Two years ago, and through last year, the runners of Kenya were the talk of the footracing world. They were a new kind of emerging force in Africa—something tangible out of the new social order. Neither well trained nor well equipped by Western standards, with little to go on but their willing (and often bare) feet, they produced, in the remarkably short time since independence in 1963, a platoon of runners who were capable of giving world-class opponents a case of the discouragements.
Kipchoge Keino, a Nandis tribesman with handsome dimples and a mustache, beat Ron Clarke six out of seven races in international meets. He broke world records at 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters. He pushed America's Jim Ryun to a record 1,500 meters in Los Angeles. Keino was a sensation. Drum magazine named him African of the Year. Queen Elizabeth mentioned him in her Christmas message to the Commonwealth. The city of Mombasa unveiled Kipchoge Keino Avenue. The only faults that could be found with him were that he sulked after defeats and the e in his name came before the i. In Kenya he began to appear at receptions with Jomo Kenyatta himself. Said Keino of those meetings: "The president told me, 'When you go off to other places to run, and you win, you win for yourself—but you are Kipchoge of Kenya!' " In a series of flash promotions, Policeman Keino rose from the rank of corporal (1964) to that of chief inspector and moved into a two-bedroom house of quarried stone with a red tile roof and flowers all around.
The Kenyans surrounded their central jewel with others of only slightly lesser water, and the prospect was for a grand haul at the Mexico City Olympics. Not only were the Kenyans good, but they lived at 5,500 feet, and anybody who ever drew a breath of thin air in Mexico City (7,349 feet) knows about the advantage that living at altitude will give a runner at these Olympics. Keino would challenge Ryun at 1,500 meters; he would surely win a gold at 5,000; and he stood a chance for a second at 10,000 meters, conceding that to teammate Naftali Temu. Temu, of the Kisii tribe, had been beating Clarke, too, and others who cared to have a romp with him at six miles or 10,000 meters. For Temu, six miles was a breeze, the exact distance it used to be from home to school, and he always ran home for lunch as a schoolboy and again in the evening to beat the darkness.
There was also Wilson Kiprugut, a soft-spoken army sergeant who lowered the Union Jack and raised Kenya's new flag on Independence Day and won a bronze medal in the 800 meters at Tokyo, Kenya's first Olympic medal. If anything, he had improved with age. Benjamin Kogo, a Kikuyu, had outsteeplechased the great Gaston Roelants in Europe. His times put him third in the world in 1967. Masai Daniel Rudisha was so good a quarter-miler (45.8) that he ranked first in the world among non-Americans. The prospects were growing: other Kenyans were said to be only a drumbeat behind Keino and hard on the heels of Temu, and now some of them wore Adidas spiked shoes. German anthropologists and physiologists rushed into Kenya with their calipers to measure chests and thighs in search of the secrets.
Then it began to go bad. Slowly at first, then all too obviously, like fish left on the dock. By August of this year, when I went to Kenya to see Keino and the others, the glow of high purpose had faded and the Kenyans were a jangling medley of neglected excellence and growing doubts. Performances had steadily fallen off, or there were no performances. Star athletes had taken to skipping meets. Times were poor.
A series of competitions in Scandinavia, success in which might have been the final discouragement for old rival Ron Clarke, was a disaster. In the course of 10 days Clarke beat Keino four times and Temu twice. It was Keino who came home discouraged, his sights considerably lowered. He hinted strongly that he would run in only one event at Mexico City, the 5,000 meters, his pet. "I am only human," he said, a nationshaking conclusion. The Nairobi newspapers began writing what's-happening stories ("What's happening to Kipchoge? Is he burning himself out?") and the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association did not have the answer. Furthermore, its officials considered it bad form to ask. Peter Moll of the Nation tried the hard line. "Don't expect a miracle" in Mexico City, he wrote, and was roundly rebuked as an alarmist.
What, indeed, was happening? Bureaucracy was happening, mainly. False pride was happening. Racialism was happening. To begin with: the sacking of John Velzian, the national coach. Velzian's dismissal was so well couched in new-nation exigencies—always marked by a preoccupation with red tape, petty carping and buck-passing—that it practically went unnoticed, and Velzian himself was left in the dark for weeks. The Nation, which had run a five-part, near-book-length series on Velzian's coaching techniques just the year before, calling him a "dynamic, driving force," chose to keep mum, except for a short squib telling of Charles Mukora's appointment as national coach. Mukora had been Velzian's understudy. He had spent a year in England studying physical education. He had no meaningful, practical coaching experience. Velzian, with two diplomas from English universities, had been coaching in Kenya for 10 years.
The only explanation hinted at was that Velzian had gotten too big for his whistle and was getting more credit than he deserved. Officials denied charges of racialism ("People in Nairobi think it's racialism," said Charles Mbathi, the president of the Kenya AAA, "but it is not"). Mbathi took the position that Velzian was overrated. " John Velzian is not responsible for all Kenya's brilliant athletes," he said. Other officials, though privately sympathetic to Velzian, kept still.
The athletes fell in line. When I asked Keino about Velzian, keeping the question as innocent as possible, Keino said, "How could he be my coach? He is in Nairobi and I am here at Kiganjo, four hours away." Keino apparently had forgotten that Velzian did not always live in Nairobi, that for two years he was practically next door at Kagumo College and working with Keino, then an unknown, on a regular basis. Since moving to Nairobi as national coach, Velzian had run up one of the grandest gasoline bills in East Africa, touring the provinces on weekends, getting in his coaching licks at schools and villages and army camps, outlining schedules for the more advanced athletes like Keino. He paid for his own gas.
No matter, Velzian was now out and no one was rallying to his defense. It was especially easy not to in Velzian's case because he had made a career of battling the Establishment and stepping on toes. (Ironically, his personal odyssey began in Kenya with a struggle against the other side of the racial issue. The first nut he had to crack was the old colonial prejudice that Africans would run only for a pot or a panga, never for the love of it.) New Coach Mukora was soon so wrapped up in administrative duties that, as he admitted to a local reporter, he had not coached a single training session or sent out a single individual schedule. The athletes were on their own, because after Mukora there was no one. If, therefore, you accept the argument that Velzian was no more than a little help, you must also conclude that, where once there was a little help, there now was no help.