SI Vault
John Underwood
September 30, 1968
I used to wake up in the middle of the night with black faces laughing at me. I still wake up with black faces laughing at me. But now they have gold medals around their necks, medals I have never won.
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September 30, 1968

Lost Laughter

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Quite by accident, I later came upon a break in the party line. Lydia Stevens is one of the best girl runners in Kenya. She is a college student, bright and friendly. After watching her run at Nyeri one afternoon, I remarked on her beautiful style, a petite version of Wilma Rudolph. "I have a very good coach," she said. "Oh? Who is that?" " John Velzian," she said.

In the meanwhile the weeks went by, and it was evident nothing much was getting accomplished. How much damage was done is hard to tell. There is probably no way to red-tape a runner like Keino out of an Olympic medal, or a Temu, either, and Wilson Kiprugut is too dedicated to let himself deteriorate. But so much indulgence has been laid on Keino that you now needed a letter of introduction to get to him ("He will not talk to you without it," I was told by a Kenya AAA official. "He will give you a bad time. With a letter, you may get his cooperation"). Keino was not training, or not training very hard, and he competed only when the mood struck him. Kiprugut was unhappy, and Temu was threatening to retire. "There has been so little encouragement," he said.

In early August the national championships were held in Nyeri. Temu had a death in the family and missed the first day. Kogo did not compete at all. Keino was there but chose not to run in the mile or six miles, where he might have pulled some of the younger talent up to Olympic qualifying standards. I was told he had had a disagreement with the sports officer in his Central Province and refused to run for the Central team. Mukora, the coach, seemed to have no say in the matter. One was reminded that last November Diana Monks, then Kenya's outstanding girl athlete and an Olympic pentathlon contender, was suspended two years by the Kenya AAA for missing a meet without permission. Sports Officer William Yeda, who pretty much controls Kenyan athletics, called Miss Monks's neglect "an abuse to the nation." There were those, however, who argued that Miss Monks's principal offense was that she was a European (a white) and otherwise would not have been punished so severely. The suspension stuck.

Keino, though not competing, was much in evidence the first day of the meet at Nyeri. He moved around in a stylish gray suit and pointed shoes, sipping Coca-Colas and chatting with friends and checking times with his stopwatch. He was in good spirits. Peter Moll asked him why he would not run. "I will not," Keino said, dismissing the subject. On the second day he agreed to run as a "guest" (no team affiliation) in the three miles. He came on the track dramatically, the last one out, wearing satiny blue briefs and a white shirt with a small red cross in the middle. He warmed up apart from the others as the crowd hummed with excitement. There was no doubting his star quality. The other runners gave him respectful side-glances. In a good race of unspectacular time (13:31.3), he won the three-mile, beating Temu, and the big crowd in the bleachers and on the hillsides surrounding the stadium cheered him around.

None of the statistics for the two-day meet were outstanding, nor were they much better the next weekend when the Kenyans won the East African Games at Dar es Salaam. After that they flew down to Zambia, and there they all took a real rest: Keino ran 5,000 meters in 14:35.1, more than a minute slower than his best. Temu ran 10,000 meters in 30:32.7, two minutes off. Kiprugut's 800 meters (1:49.5) was four seconds off his best. The Kenyan sprinters, who had been coming on a year ago and were being advertised as a new thrust for Mexico City, were going badly. Rudisha could not even beat the local talent. "At this stage in his development," commented one correspondent, "I doubt Rudisha could outrun his clumsy Masai cattle."

In Nairobi, John Velzian said he was heartbroken by the turn of events. My first night there I had dinner with Velzian and invited him to cry it out, except that crying is not within Velzian's emotional range. He is, at all times, a confident little man, cocksure of his coaching ability, the legitimacy of which can be detected in five minutes of shoptalk. As a white man in a black country, he might have been better off had he adopted a more pliable nature, say like that of Onni Niskanen in Ethiopia. Niskanen coaches Abebe Bikila, the Olympic marathon champion in 1960 and 1964. The official line, as I discovered there three years ago, was that Niskanen is not Bikila's coach. Bikila told me Niskanen was his coach. I watched Niskanen coach him and the two of them clown around together. But officially I was directed to say that Niskanen was not Bikila's coach. It did not matter to Niskanen. He said he would as soon not have the notoriety. Velzian, younger (40) and less governable, does not shrink so willingly from the spotlight.

Velzian is not, and does not necessarily claim to be, the sum and substance of Kenya's athletic success. The Keinos and the Kipruguts emerged at the top of a pyramid built over the years from a solid, growing base: a broad athletic program at the school and village level. That is where Kenya has it over its African neighbors. (There is some irony in this, too, because nationwide emphasis on sport at that level was pushed during the Mau Mau emergency in the late 1950s, when sports officers were sent out to instruct and organize the young men in order to keep their minds off other activities. Mau Mau is now anathema in Kenya; no one likes to be reminded of it.) The school program gets widespread and enthusiastic support. The annual school track-and-field meet, held recently in Mombasa, drew 350 boys and girls. Velzian, retained for two years by the government as games tutor at the University College in Nairobi and as president of the Kenya Schools' Athletic Association, was in charge. Something of his approach to bureaucracy—the crash-right-through technique—can be seen in the way he handles transportation. He needed a train to get the 350 athletes to Mombasa. He called a railroad official. The official said it was impossible. "All right," said Velzian, "it's impossible. But it's not impossible for you to get on the phone and ring the vice-president of Kenya and tell him it's impossible, because he's the patron of our association." Velzian got his train. "We had a fantastic championship," he said.

At dinner Velzian said the first signs of his becoming expendable as national coach came after a story on him and the Kenyans appeared in SI, Dec. 19, 1966, written by Senior Editor Martin Kane. "The story was entirely accurate," said Velzian, "and flattering to me, but it did not sit well with the Kenya AAA." A "commission of inquiry" was formed to investigate the matter. Velzian was charged with glorifying himself. Sports Officer William Yeda made a list of complaints over statements of "fact," and Velzian answered that each statement was indeed a fact. Charles Mukora, who succeeded him as coach, accused Velzian of writing the story himself. Mukora said further that a picture showing Rudisha with a Masai spear and ocher on his face and body "made Kenya look as if it were a land of primitive savages."

Velzian said he believed that Yeda's antagonism stemmed from a deep-seated resentment over setbacks he (Yeda) had suffered in the past. "I think Yeda was gunning for me," said Velzian. The controversy over the story boiled for a while, but Velzian survived it, only to go through a series of smaller battles over other issues. "My feeling was we had to get as many Kenyan runners qualified for Mexico City as possible, and we had to have our meetings designed for that purpose, and we had to be very scientific about where we put our high-altitude training camp. Some of them couldn't even spell altitude, didn't know what oxygen debt was. It was becoming impossible to get anything right, and Kenya's chances were sliding away. I told them they were ruining the team."

Then, finally, came the African boycott movement against South Africa's admission into the Games. Velzian said, "I wanted the athletes to say, 'We don't care who he is, what color, what religion—if he has two legs, we'll run against him.' We should be apart from politics. I don't understand them, I don't expect my athletes to. But they were under pressure to speak out." After the African countries met and decided to boycott, the International Olympic Committee backed down and ruled South Africa out. The Kenya AAA met again. "They decided to have a reshuffling of our team organization," said Velzian. "The only one they reshuffled was me."

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