Fa­ther of a na­tion. Dad to 400 chil­dren

DougGil­lon­meets the Olympic leg­end who de­fied death threats to of­fer new hope to hun­dreds

The Herald - - Features -

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.

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