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Kenya athletics legends in nostalgic re-union at Nairobi World Championships

Meeting of greats: Seb Coe (middle), the IAAF President has a chat with some Kenyan athletics icons whom he met at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani Stadium on the second day of the IAAF World U18 Championships. Seated top, Ben Jipcho, Ben Kogo, Lord Coe, Nyantika Maiyoro, John Mayaka and front Sally Barsosio and William Mutwol. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

 Sunday 16th July 2017

WHEN the 10th IAAF World U18 Championships got underway here on Tuesday, as was to be expected, away from the track, there were many other sideshows occurring.

The standout one would have to be the gathering of Kenya’s track and field greats. Invited as guests of the Local Organising Committee [LOC], these icons were medalists from past Commonwealth Games, World Athletics Championships and the Olympic Games.

Of the 184 odd invited greats, just over half had made it into Nairobi, by the time of the opening ceremony.

From their travels from the far flung places of Kenya, to their congregating at Nairobi’s Five Star Safari Park Hotel (the over flow was accommodated at the grand Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club where IAAF President Seb Coe was staying)  and to the Kasarani Stadium, it was a time of great nostalgic significance. Their coming together is also unprecedented. In many ways.

Wilson Kiprugut Chumo … first Kenyan Olympic medal, Bronze, 800m, Tokyo 1964 and then won Silver in Mexico, 1968. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

First up, were the introductions to each other, on the eve of the championships commencement. Taking place informally in one of the Safari Park Hotel restaurants, it involved every athlete present standing up and after stating their name, give a brief narrative of their athletics journey, till date.

Typically, every one took about five minutes. With medalists going as far back from the 1954 Commonwealth Games, 1956, 1964, 1968 and 1972 to last year’s Olympics in Rio, the introductions were truly heart moving.

Lydia Stephens Okech … among three women sprinters, the first ones ever for Kenya at the Olympics; alongside Jeni Kenyatta and Tecla Chemabwai who are also attending the championships at Kasarani. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

A few moments from these are worth recounting:

One. When Wilson Kiprugut  Chumo, 80, stood to introduce himself. Kenya’s first ever Olympic medalist, the 800metres bronze winner from the Tokyo 1964 games, was undoubtedly the star of the evening.

In Alfred Kirwa Yego’s (30) own words: “The 800 meters is my race, so I have obviously heard of Kiprugut’s exploits, which were accomplished even before I was born! So to meet him in person, after his exploits of over half a century ago, is an awesome and simply unforgettable experience”.

Kipchoge Keino (left), 1,500m Gold and 5,000 Silver in Mexico, 3,000m steeplechase Gold and 1,500m silver with Kennedy Ochieng’ 4x400m relay Silver medallist at the World Championships and also a Commonwealth Games relay Gold medalists. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

Kirwa was himself a silver medalist over 800m at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

After that pioneering run in Tokyo, Kiprugut did run at another Olympics, the following one in Mexico City, when Kenya well and truly arrived as a member of the Olympics family.

Kiprugut went one better in his traditional event, winning silver, at the games where Kenya left with four gold medals, from a total haul of eight medals from the track.

Mike Boit (right), bronze medalist 800m Munich Olympics 1972 with Mwangi Muthee, chief executive officer, Local Organizing Committee, IAAF WU18 Championships. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

Two. The introduction of Amos Biwott, 72, likewise elicited a lot of awe in the room. The ‘father’ of Kenya’s steeple chasing tradition, Biwott was Olympic steeplechase champion from the Mexico ’68 games, the first time Kenya took the title, in the water and barriers event.

Biwott was undoubtedly the harbinger of good things for Kenya in this race. Ever since his win, at every subsequent Olympics, where Kenya has participated in, Kenya has won the title! At that Olympics, Ben Kogo, now 71, chased Biwott home for the silver. Kogo is one of the happy-go-lucky jovial members of this rare group.

Nancy Jebet Lagat, Olympic 800m champion Beijing 2008. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

The last memorable occurrence during the introductions, involved not individuals, but two teams.

First up was the team that run the steeplechase at the Barcelona Olympics. Mathew Birir, 45,led home Patrick Sang’, 53,  and William Mutwol, 49, for an unprecedented clean sweep of the steeplechase medals.

Eliciting great excitement as the evening wore on, were members of the men’s 4x400m from the 1972 Munich Olympics. The team consisted of Charles Asati, now 71,  Hezekiah Nyamau, 74, Robert Ouko, 68 and  the late Julius Sang’.

World champions Benjamin Limo (left) and Richard Limo at Kasarani. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

Kenya stunned the sporting world back then, by pulling off an improbable gold medal win in the Munich final. Asati, Nyamau and Ouko are in attendance  at Kasarani. Sang died in 2014.

On opening night, the emotions on the legends faces told it all. The prevailing narrative was that it is a dream come true to be a part of a global athletics event, on home soil.

Nyantika Maiyoro (left) pioneer at the 1956 Olympic Games and 1954 Commonwealth Games with and Police Inspector Richard Mateloong an Olympic steeplechase bronze medallist in Beijing. NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

The legends were awed by the new track, the modern day technology used in every aspect of the event and similarly at the large numbers of human personnel necessary to run the show.

Even though the rains caused the suspension of some of the events on the opening night, it was clear from the enthusiasm of the crowd, that inclement weather or not; nothing was going to stop them from enjoying the start of what promised to be a five-day spectacle.

Paul Ruto, world champion 800 meters Sturttgart 1993. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

Other than at the introductions, another aspect of this congregation of the greats, both present and of yesteryear, was when they got reminiscing about their running days. Topics ranged from the nick names they used to bear, to their fond memories of cities visited and invariably to their races; both won and lost.

Ben Jipcho,74, in particular was very nostalgic, as he looked back on his racing days, going back over 40 years now. In particular, he regaled us of that unforgettable world record race, at the 1974 Christ Church Commonwealth Games.

Charles Asati, four- time Commonwealth Games champion, Olympic silver medallist and Olympic champion. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

In that race, despite breaking the world record, Jipcho still came in third in the race, won by Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi, who took both Jipcho and second placed home boy John Walker, under the existing 1500 meters’ world record.

They hoped that come this Sunday, Nairobi might also have witnessed another unforgettable race, in the mould of Jipcho’s Christchurch one.

From left: Mosses Tanui, 10000 m World Champion, Gideon Chirchir Commonwealth Games silver medalist and Martin Keino, son of icon Kipchoge Keino. Photo: NOOR KHAMIS/LOC wu18nairobi2017

– On behalf of the IAAF Local Organising Committee, CHARLES OUKO,  a frequent commentator on Kenya sport on the international stage, was responsible for the research and mobilizing of the Kenyan legends to come to watch the IAAF World U18 Championships, Nairobi 2017. He did an excellent job, reaching virtually every qualifying athlete based on the classification given. He travelled round the country, met many personally, located others on telephone and e-mail and helped the LOC to fly in from Kisumu, Kitale and Eldoret at least 11 of the heroic senior citizens voiceofsport.net