“How can they run so fast after running so far?” I was 11, watching the 1968 Olympic 5,000 metres with my mother. Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Kip Keino of Kenya were sprinting down the final straight, Gammoudi eventually prevailing by two tenths of a second. I was hooked. What speed! What endurance!
Abele Bikila of Ethiopia had won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons, but Keino was the first Kenyan to make an impact on world athletics. He had placed fifth in the 1964 Olympic 5,000 and won golds at the 1966 Commonwealths, but Mexico City was to be his real breakthrough.
In the thin air of the Mexican capital, he defeated American world record holder, Jim Ryun, by 20 metres in the 1,500. And, in addition to that and his 5,000 silver, he also bizarrely contested the 10,000.
In Munich in 1972, he cemented his legacy by winning the 3,000 metres steeplechase, at which he was a comparative novice, and taking a silver in the 1,500 behind Pekka Vasala of Finland.
The Africans were a proverbial breath of fresh in the athletics world of the 60s and 70s. Keino couldn’t really hurdle – he put a foot on each of the steeplechase barriers – but he made up for such rudimentary technique with his speed on the flat.
Journalists visiting Keino and his compatriot Ben Jipcho (who took silver behind Kip in the steeple) at their training base in Nairobi were amazed to find them constructing their own steeplechase barriers – often several inches taller than the regulation height.
They were seen to be great natural athletes, but they also worked hard, running fast at altitude, to leave visiting westerners struggling in their wake.
Kip Keino won two Olympic golds and two silvers (the same as Sebastian Coe), plus three Commonwealth titles, but it is not for his medals that he is most remembered; it is more for his trailblazing on behalf of the continent of Africa, for the silky grace of his running style, for his uninhibited approach to racing, and for his sportsmanship and dignity as a man.