Profiling the Greatest Long Distance Runners: Kip Keino, of Kenya
By Jim Israel
Kipchoge Keino is arguably the most influential figure ever in long-distance running. His achievements on the track helped awaken the sleeping colossus that was his native Kenya and brought an entire continent along.
Yes, there was Roger Bannister, perhaps the most famous distance runner ever, who cracked the 4-minute mile threshold in 1954. Bannister's story is mythic: working long hours as a resident doctor on the wards of a London hospital, and training only at lunchtime at a track nearby, he made his rounds on the morning of his record run and took a train alone to the venue that afternoon. That hard-earned accomplishment ushered in a deluge of sub-4-minute milers.
But Kip Keino’s legacy is perhaps even more astounding than that of the redoubtable Sir Roger. Starting at the 1968 Olympics, Keino initiated an African dominance in Olympic distance running that has persisted for more than forty years, and shows no sign of fading.
A member of the Nandi people of Kenya’s hill country, Keino herded goats as a child. At his father’s urging, he began training in the high-altitude countryside and mountains.
Keino began his competitive running career in 1962, when he set a Kenyan record in the mile. Two years later, in Kenya’s first appearance at the Olympics as an independent nation, he finished fifth in the 5,000 meter event.
He was just getting warmed up: in August 1965, Keino beat the 3,000-meter world record by over six seconds with a time of 7:39.6, in his first attempt at that distance. Later that year he broke the 5,000-meter record held by the Australian Ron Clarke, at 13:24.2.
But Keino was to truly burst on to the international running scene in the 1968 Olympics. The American Jim Ryun was the heavy favorite in the 1,500 meters, having won 50 straight races prior to the tournament. Keino’s bus was held up in the notorious Mexico City traffic on the way to the stadium, forcing him to run a mile to the arena, but he still broke the existing record, and beat Ryun by 20 meters, which stands as the largest margin of victory in the history of that Olympic race. In an extraordinary display of determination, Keino also won silver in the 5,000 meters, his sixth race in eight days, despite an acute gallbladder infection.
The Munich Olympics of 1972 saw Keino at the peak of his powers. He entered the 3,000-meter steeplechase—that rather odd competition that involves not only running but jumping over hurdles and through water pits. No one expected Keino to even make the final—this was only his fifth competitive steeplechase, and there were 23 others in the race with better times. Yet, at the end, there he stood with a gold medal around his neck, and an Olympic record of 8:23.6. He again won the silver in the 1,500 meters—presumably with a healthy gallbladder this time.
These days, Keino runs an orphanage, the Kip Keino Children’s Home, in Eldoret, Kenya, which he founded just after his retirement in 1973. He asserts, “We started with two [children], then it went to six, then ten. Now it’s up to 90.” He also founded the Kip Keino High School, where 300 children, aged from 6
to 13, are currently enrolled.
Despite his philanthropy, Keino’s overriding legacy will be the phenomenal success of African runners since his 1,500-meter victory over Jim Ryun in '68. Kip Keino and the African men and women that followed in his footsteps have had success in all of the traditional long-distance races—1,500, 5,000, 10,000 meters, steeplechase, and marathon. The achievements of Kenya at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 were truly extraordinary: its runners won six gold medals in the men’s and women’s 800 and 1,500 races, the men’s steeplechase, and the men’s marathon. And there’s no indication that African successes will disappear anytime soon. It all emanated from Kip Keino.