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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He talked about his Olympic medal and the day he raised the flag. "Oh, it was a very good day. Everybody was so very happy. Everybody was dancing in the streets, in the airport. Everybody was very, very happy." He said his travels had taught him much, and he had learned much about coaching. "In Tokyo I was very keen to ask about training, to sit down and talk and to learn. I was not having any coaching at that time. I learned much. Peter Snell was too busy to talk. He was hiding himself on another track. But I kept trying to have friendships, to talk about coaching. I would like to coach. I would like to have it here like it is in the United States." He smiled. "I think you have one coach for every athlete in the United States."

I asked if he were looking forward to Mexico City, and what he expected to find for himself there. Kiprugut shook his head.

"The Kenya people say, 'Ah, he is now in a good position. Maybe he will get the gold medal, or the silver medal,' but I say I do not know. These things do not come automatically. The other boys, they feel they are in a good position, too. I may be in the Top Ten in the world, but maybe there will be very good Americans and Russians and Australians and Germans. Maybe they have a better condition than me. It depends on many things, the climate, many things. It is very difficult. I am in good shape here, at 5,000, 6,000 feet. When I go up to 7,000 feet it will not be the same. I cannot promise anyone I will do this and this. It is very difficult."

On the two days that I watched the Kenyans train as a team at the army camp outside Nairobi, Charles Mukora, the coach, could not be there, being busy with other duties. It is probable that he made other sessions, but those I watched were haphazard and desultory. Keino came one day in street clothes and kept times with his watch. He said his stomach had been bothering him.

Perhaps, as Kipling once said, "...more men are killed by overwork than the impatience of this world justifies," and it may be the Kenyans are so good that all their doubts and apparent neglect will drift away in the breeze of their own great talent. There is a tree in East Africa called the baobab, a fat-bellied tree that produces large, pendulous flowers and oblong fruits filled with pulp. Though its trunk is enormous, the branches of the baobab slim down quickly into thousands of spindly, weblike tendrils, and the tree appears on the horizon to be almost barren. According to legend, the baobab was uprooted by the Devil and the branches are actually the roots. There is much in Africa today that seems to be growing upside down. Those who philosophize could say that the roots are actually reaching for the stars and are not upside down at all. It is all in the point of view. I would feel more confident of it if I had found the black faces laughing.

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