[dropcap style=”1″ size=”3″]N[/dropcap]owadays at virtually any distance over 1500m you can expect a Kenyan to be amongst the favourites for victory.
But until the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City Kenya had won just a single bronze medal.
Enter Kipchoge Keino. The runner, then 28, stormed to a magnificent victory in the men’s 1500m, completing a remarkable rise from a humble background.
Keino had lost both his parents in his childhood and was raised by his aunt. He had not grown up as an athlete — in fact, his first love was rugby — and having finished school, he joined the Kenya Police.
When he did turn his attention to athletics, his progress was rapid. In the 1962 Commonwealth Games he was 11th over three miles, while in the 1964 Olympics he managed a fifth place in the 5000m.
Come 1965 he was a world record holder, smashing the 3000m mark, before striking gold in the 1966 Commonwealth Games over both one and three miles.
Keino was a hero in his home country, also adding a silver medal in the 5000m, and Kenya’s love affair with middle- and long-distance running at major events blossomed from there.
Since those first golds in 1968 Kenya have won 20 more, only one of which was not for athletics (it came via Robert Wangila, who won the men’s welterweight boxing tournament in Seoul). They enjoyed a historical best in Beijing, scooping six golds, four silvers and four bronzes in 2008.
As for Keino, his career did not end there — when the Olympic Games came to Munich in 1972, the Kenyan turned his hand to the steeplechase, and won, while taking silver in the 1500m.
And where is he now?
Many athletes retire to a quiet, comfortable life. Keino, now 72, has dedicated his later years to charitable works in his homeland, starting by opening an orphanage in 1973, the year he retired.
“My mother died when I was young – three years old,” he told CNN last year. “I could feel a pinch and a heart for somebody who doesn’t have parents, so I started the children[s] home.”
Education is a principal concern, and having established the Kip Keino Foundation, he has now built a primary school and high school, both named after him.
He also stayed involved in Kenyan running, acting as a coach of the national team at one stage, and starting an elite sporting academy.
When he was named the 1987 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, their praise of the runner could scarcely have been more fulsome.
“Keino earned numerous medals running against some of the best runners of the century,” they wrote. “Kenya has built a worldwide dynasty in distance running; Keino is their inspiration… became ‘father’ to dozens of orphaned children in Kenya, by supporting them financially and giving them shelter in his own home.”
As for the man himself, Keino plays down his life’s work.
“I’m just a simple man with simple dreams that used my God-given talents to help make a difference and create a better future for our children,” says Keino.
But simple man or not, few Olympians better embody the spirit of the Games and the legacies they aim to create.