At the Los Angeles Invitational indoor track meet last week another chapter was added to the implausible adventures of Kipchoge (Kip) Keino, that self-taught Kenyan distance runner who emerged suddenly last year out of equatorial Africa and began running fast races and breaking world records as if his country's independence depended on him. In his first try at the totally unfamiliar experience of running indoors he not only ran far and fast but he accomplished the rare feat of doing it twice in one night. Keino warmed up with a second-place finish in a near-four-minute mile, then got back on the track a short time later to win a fast two-mile race against a strong, experienced field. He has now emphatically added his name to that short list of athletes who can consistently make sports news read like fiction.
In the previous installment (SI, Jan. 3) this trim, high-spirited hero had just concluded a bittersweet tour of New Zealand and Australia. Joyously flinging off his bright orange cap as he started his victorious finishing sprints, Keino set a world record for 5,000 meters, won seven races against formidable opponents and even defeated Australia's fine distance runner Ron Clarke. It was definitely Horatio Alger stuff. Only one thing had marred the otherwise triumphant tour. Running in the mile against East Germany's crafty J�rgen May, he set a fast, exciting pace, only to be passed by May at the very finish. Undaunted, Kip vowed to return home and train with new vigor. "I'm going to learn how to sprint that last lap," he said as the chapter ended.
Well, he went home and he worked on his speed and he was still determined to get that mile record, but in the meantime he also decided to tackle something strange and new. So he paid his first visit to the U.S. and made his first attempt at indoor competition.
The week began quietly enough on a cold, rainy afternoon. Keino, looking dapper in a checked wool cap and a royal blue overcoat, arrived at Los Angeles Airport after a 30-hour trip from Nairobi, accompanied by Tony Vaz, an Indian born in Portuguese Goa who had been appointed as Keino's manager only three days earlier. The two scarcely cleared customs before Vaz whipped a notebook out of his blue blazer and began asking Meet Director Herschel Smith questions from a prepared list. What about transportation? How far is the Sports Arena from the hotel? Keino has never run on a board track before, so when can he take a look at it? Could they have the quarter-mile times from the races in which Jim Beatty and Tom O'Hara had set their indoor mile records? This last request prompted a counterquestion.
"Does this mean that you will run in the mile and not the two miles?"
"Maybe I will run in both," Keino replied quite calmly. Vaz, however, appeared staggered by the thought of the exhausting double. "We will have to see how he feels after the mile race," he said. "I have been directed to schedule him only for a mile race here in Los Angeles and a mile race at the Millrose meet in New York. But if he will insist on running the two-mile also what can I do about it?"
Compared to the fast-paced schedule that Keino was now swept up in, his competitive plans for Saturday night seemed no more taxing than a stroll in the park. Shortly after checking in at the Sheraton-West Hotel he was jarred out of a short nap by the loud metallic concussion of an automobile accident on Wilshire Boulevard just below his window. Then at a press conference a short time later he found himself blinking politely into a battery of spotlights and the inquisitive stares of a dozen or so local journalists. His English is not too articulate as yet, but he manages to get his points across.
Would he try to break the world indoor record before returning home?
"It is easy to try to break world records," he said slowly and carefully. "It is not so easy to break them."
Did he have special feelings about being the first great Negro distance runner?