A legend returns to inspire our youngsters

 

ATHLETICS:In his role as an ambassador for the Africa Week Athletics Meet, double Olympic champion Kip Keino will be at the Morton Stadium in Santry today. Don’t miss it, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

SWEET LORD they might as well be IN Africa as the sun beats down on the students of St Mark’s in Tallaght. It’s definitely a little hot to be running a mile, at any pace, although it surely helps that the man watching them keep stride is Hezekiah Kipchoge Keino — better known to most of us as “Kip” Keino.

I can’t imagine many of these youngsters fully appreciate how incredible he once was, yet in many ways every young Kenyan distance runner is still following in his footsteps. Keino wasn’t Africa’s first gold medal winner at the Olympics; he wasn’t even Kenya’s first. What he did was show the rest of the world was that Kenyan runners, whatever the distance on the track, can be the most amazingly smooth, versatile, and devastatingly quick. No one had those talents in greater natural abundance than Kip Keino, and with even the great Kenyan runners these days somewhat indistinguishable from each other, his legendary status remains unrivalled.

Keino is in Dublin this week for a few reasons, primarily on the back of Africa Day 2012 – which you may or may not have realised was yesterday. No worries, because most of the African-related events are happening this weekend – including the African Week Athletics “One Race Human Race” in Santry Stadium all day today, organised by the Dublin Multicultural Centre in partnership with Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari), amongst others, and where Keino himself will be holding the starter’s gun.

Keino has been to Ireland a few times before, including Santry, having run there twice before at his peak: he was already back there last night for an open interview with Frank Greally, at the Clonliffe clubhouse, and despite his seemingly endless tales of heroic feats on the track, Keino is much more comfortable talking about the possibilities of others, which is no surprise whatsoever given he has devoted his entire post-athletics life seeking out those less fortunate than himself, firstly when establishing an orphanage with his wife, Phyllis, and more recently through the Kip Keino School, opened in 2008, in Eldoret.

This is the message he’s giving me too after watching the students running at St Mark’s.

“It is one of my main objectives now,” he tells me, “to encourage the youth of today, all around the world, to take some part not just in running but in any sport. And that is one of the main objectives of African Week Athletics, to encourage the youths of this country, and the African youths that are living here, to participate in sport. So yes, it’s very important to have events like this, to try and get the young people into sport at that age, and to maybe identify which of them might be the best, and perhaps nurture those a little more, and move them on towards becoming the best they can be.”

He says he remembers well running in Santry himself, firstly in 1966, and again in 1970 – when he won the inaugural Morton Memorial Mile. Keino could be forgiven for forgetting, given his still astonishing list of accomplishments: the first African man to go sub-four in the mile, running 3:54.2 in 1965, he’s perhaps most famously remembered for running 3:34.9 for his Olympic 1,500m win in 1968 in Mexico, beating Jim Ryun, then world record-holder, by 2.98 seconds, the biggest margin in Olympic history.

Lest anyone forget, Keino also won steeplechase gold in 1972, plus two Olympic silvers (5,000m in 1968, 1,500m in 1972), three Commonwealth Games golds, set world records at 3,000m and 5,000m, etc, etc.

When I start asking what sets Kenyan distance runners apart now as much as then, and if the rest of the world can ever catch up, he immediately interrupts: “Oh yes,” he says, as if tired of that line of questioning. “I remember in this country you used to have a lot of very good milers, distance runners. And there is still talent here. A lot of talent, I must say. Looking at this high school students this morning, running the mile, I think they were able to perform very well, boys and girls. So it’s just about training them to be the best they can.

“But there is no secret, for any country. And I would say that about any country in the world. There is no secret – only hard work. But also enjoying and loving the sport. But those are the only things.”

Then without prompting he makes reference to the likes of our own Brother Colm O’Connell, former headmaster at St Patrick’s High School in Iten, and still the godfather to large groups of leading Kenyan distance runners, including Olympic 800-metre favourite David Rudisha: “And yes one of the reasons I’m very happy to be invited here, because I know well there are a lot of Irish people in Kenya doing a very good job for us, in schools and other education, encouraging the youth of our country.

“And this is where we share something, the idea of helping and identify young athletes, again to be the best they can.”

Truth is I can predict with near certainty that at the London Olympics, just two months from now, African athletes will win every distance race from 800 metres up to and including the marathon – for both men and women. There may well be a couple of exceptions, such as Britain’s Mo Farah, although he was, of course, born and raised in Somalia.

Indeed one of the aims of One Race Human Race is to introduce athletics to people of an immigrant background, and in particular people of African background, now resident in Ireland. Sari have already published some studies that suggest there is a very poor participation rate by migrants in athletics, even though they may come from countries with an exceptionally rich athletic background.

It could well be that some of the African youngsters introduced to athletics in Santry today – and in races from under-8 to under-16, from 100m to 800m – could someday be our own Olympic hopefuls, and believe me, that wouldn’t do the sport much harm at all.

In the meantime, although he turned 72 earlier this year and is perhaps not as a naturally thin as he once was, Keino still gets out for a run most days: “Because running is for life,” he tells me, and suddenly I realise how much he’s just inspired me too.

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