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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Previously, for all his work, Velzian had never been chosen to accompany the athletes on an overseas trip, except to the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica in 1966, when the Kenyan runners stood out like vest buttons. Only recently did he learn that he had been invited to coach the Commonwealth team for the meet with the U.S. at Los Angeles in July of 1967. "The invitation never got to me," said Velzian. "It got only as far as Yeda's office." Lieutenant Colonel Jack Davies of Canada, who was instrumental in the formation of the Commonwealth team, confirmed that Velzian had indeed been invited, but the invitation, following the routes of protocol, was sent to Dr. A. A. Ordia of Nigeria to pass on to the Kenya AAA. It was Colonel Davies' understanding that Velzian had turned it down. Velzian would have sooner cut off a leg. "We would have liked to have had him," said Davies. "I met him in Jamaica and was impressed."

We finished dinner and Velzian got up to leave. He had seldom smiled during the meal. He said he believed he was as good as through in Kenya, that if he were offered a coaching job in the United States he would "go in a minute." He said he could not entirely blame the Kenya AAA, because many of its members were new and did not really know him or share his past involvement. What bothered him, he said, was seeing those wonderful Kenyan prospects disintegrating.

"The team had looked so great last year," he said. "But from February on there were danger signs. No competition, no real training. I do not believe in closed seasons. I believe you must improve steadily and never, never go backward. The only justification for sending a team to Scandinavia was to win, to prepare them psychologically for the Olympics. Temu and Keino vs. Clarke. Two against one. They should have run him off the track. They should have had him thinking about retirement. I talked to them when they came home. I was with Keino just the other night. We talked until 4 in the morning. I was not happy with what I heard. They were talking about how good Clarke looked, how good the opposition was. They were talking about getting beat. Keino said he had had cramps in Scandinavia. I said to him, 'Kip, you are making excuses. You have never made excuses before.'

"If I had anything at all it was the ability to motivate. I would not have had them talking this way. I would not have-allowed it. We were a team, we thought as a team and we thought only of winning. I pushed hard, but when I pushed it was because it had to be. No, I will not go to the meet at Nyeri tomorrow. I am going to have a holiday at the beach instead. I think if I went to Nyeri it would break my heart."

On the evening after the first day's competition at Nyeri I sat with friends in the lounge at the Outspan Hotel, wondering whom I could coerce into writing a prefatory note to Keino. We had met at the track that afternoon and had talked briefly, laughing over small jokes—Keino handles English well and catches many of the subtleties—and he seemed glad to talk, but he made no promises for further discussion. Officials I had met at the track had been hastily introduced (one of them, I believe it was Yeda, advised me straight off "not to write distorted truths"), and there was no time for the framing of notes.

A big man with slightly Arabic features and bright, house-counting eyes suddenly loomed over us. "If you are the one who wrote that other story," he said in a loud voice, "I have come to have you deported. Failing that"—he broke into an enormous grin—"I will at least try to kill you during your stay here." The man was introduced as Aish Jeneby, secretary of the Kenya AAA. He quickly established his lead as a conversationalist.

I said I could not take credit for the story but appreciated the warning and would remember to lock my door and put a panga under the pillow. What about Keino?

Jeneby launched into a recital on his own travels with Kipchoge, lugging in some lengthy side references to the deplorable state of modern journalism, which he made clear was his reason for dropping by. He said he had accompanied Kipchoge to Russia in July, where, on the day of the 10,000-meter competition, Kipchoge's shoes were stolen. "If I ever thought of becoming a Communist," bellowed Jeneby, "that changed me forever. It was Kipchoge's only pair!" In borrowed shoes two sizes too large, Keino finished second, with blisters. "After the race the Kenya ambassador to Russia came onto the track and picked Kipchoge up bodily. There were 20 Kenyans there from the embassy, and they made the noise of 1,000. You should have heard them."

Eventually, Jeneby lectured me on my mission: "We are not rich here in Kenya," he said, "and we have much to learn, but we are a very, very proud people. Very proud. We are not happy that the American athletes will not come to run here. Your Mr. Ryun has turned us down, and others, too. We will not send our runners to the United States again until they come here. I promise you that.

"But we also need your help. We need equipment, you can see that. Runners without shoes. We need coaching. We encourage your help. Criticize us if you like, that is all right. We need that, too. Criticize us. But be honest."

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