds in his first attempt at the distance. Later that year, he broke the 5000m world record, which had been held by the legendary Ron Clarke. So by the Olympics in 1968, Ryun at least knew the man from Kenya was a threat, even if the outside world was overlooking him.

Wary of the impact of the high altitude of Mexico City, where the heart and lungs have to work harder to deliver oxygen, Ryun calculated that a time of 3:39 should be enough to claim gold – well outside his own world record of 3:33. So when the young Kenyan Ben Jipcho set off from the gun at a ferocious pace, Ryun let him go.

Jipcho ran the first lap in a blistering 56 seconds, well inside world-record pace. With Keino sitting close behind in third place, BBC commentator, David Coleman noted, ‘The Kenyans are trying to make the altitude tell and run the finish out of Jim Ryun.’

This may well have been the plan, although Keino recalls that he just saw the pace was hard and decided to go. ‘I said, “go, go’,’’ he says, sweeping the air with his arm and smiling. As though it was that simple.

There’s little doubt that the altitude in Mexico played a part in Keino’s (and Kenya’s) success in 1968. With most of Kenya’s athletes coming from the high-altitude Rift Valley region, they were already adapted to the conditions in a way the Americans and Europeans weren’t. ‘This feels like Africa,’ Temu reportedly said of the conditions in Mexico City.

Moorcroft says that although people in the sport knew the altitude would certainly be a factor in the long-distance races, the effect it would have on the middle-distance races such as the 1500m was less certain. One thing that was sure, however, was that the faster the pace, the more of a role it would play, as the athletes went into oxygen debt quicker.

With two laps to go, Keino hit the front and pushed on, reaching the 800m mark in 1:55, making Coleman splutter into his microphone that the pace was ‘near suicidal’. Ryun, meanwhile, was sticking to his plan and sitting back off the leading group in about eighth place.

Everyone waited for Keino to wilt in the blazing afternoon sun, but his pace remained relentless, and by the time he got to the final 200m he was still well clear. Heromped home in a new Olympic record of3:34.91, claiming 1500m gold by almost three seconds in what is still the biggest winning margin in the event’s history. Ryun, chasing hard but more than 20 metres back in second, also ran inside the old Olympic record.

Coleman had little sympathy for the American’s efforts, declaring, ‘Ryun has completely misjudged this. The Kenyans have beaten him tactically out of sight.’

LASTING LEGACY

It may not have been the only – or even the first – Kenyan victory, but it was the one that resonated the most. Moorcroft remembers watching the race in awe as a 15-year-old. ‘Other African athletes won medals at that Olympics, but there was just something special about Kip, the way he controlled the race, that was so impressive. There was something wonderfully spontaneous about the way he ran. He didn’t have sophisticated training like Ryun, but he was smart. He out-thought Ryun. And he did it with a smile on his face.’

For Derek Thompson, it was Keino’s reaction to winning that impressed him as much as anything. ‘I remember how gracious he was in victory,’ he says. ‘After he won, he went over and hugged Ryun. I was so inspired. Here was someone who looked like me, running distance races and winning.'

So inspired was Thompson, in fact, that he went on to become track coach for the Ivy League Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and years later he took his family on a trip to Kenya in search of his hero. He ended up in the same sports shop in Eldoret. ‘When he met me, he didn’t know me from Adam,’ says Thompson, ‘but he was so gracious, and he invited me and my family to stay with him.’

By then, Keino was long retired from running, and had set up a school, a training camp for upcoming athletes and an orphanage – all of which he still runs today. ‘What he was doing with the orphanage really resonated with my wife,’ says Thompson. ‘‘We have to start a foundation,” she said. So we started the Kip Keino Foundation.’

‘Kip’s philosophy of caring about people, and the young, in particular, inspired me, and one of my major goals in life has become to help young people in any way that I can,’ says Thompson, who still dedicates much of his time to projects in Kenya. ‘Keino was like Mandela to me,’ he says.

But Keino’s biggest legacy was inspiring and instilling belief in a generation of runners closer to home. Today’s Kenyan dominance of distance running, alongside Ethiopia, can in large part be traced back to that afternoon in Mexico City, when a guy from a village in Africa shocked the world.

Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives
Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives

If you spend time in Kenya today and ask the runners who most inspired them to take up the sport, you will still hear the name Kip Keino repeated again and again. ‘Kip Keino is the father of Kenyan running,’ they will tell you.

Take Simon Biwott, for example. The winner of the 2000 Berlin Marathon (in 2:07:42) and marathon silver medallist at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, credits Keino with getting him interested in running. ‘When I was at primary school, we didn’t know much about athletics,’ says Biwott. ‘But we knew about Kip Keino. In our village the girls sang about Kip Keino, so we knew his name. We didn’t really know what it was, but we thought that this athletics must be a serious business.’

‘Kip Keino leaves behind not only a legacy in Kenyan running, but in Africa and the world of sports, says the Irish Patrician Brother Colm O’Connell, one of the most successful coaches in Kenya’s history, who has been living and coaching in Iten, in the Rift Valley, since 1976. ‘He put down a marker in middle distance running, an area which may have been considered the prerogative of the western world at the time. He played a massive role in putting the newly established independent nation of Kenya on the map.’

‘It was the start of the African dominance,’ says Moorcroft. ‘Sure, the altitude helped, but it was waiting to happen. Kip is the daddy of the African revolution.’ After Keino, things changed quickly. At the following Olympics, in Munich, 1972, Kenyans won a further six medals, with Keino back again to cement his status as a legend by winning silver in the 1500m and an unexpected gold in the 3000m steeplechase, an event he had barely ever run before. He entered the event only because the 5000m final clashed with his main event, the 1500m.

‘I had no experience [in steeplechase],’ he said afterwards. ‘I hadn’t practised how to jump, so most of the time I was stepping on each hurdle.’ All 23 of the other competitors in the final had better personal bests than him, as well as better hurdling technique, but he somehow crossed the line first in a new Olympic record. Anyone in Kenya who was not already singing about him certainly was now.

‘Lots of people are inspirational in their own country,’ says Moorcroft. ‘But Kip Keino was a global inspiration. And this is what defines greatness, someone who is an inspiration around the world

Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives
Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives

Adharanand Finn is the author of Running with the Kenyans

This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Runner's World

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