Looking Back on Kenya’s Olympics Greats
“To live among people who don’t think that running is ridiculous, no matter how hard their lives are, but who value running and the opportunity it brings, who revere it, almost. Even if you never become an Olympic champion, or even manage to race abroad, just being an athlete here seems to lift you above the chaos of daily life. It marks you out as one of the special people, who’ve chosen a path of dedication and commitment. You can see it in the runners’ eyes when they talk to you. Even the slowest of the runners talk about their training with an almost religious devotion. […] Running matters.” – A. Finn, Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.
3,000m Steeplechase: The Greatest Race of All
Long-distance running is becoming a fashionable prospect for athletes from all corners of the world – even in the United States of America. Not too long ago, the dominance of African nations, particularly Kenya, in competitive distance-running was the subject of much fascination. Kenya throws its hat in the ring of virtually all long-distance events, from the two-laps 800m up to the genteel 42 km marathon. The only track races still elusive to the Kenyans are the sprints, yet, the appraising work in the 400m affair, that waltz on an unhesitating pace, reflects the enthusiasm in athletics. If there’s a race that convincingly conjures images of Kenya’s emergence and dominance of long-distance running, it is the 3,000m steeplechase. You can almost hear the celebrations even before the race begins. Every time Kenya has turned up for the Olympics, it has won gold in the 3,000m steeplechase. An event that has honoured Kenya with endless praise as the ultimate performer in long-distance running. And the 7 lap race crossing 28 barriers and 7 water jumps is a brutal face-off, once described by the legendary Kipchoge Keino as “a race for animals”. The 3,000m steeplechase requires the finishing speed of a miler, stamina of a cross country runner and strength of the 400m hurdler. It was introduced to the Olympics in 1920 as a special event to popularize the games. The winner of that inaugural race was Percy Hodge from Great Britain. In spite of not reaching the podium until 1968, Kenya is now the most successful nation at the 3,000m steeplechase. It has won every men’s title since 1968, excepting 1976 and 1980 when Kenya boycotted. Hitherto, Finland had won four consecutive gold medals (1924, 28, 32, 36), Great Britain had won it twice (1920 and 1956), once to the United States (1952), and Belgium (1964).
11 Gold Medals in 3,000m Olympics Steeplechase
1. Amos Biwott, 1968, Mexico City
Amos Biwott would be the first to break the silence. The unlikely Kenyan novice steeplechaser had only run three previous races prior to Mexico Olympics. This was only his fourth steeplechase to run. Biwott probably had not trained as well as today’s athletes although he got the job done, albeit in a very exuberant style. His determination was unrelenting, literally sprinting in every hit like it was the finals. Biwott’s eccentric style of clearing the water jump was perhaps the most memorable. He will probably go down as the only steeplechase gold medalist to finish the race with dry feet. “He would hop off the water jump barrier, clear the whole pit, and land on his take off leg. Over the barriers, he would jump with his feet together.” Or again: Biwott cleared the hurdles like he feared they had spikes embedded and leaped the water hazard as if he thought crocodiles were swimming in it. However unorthodox, Amos Biwott had inspired a great legacy.
2. Kipchoge Keino, 1972, Munich
The growing popularity of 3,000m steeplechase at the Olympics Games helped enforce Kenya’s dominance in Munich. That may not have been entirely good news for Kenya, because using the most rudimentary training to win this rather tactical race required lots of determination and a knack to read the race, too. Kipchoge Keino, who had run in the Mexico Olympics four years earlier, came to the race with burning confidence and refined skills. Kipchoge had obliterated the field in 1,500m defeating the race favourite by 20m, won a silver in 5,000m and participated in the 10,000m. In many ways Keino came to this event better prepared and, rather more importantly, with a token of troth that winning gold was possible. Physically, he was at the top of his game and raring for gold. His strategy at the water jump was also very different and more conventional from Amos Biwott’s style; stepping on with his right foot, keeping low and actively pushing off with arms in opposition to his legs. Kipchoge ran a passably tactical race, reserving his energy for the final 1,000m push. At the post race interview, responding to the obvious question of the water jump, answered: “I had a lot of fun jumping the hurdles, like an animal. My style is not good”. With this win, the prospect of Kenya’s dominance in 3,000m steeplechase was now emerging.
3. Julius Korir, 1984, Los Angeles
When Kenya returned to the Olympics games following a 12 year hiatus – after the withdrawal of 25 African nations protesting at New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa – the Kenyan team was ready to pick up from where Kipchoge had left off in Mexico City. There were two Kenyans in the set of twelve runners starting the finals, both bent on buoying up the patrimony. Julius Korir would re-stage Keino’s epic run. Now 24 years old, Korir had won the Commonwealth Gold and feeling confident. The code of hanging back for most of the race was now being perfected, as both Kenyans trailed the lone New Zealand runner who led the race for five laps. Kariuki’s inexperience showed as he faded back in the sixth lap. With 200m to go, Korir not comfortable with the large crowd around him put the hammer down slotting in a 25m gap by the time he crossed the line.
4. Julius Kariuki, 1988, Seoul
Most 3,000m steeplechase gold medalists rarely win it on the first attempt. And for Kariuki who had been a newcomer at the summer games in Los Angeles, the constant injection of pace had gotten the best of him then. More confident and seeking redemption following the 1984 mislay, the medal was nigh. Aside from relying on mental strength, Kariuki played it cool, determined to run at his own pace, holding back at the beginning of the race and only setting off beyond the 2000-meter mark. Kariuki kept to the script, rarely running fast in the first lap of the finals, preferring to slip back and settle into the contest, getting a rhythm and then move up from behind. He came to the finals as the fastest Kenyan with the hope of carrying on the immutable legacy of winning the event. Determined to get things right, Kariuki and Koech stayed together for the first 2000m of the race. At the bell, Kariuki cast extra speed, pushing hard all the way to the finish.
5. Matthew Birir, 1992, Barcelona
As it inevitably happens, money weighs against Kenya’s success in the 3,000m steeplechase. How quickly life’s fortunes can shift with the sound of the starting gun! By 1992, the sponsorship deals had come into being, where most athletes earn decent money (shoes/clothing). Sponsored athletes are far more interested in winning and therefore making more money from both event prize money and endorsement deals. And while money is a big motivation to win, Matthew Birir would demonstrate that duty comes before riches. When the starting gun went off in Barcelona the Kenyans were the firm favourites. All attention was on the Kalenjin runners of the Rift Valley, now famous as good long-distance runners. In the third lap Brahmi clipped the heel of Matthew Birir’s shoe, Birir fell to his knee and slipped back to ninth place, before making a stunning comeback. The Kenyans ran the rest of the race as a unified clique. This would be the first time the Kenyan team led a full medal sweep – well received with a standing ovation.
6. Joseph Keter, 1996, Atlanta
All the Kenyans somehow laugh off when asked if they anticipate a medal in the race, although Kenya had almost every medal, and all gold medals since joining the event. Atlanta would be no exception. Kiptanui and Keter were neck and neck at the final water jump, and the only thing that was going to separate the two was stamina in the final kicks. Keter got the better of the tussle in the final nip of pace, in a race where less than 17 seconds separated the 1st and 8th place.
7. Reuben Kosgei, 2000, Sydney
As expected, the Kenyan steeplechasers, now answering to the popular moniker of the East Africans in major global events, showed up for the Sydney Olympics seeking to set an unprecedented record. Their zeal, lean bodies, high altitude training, diet, and capability to withstand fatigue longer was going to be put to the test, in one of the most demanding events in the track and field program. Unerring training, diet and hard work are the only way to win the steeplechase is a hackneyed answer to any probe of the secret; and still used frequently. One additional tactic that was now working well for the Kenyans was to always keep the tempo fast enough – to spread and shake off the field – injecting pace over the proceedings of the race. The finals in Sydney had not gone entirely Kenya’s way. At the sound of the bell there were about eight runners in the leading pack, which was an unfamiliar sight, with many looking to disrupt the dominance. If all tactics fails however, the Kenyans can rely on the final kick to do the job. So in the final lap, Reuben Kosgei ran with fresh legs, wearing out the rest of field.
8. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2004, Anthens
By the time the Athens Olympics rolled in, no one could quite explain Kenya’s success at the 3,000m steeplechase. Certainly the lean bodies adept at training in high altitude improved lung capacity, but there really wasn’t any biologically interesting facts to go by. Even that talk about genetic edge had faded away. At the Athens Summer Games the Kenyan runners would introduce the world to a new concept of team racing per-excellence. All things fell into place in Athens. Koech had kept the pace throughout, Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto, now only 19 years old, keeping close, always running together. Koech, the pacer, surged the pace gradually and by the close of the fifth lap it was three Kenyans in the first four. At the last water jump Kemboi seemed more concerned with making it a ‘1-2-3’ rather than winning gold as he gestured Kipruto and Koech to keep up with him as he led them to Kenya’s second full medal sweep at the steeplechase. It was now beyond doubt that Kenyans were acers of the 3,0000m steeplechase.
9. Brimin Kipruto, 2008, Beijing
The outcome of the Beijing Games was rather unexpected! Ezekiel Kemboi, the defending champion, had got into the finals as the race favourite, with Brimin Kipruto pitted to take silver. The two favorites ran in different patterns but their distinctions always leveled by their intelligence and physical attributes to win the 3000m steeplechase. No one took particular interest in the French runner towering over the rest of the field at the start. He was about to make headlines in 9 minutes. Only one athlete had ever won multiple Olympics steeplechases ( Volmari Iso-Hollo, 1932 and 1936) and the world was in anticipation. Kipchoge Keino had of course won Olympic medals in disparate distance running events. True to form, Kemboi got off to a sprinting start but quickly settled within the lead pack. The stature of the Kenyans at the sound of the final bell had all the tell-tale signs of another clean sweep, if they could somehow shake-off the tall Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad. In the customary injection of pace at the final lap, Mekhissi was unrelenting and stood his ground keeping up with the pack of Kenyans in a nail biting dash to the finish that almost disrupted Kenya’s record. Mekhissi finished second, only 15th of a second behind Kipruto who won gold.
10. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2012, London
Kemboi who had only managed to finish seventh at the Beijing Olympics, his worst performance on the global stage, was desperate to expunge that memory. Kipruto had also proven his pedigree at the events as had the tall Mekhissi with confidence written all over his face. Kemboi would regain his form and winning ways in London. While there is little science to give away any clues in figuring out the perfect steeplechase runner, much of the aptitude comes from training. According to Ezekiel Kemboi, the more you train, the more you increase your adroitness to both consume and effectively utilize oxygen. World class athletes have training regiments most of us would consider exigent. Training in a region that has produced so many champions has its benefits too. Kemboi also had the benefit of being trained by Moses Kiptanui. While steeplechasers are obviously specialists of endurance, longevity seems to the weak point, but not for Kemboi. Mutai, the youngest of the Kenyans, injected speed in the fifth lap, to spread the field, Kemboi and Kipruto keeping relatively close. Kipruto would unfortunately stumble in the sixth lap, leaving him a lot of catching up to do and dashing the hopes of a third clean medal sweep. In the final lap, Kemboi assuredly took the race away sprinting the entire lap with a mastery pace, arms up with 10m to go.
11. Conseslus Kipruto, 2012, Rio de Janeiro
The Kenyan contender of the steeplechase title is always determined to make a name for himself on the greatest sporting stage, and a new titlist was taking his place in dramatic style at the Rio Olympics. On this stage, Kipruto ran the race of his life, finishing in a mind-boggling world record time of 8:39; hands in the air a long way before the finish line: “I saw the screen and I saw I was far from them, and I knew nobody was going to catch me,” he said. “I knew I was going to win the gold in the final 100m. Even before the race I knew I would win.” Two-time Olympic champion Kemboi finished third, but was later disqualified for stepping outside the track, giving the bronze to 4th-place finisher Mekhissi of France. No doubt, the American, Evan Jager, who incredibly won silver knew that piece of the trivia. And of course this: His silver was the best an American has placed since Horace won the race in 1952: “It feels like silver, but I’m totally okay with it,” He added. “I think breaking up the Kenyans in the steeplechase, and just beating Kenyans in the steeplechase final, is a very hard achievement.”
The Olympics On The Record
Brief Overview of Distance Running in Kenya
According to Statista, Kenya is ranked 30th on the all-time Olympic Games medal table (from 1896 to 2016) with a total of 100 medals. The highest of any African nation. The USA has been the most successful nation of all times at the Summer Olympic Games, having amassed a total of 2,520 medals since the first Olympics in 1896. The dominance of the USA can be shown in the fact that only two other nations, Russia and Germany, have reached a combined medal tally of 1,000. Even so, Kenya has excelled at the games considering that most of her medals have been bagged in five events. Of these medals won, 85% have been in athletics alone. The most gainful athletics events include 3000m steeplechase, 800m, 5000m and 10,000m. On top of that, it’s rather impressive if yourself consider that 70% of all titlist athletes including the top-25 world marathon performers since 1990 come from one cultural community – The Kalenjins. Put differently, the Kalenjin, who live in the midwest area of Kenya, have produced about 62% of all distance-running world champions. A record breaking triumph from a community which accounts for only 0.0004% of the world’s population.
Ethnic assignment in Kenya is based primarily on linguistic and geographical factors, with the Kalenjin fortunate to live in the fertile high-altitude area. Their emergence and dominance is only bettered by an increase in the contribution of men in the top-20 all-time performances in the track distance events (800-m and upward) from 13.3% in 1986 to 55.8% in 2003. The improvement has been impressive, as cited in the journal Analysis of the Kenyan Distance-Running Phenomenon: “Kenyan men (by birth) have bagged 43 out of the possible 108 medals (41%) in distance events at the Olympic Games since 1990 and have claimed the team title at 24 of the last 27 world cross-country championships dating back to 1986: From their first medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo to the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) World Athletics Championships in 2019”. The domination of Kenya in long-distance running has oftentimes been attributed to a unique genetic explanation, which is overtly premature. In contrast, hard work, lifestyle and cultural factors would better explain the topping results, as well as the collective knowledge of the close knit and linguistically linked Kalenjin Community. Research has yet to give away a gene or even a combination of genes that is conclusively linked to performance.
The Marathon Gold: A Long Time in the Waiting
A usually reliable indicator of adroitness at long-distance running is the 42 km marathon. While the 3,000m steeplechase was godsend for the Kenyans, the gold medal at the Olympics marathon proved a very different huddle to cross. Paradoxically, Kenya’s confidence of strength at international marathon circuits suffered the same fate. The chance of domination in the marathon got off to a surprisingly good inception. In 1954, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver (British Columbia) and at the inaugural Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia (in 1956), Kenya had competed in the 3-mile race and also participated in the marathon. Early distance runners like Nyandika Maiyoro had athletic strategists feverish with anticipation and potential athletes even more amped up. Kenya’s first glimpse from the marathon medal podium came at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Douglas Wakiihuri won silver. Well, guess what? In 1987, as a young unknown runner, he had won the men’s marathon at IAAF World Championships in Rome. Based in Japan and spotting distinctive white gloves, Wakiihuri had became the first Kenyan to win a marathon title at a major championship. The marathon at the Seoul Olympics was the final event.
It was ran in fine weather of 24 degrees, on the roads of Seoul with switchbacks of the Han River. At the 20 km marker there were 20 runners in the lead pack. True to the folk lore, the marathon is a race for survival, the number in the lead pack getting smaller and the gap wider, so that by the 35 km point there were only four runners. Wakiihuri opted to hang back and save his strength for the final kick as the rest of the pack attempted to shake off competition by injecting extra pace. At the 41 km pit, Gelindo Bordin of Italy kicked-up an inimical pace that proved too much for Wakiihuri, Hussein A. Salla (Djibouti) and Takeyuki Nakayama (Japan) who were all favourites and finished the race in that order. With a time of 2:10:32 Bordin won Italy’s first gold medal at the event, and in second place Wakiihuri won Kenya’s first medal at the marathon. In 1989, he became the first Kenyan to win the London Marathon, a distinction that lasted for 15 years until Evans Rutto began a series of victories for Kenyan men that was only edged twice since, both times by the gutsy Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia.
Kenya’s hopes of going one better at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were forlorn, with Boniface Merande only managing to come fourteenth in an event won by Hwang Yang-Cho of South Korea in a time of 2:13:23. Far from a downturn, the 1996 Atlanta Games brought a glimmer of hope for marathon running, with the unlikely Erick Wainaina winning bronze for Kenya. Much like Douglas Wakiihuri before him (and with many runners after them), Wainaina’s entry to the marathon was a last minute inversion after failing to find winning ways at the cut-throat 5,000m and 10,000m. At the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, as Kenya was seeking to bag its first gold at the marathon, Ethiopia was making its presence known on the world stage. The marathon was among the prominent cluster of distance races that the Ethiopians were throwing weight behind. Among those hoping to make a statement were Gezahegne Abera and Tesfaye Tola of Ethiopia, and Erick Wainaina and Kenneth Cheruiyot of Kenya.
The Kenyans had genuine reasons to be weary of the Ethiopian, for they trained well if not hadder, and, rather more importantly, Ethiopia is the highest plateau in Africa, nullifying the sway of high altitude running. The Ethiopians would prove their worth in distance running. At the 39 km mark – 2 hours into the race – Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia broke off from the lead pack of three; Wainana and Tola left to haggle over the silver and bronze. Wainana stood his ground, chasing hard to the 41 km mark, but the tumult of Abera’s pace proved too much for day, in the end settling for another well won silver. Tola, the other Ethiopian, finished third, while Cheruiyot failed to finish the race. The Sydney Game would also shift attention from the men’s marathon toward the uplifting achievement of Joyce Chepchumba who won the bronze medal at the women’s marathon. The two wins at Sydney had inspired and put pressure back at home.
The next Kenyan icon to bag a medal at the Olympics marathon was anything if not determined to get Kenya into the inner circle of the event. She sometimes looked so tired and worn during the races that it was a pain to think she would even get to the finish line, yet, when you think about elite marathon running it’s hard to look past her great achievements. An enforcement officer by training and profession, Catherine Ndereba embodied the grit, willpower and persistent hard work to succeed, and took the sport to new heights in Kenya, earning her the nickname “Catherine the Great” and one of the eminent marathoners of all time. She first burst into the limelight in 1999 at the Boston Marathon, where she finished in the ten top, making better of that achievement six months later at Newyork where she finished second. In 2000, she bagged both Boston and Chicago, setting a new world record (2:18:47) at the latter. It was the first time a woman marathoner had run a sub 2:20. Prior to Athens (2004), Ndereba had run most of the 17 major international marathons and looking good for a medal.
In spite of the fact that Catherine Ndereba bagged only silver medals both at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, her contribution to Kenya’s marathon running far outweighed that elusive Olympics gold medal. Beijing Olympics would also be the first time Kenya bagged a gold in the men’s marathon – a long time in the waiting. Samuel Wanjiru, just as his predecessors Ndereba, Wainaina and Wakiihuri – all Kikuyu and not the archetypal Kalenjin runners – would prove hard work and not genetics was the key ingredient. On a hot summer day in Beijing, that had many runners struggling, Samuel Wanjiri, then aged only 21, had other aims and wits up his sleeve. At the 37 km mark he broke off from the leading pack, bringing an in-your-face determination to win gold, keeping a blistering pace on the lone charge. He raced into the infamous bird’s nest stadium by himself, raising his arms and applauding as he ran into a tumultuous welcome from an upstanding crowd. Wanjiru’s great run shattered the Olympic record to 2:06:32, convincingly winning Kenya’s first gold at the marathon. In 2010, Wanjiru returned to Chicago to defend his title. It would be his final appearance on the world stage before his untimely death in May 2011. At Chicago, he ran the marathon of his life, described by New York Time’s “as exciting as any we’ve seen in a big marathon.” At 40km it was a supreme tussle between Wanjiru and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia, who’d set daylight between them and the 38,000 race participants. Kebede looked unbeatable, countering any attempt by Wanjiru to take the lead by injecting pace. With less than 0.7 km to go, Wanjiru put the hammer down, in an astonishing knockout bust of speed that saw him open up a gap of about 110m by the time he crossed the finish line.
It had been a busy twenty years for Kenyan marathoners at the hard-charging-event which delivered what many Kenyans undoubtedly considered a missing medal. Wanjiru had decisively broken the silence at Beijing in 2008, and the contenders of the event at the 2012 London Games must have been looking forward to it with some trepidation. Even better, they would find their winning ways and maintain the medal consistency at the Olympics marathon. Priscah Jeptoo bagged silver in the women marathon, with Abel Kirui bagging silver and Wilson Kispang bagging bronze in the men’s marathon. The truism held by the next iconic marathoner was simple; success isn’t nearly as complicated as skeptists would have you believe. The last athletic event at Rio, keeping with traditions, was the marathon: One of the most daunitng tests in all of Olympics sports. The rainy morning offered some relief for the runners, and by the 30 km mark the breakaway group of Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya), Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia) and Galen Rupp (USA) had steered well clear from the rest, all three of them in their first Olympic marathon. At 35 km mark, Rupp was dropped as Kipchoge and Lilesa went head to head. At the 37 km mark Kipchoge was way ahead and looking comfortable, so that by the time he crossed the line (at 2:08:44) the lead was almost 1 km ahead of Lilesa who finished in a time 2:09:54. Eliud, who prefers to run his races at the front in beautiful isolation, had demonstrated his skill in anticipation of claiming the title of “greatest of all time”. Interestingly, Kipchoge had not always aimed at running the marathon. He had won bronze and silver at 5,000m, but when he did not qualify for the London 2012 Games he switched to marathon running. A decision that proved invaluable. Post Rio, Eliud would assert his dominance by winning a whooping 12 consecutive world marathons (over seven years) including breaking the record at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. In October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run the marathon in a sub-2, that left many in awe of his unmatched running fortitude.
The Rio Games were also unforgettable following the win of Jemimah Sumgong in the women’s marathon, dispelling Kenya’s omen in the event and turning the attention to an inflection point in Kenya’s women long-distance running. The transcendental effects of this win would show just days from Eliud’s supreme fit of breaking two. Bent on running an inspirited marathon and announce to the outside world the finesse of Kenyan women, Sumgong went hard at the start, perhaps to convey her intention to the field or to muster courage, before settling back in the lead pack, rarely falling past third place over the proceedings of the entire race. At the hour mark (17 kms) there were 15 in the lead pack including three Kenyans and three Ethiopians. At the two hour mark (33.5 km) the lead pack had been reduced to eight, with Sumgong the only Kenyan in contention in company with two Kenyan born Bahrain runners (Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa and Rose Chelimo) as well as two Ethiopians, the two steely Americans and Volha Mazuronak from Belarus. On the run back to the finish, having completed the three ten kilometre loops of the circuit, Kirwa made her move, stretching the pack, dropping off Volha and Chelimo. In rapid succession, it was down to only three, Ndibaba of Ethiopia and Sumgong chasing hard with 5 km to go. That’s how things stood for the next 3 km until Sumgong took the helm and Ndibaba was slowly fading away thanks to the blistering speed Kirwa had injected. She maintained the lead to the finish, crossing the line at 2:24:04 and 10.5 metres ahead of Kirwa to earn Kenya’s first ever gold medal at the women’s marathon. In October 2013, at the Chicago Marathon, fate and fortune favoured the 25 year old Brigid Kosgei who ran heroically to better Paula Radcliffe’s 17-year-old women’s marathon world record (2:15:25), completing the race in a impressive record of 2:14:04 to defend her title. Indeed the marathon had come full circle!
5,000m and 10,000m – The Hard to Call Races
Both the 5,000 and 10,000m races at the Olympic are something of grey areas in athletic circles. Indeed, only two men have ever successfully defended their titles: Lasse Virén of Finland in 1972, 76 and Britain’s Mo Farah in 2012, 16. Arguably the most competitive long-distance event at the Olympics, Kenya has only ever claimed gold once, when John Ngugi won it at the 1988 Seoul Games. Unknown to many, Finland has been the second most successful nation at the event, claiming gold in 1924, 28, 32, 36, 72 and 76 as well 5 silver and 2 bronze medals. Ethiopia is the most successful nation in the event, having claimed 6 gold medals and 15 medals in total. Kenya is third on the all-time 5,000m medal table with 1 gold, 4 silvers and 4 bronze. That has been in the aftermath of some of the greatest distance runners the world has yet to offer, which makes it a difficult event to muster and create new tactics, and increasingly unpopular for many fans. Kenya’s commitment to athletic rectitude has allowed it to put in noteworthy performances – Kipchoge Keino (Silver, Mexico City, 1968), Paul Bitok (Silver 1992, 1996), Eliud Kipchoge (Silver, Beijing, 2008), Naftali Temu (Bronze, Mexico City, 1968), Eliud Kipchoge (Bronze, Athens, 2004), Edwin Soi (Bronze, Beijing, 2008), and lately Thomas Longosiwa (Bronze, London, 2012).
The women 5,000m event at the Olympics was a late entrant, waiting nearly 72 since the men’s event was first run at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Not that the global leadership of the Olympics Games has been altogether without conflict, even in the hard years of global calamity, but the introduction of an event at the Olympics requires a considerable level of uptake and competitiveness. Initially introduced at the 1984 Los Angeles Games in an event run as a 3,000m race, until 1996, when the distance was extended to match the men’s event. From one end to the other, the Kenyan women have been involved in a mighty clash with the Ethiopians, who are so far the most successful nation at the event with three golds (2004, 08, 12) and five silvers (2000, 04, 08, 12, 16). Unlike most long-distances events, this has been dominated by two Ethiopian bigwigs, engaged in a formidable exchange about who takes gold. Meseret Defar clinched gold in Athens, 2004, in an event where Tirunesh Dibaba had to settle for Bronze. It turned out contrariwise at the 2008 Beijing Game – Dibaba taking gold, and, as you guessed it, the opposite way at London Games in 2012. Synchronically, the Kenyan have picked up four silvers – Pauline Konga (Atlanta, 1996), Isabella Ochichi (Athens, 2004), Vivian Cheruiyot (London, 2012) and Hellen Obiri (Rio, 2016). At Rio, Vivian Cheruiyot went one better to bag the gold for Kenya, the result being an unhappy compromise for the Ethiopians who landed bronze.
From a distance, the all-time medal table for the 5,000m and 10,000m appear self same in the matters of the countries dominating the event. The chances of defending titles, in the men’s event, have been comparatively betters, with six champions successfully defending their titles: Paavo Nurmi of Finland (1920, 28), Emil Zátopek of Czechoslovakia (1948, 52), Lasse Virén of Finland (1972, 76), Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia (1996, 2000), Kenenisa Bekele (2004, 08) and U.K’s Mo Farah (2012, 16). As it happens, a large number of athletes at the 5,000m also incline to compete in the 10,000m, if they can somehow qualify for both events. Ethiopia, the most successful nation at the 10,000m, with ten gold medals among a total of 24 medals, also holds the best times for both men and women, set at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics by Kenenisa Bekele for the men’s events (27:01.17) and Almaz Ayana recording the women’s best time of 29:17.45 minutes. Finland is the second successful country, with six gold medals among a total of thirteen, bagging its latest gold in 1976. Kenya, the third most successful nation at the Olympics 10,000m event, bagged its first and only gold so far – which was also Kenya’s first ever gold at the Olympics – in 1968. It was a nailbiter neck to-neck dash to the finish, where Naftaly Tamu somehow edged off Mamo Wolde. It is, perhaps, the herculean battle between Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Paul Tergat at the 1996 and 2000 Games that will forever be etched in the minds of Kenyans. Pitted as one of the heroic distance duels, between two of Africa’s legendary runners, there was little that separated the two, and both fought hard, but Gebrselassie would earn gold in both events.
Before the epic battle in 2000, Gebrselassie had two years earlier reclaimed his World Record from Tergat. In turn, Tergat became the 6th Kenyan to hold the 10,000m World Record when he recorded 26:27.85 on August 22, 1997 in Brussels, breaking Gebrselassie’s previous time of 26:31.32. Then, Gebrselassie would clock 26:22.75 on June 1, 1998 in Hengelo, Netherlands, to erase Tergat’s WR. A record that would stand until June 8, 2004 when fellow countryman Kenenisa Bekele broke it with a stunning time of 26:20.31.
800ms – Where Stars are Born
It’s anybody’s guess the outcome of the 800m at the Olympics Games, where so many nations have thrown in spiffing runners over the years. The United States and the United Kingdom utterly dominated the first sixty years of the 800m at the games. Gold went to the United Kingdom in 1886 and 1900, then to USA in 1904, 08 and 12, back to the U.K again in 1920, 24, 28 and 32 before finally the wheel turned back to the USA, which won gold in 1936, 40, 44, 48 and in 52. African countries made little headway in the 800m event anterior to the bronze medal won by Kenya’s Wilson Kiprugut at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It is since this period that we have electrifying chronicles of winning the event. At the following Olympics in Mexico City (1968), on the up and up, Wilson Kiprugut went one better to bag the silver medal for Kenya at the Munich Games. Mike Boit won bronze in the race, making him only the second African to win a medal at the 800m. The winning momentum was silenced in 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles). After this, all newcomers to 800m, including Paul Ereng, faced the formidable Europeans – as America seemed to be losing its running legs at the 800ms – with fervour, hoping to make a name for Africa.
Indeed, Paul Ereng’s performance at the 1988 Seoul Games was nothing if not spectacular. Nixon Kiprotich, the other Kenyan at the race, had gone hard from the start, challenging the Brazilians José Luiz Barbosa and Joaquim Cruz who looked indomitable. At the bell, Ereng, the unknown Kenyan, was second from last, and in no hurry to make his presence felt. He sprung into action after the final bend on the home stretch, vehemently scurrying out of nowhere to stun the field. Kiprotich finished last. Four years later in Barcelona (1992), William Tanui followed in the footsteps of Ereng, taking gold, while Nixon Kiprotich settled for silver. There was a 16 years hiatus in winning the 800m after Kenya failed to bags medals in 1996 (Atlanta), 2000 (Sydney) and in 2004 (Athens), before Wilfred Bungei put Kenya back to its winning way at Beijing Games in 2008. Alfred Kirwa Yego deservedly won silver in that event. Next in line to carry the mantle was David Rudisha, one of those gifted athletes who are the face of sports in Kenya, who convincingly took gold in London (2012) and also defended it in Rio 2016; becoming the fourth runner to successfully defend his title at the event. In 2010, David Rudisha, then aged 21, made history by setting a new world record in the 800-meters, clocking 1:41.09, to edge off the previous record of 1:41:11 recorded by Wilson Kosgei Kipketer, that had stood since 1997.
The women 800m medal is among those elusive for Kenya in the track and field events of the Olympic. It was first achieved at Beijing Games in 2008, in superb style, when Pamela Chelimo won gold and Janet Chepkosgei took silver – two of only three medals Kenya has won at the event. In June 2007, Chelimo had finished fifth in the 400 metres race at the Kenyan Championships with a time of 55.82 seconds, and kept improving, winning the 400m event at the African Junior Championship in the same year. Jelimo ran her first 800 metres race on 19 April 2008 at the Kenyan trials for the African championships, clocking 2:01.02 minutes. Aged only 18, she set a new African Junior Championship best time, before winning 800 metres at the Hengelo Grand Prix event and setting a new Junior World Record of 1:55.76, in April 2008. Heading to Beijing, she had won four consecutive IAAF Golden League meets and looking sharp for gold, and did not disappoint. Remarkably, Chelimo went on to win her next two IAAF Golden League races, becoming the only athlete in that series of the league to win all six events. Janet Chepkosgei, her compatriot, made her breakthrough in 2006 when she won the women’s 800 m event at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Later that year she won the 800m gold at the African Championships. Post the Beijing Games she won gold in the World Championship 800 m final in Osaka, becoming the first female Kenyan middle distance runner to achieve gold over 800 m. The only other medal in the 800m events at the Olympics won by a Kenyan came at the Rio Games in 2016, where Margaret Wanjiru muddled through a star studded lineup that ran a grinding race, to win bronze for Kenya.
Unexpected Surprises at the Olympics
The other sports disciplines where Kenya has been represented at the Olympics include field hockey, judo, shooting, weightlifting and wrestling. Be that as it may, Kenya has been unlucky that no medal has been won in all these sports. However, it’s worth noting that field hockey, where Kenya has had creditable performances, declined to the last position in 1988 and never qualified for the games thereafter. Formerly, Kenya was rather exceptional at producing top-tier boxers: Philip Waruinge winning gold in the Men’s featherweight at the 1968 Mexico Games and silver in the 1972 Munich Games; Samuel Mbugua and Dick Murunga both winning bronze medal in men’s lightweight and men’s flyweight respectively at the 1972 Munich Games; and who can forget Robert Wangila’s performance in Seoul (1988) where he won gold in the welterweight. Other rare medals include Julius Yego’s silver medal at the men’s javelin in Rio Olympics.