Father of a nation. Dad to 400 children
DougGillonmeets the Olympic legend who defied death threats to offer new hope to hundreds
WHEN he found two s tar ving children by the roads i d e in Isiolo, Kipchoge Keino was just a young police officer. He had yet to make any impact on his superiors in the rural Rift Valley farming community where he lived, never mind the world of athletics.
Keino has since become a true sporting legend, winning Olympic gold medals at 1500m and 3000m steeplechase, and setting world records at 3000m and 5000m, but that evening in 1963, when he spotted two ravenous kids stuffing dirt down their throats, has had a more far-reaching impact on the world.
The first Kenyan to make his name in sport, he is father of his nation in amuch more meaningful context than athletics.
The wall of the living room at his home, Kazi Mingi, a farm near Eldoret, tells an amazing story. It is lined with wedding pictures, unions between all the tribes of his country: children whom he has raised and educated, several at university in the US. All were abandoned and brought up at the children’s home on his farm.
In Swahili, the farm’s name translates as: ALot ofWork.
“Night was falling when I stumbled on these two emaciated children. They had been abandoned,” recalls Keino. “Theirhungerwas so great that they were eating earth by the roadside. I was given permission by the local authorities to care for them, and took them home.”
He and his wife, Phyllis, raised them. One is nowa police officer and the other is a married woman, mother of several children.
The children they have adopted nownumberwell over 400. “There are doctors, university lecturers, teachers, computer programmers, policemen, like I was,” he says. “People with their own businesses, and many married women. Those are children who had been abandoned. Many would have died because of bad health and disease.”
They are babies who have been thrown by their parents into dustbins orworse, Aids orphans, street children concealing a birth, orprostitutes who don’t want kids. They’ve been rescued from public toilets and thickets. Phyllis manages 20 care workers who look after them.
Keino’s humanity is legendary, but his heroism in defying death threats is something he has glossed over. The details, not only of threats in Edinburgh when he raced there in 1970, but of howhe was called “monkey” by a man who put a pistol to his head in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, emerged only before he left Scotland after a ground-breaking visit yesterday.
What came to be known as the Friendly Games had been anything but forKeino, who arrived in Edinburgh as Olympic 1500mchampion. He nowexempts the Scottish people fromblame.That was apparent in his heart-warming negotiations this week over a scholarship forKenyan athletes at Stirling University, and reciprocal opportunities fortheirstudents to go to Kenya. But that is an improbable sequel to the days when he believed there was a killerlurking in the flats overlooking Edinburgh’s Meadowbank, hiding behind telescopic sights, waiting to shoot him.
“I came to the Commonwealth Games, and it was a Friendly Games,” he emphasises, in his soft, almost whispering tones. “They were very successful, but there were people there not for the Games, but for their own purpose. Death threats weremade. Somebody sent me several postcards. They were ringing me after my training and saying: ‘We want your head’. And I told them: ‘My head is here, and you can have it any time.’
“I didn’t care. I was walking around and shopping in Scotland, and doing all this in Edinburgh. And when I came back from training, my telephone rang, and a voice said: ‘Hey, did you hear what we want? We want your head!’ And I said: ‘forwhat reason? I came here to represent my country, and if you can do anything, I think it’s a great honour for me and my country.’
“Later on I gave the postcard, several postcards, to the chef de mission of our team, and he was able to send it back to Kenya. I was not the only one to receive the threats. The head of state, Kenyata, also received threats. The guy was able to be identified. He said he had three telescopic guns, but later on, at home, I was informed by the police that he was a Kenyan, a farmer in Kenya, who was not happy with the country being independent.”
He laughs when I suggest that was the reason that he never took the lead in the 5000 metres, in which he was beaten by two Scots, who logged what were then the third and fourth fastest times ever. By then he had already won the 1500m.
“No, believe they did catch somebody from one of the top flats,” he said. “The programme was changed. They changed the time of the 1500m, when I talked to them. ScotlandYard also was inmy room at the PollockHalls, listening to the man who was talking to me. He was well taken care of. They had all the equipment, the police. Theman was caught. I knew by the time I ran the 5000magainst Ian Stewart and Ian McCafferty.
“Let me tell you, they were good athletes – they were very good. I believe that their time was so good it is still the Scottish record.”
Threats and abuse of Keino did not stop in Edinburgh. In the US, a gun was stuck in his face, twice, and he was ordered not to race. “It was during the Martin Luther King Memorial Games, and when I was warming up, someone came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing here, monkey?’
“I said: ‘Listen, I’m a human being in my country, and I’m not a monkey’. And the gun was in my head.” Keino gesticulated with two fingers under his jaw. “I didn’t win. I was second, beaten by Marty Liquori. I did my best.”
It did not stop him, and he still runs three to four miles a day, four times a week, and six miles at weekends. He is 67.
Five years ago he ran the Flora London Marathon, in a head-tohead rematch with his 1970 rival,
Main Picture: James Galloway Ian Stewart. He did it for Oxfam, who put a well in his village.
“There was no water where I grewup, but a charity came and put in a borehole and a windmill. It’s still working today. They did that maybe 20 years ago. We thought what we had was clean water, but if you take what we have today, it was not clean water. So we boiled it. Otherwise it was not good water.”
He has also run for the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, run by his compatriot who once held the women’s world marathon best. “These warriors come with their guns, but they put them down and run.
“I have run twice in this race that Tegla organised. This year the guest of honourwas the US ambassador to Kenya. Running brings the youths and warriors from Uganda, Ethopia, and Somalia together. All of us run and forget what has happened. At the end of it we were shaking hands. We were laughing during the entertainment of music and so forth. But I believe in this world that sport is the only tool that can unite youth. Sport is something different from fighting in the war, and it unites the people. Win or lose, we shake hands. The best person is appreciated by anyone, and I believe the sports movement, sports talent, can be used by our world. Take the Olympic movement. Not everyone will win the gold. Not all of them will be the winners. We can change the world by using sport as a tool.”
He continues to run for other charities. “I’ve run a lot forwater charities and children’s charities. I believe we share in this world with other members of our society who are less fortunate. We take care of orphans and I believe this is very important for us to be able to give backto less fortunate members of our society at home.
“This is most important. We came to this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. So we can be able tomake a betterworld for those who need assistance. I think that’s most important for us.”
ICON: KipchogeKeino in Glasgow yesterday; receiving his medal with Scotland’s Ian McCafferty and Ian Stewart in 1970, below; and withNew Zealand’s Dick Quax, right.