Kenyan Sprinters: A historical perspective

In the world of sports, Kenya is primarily known as a nation that produces middle and long distance runners. So dominant are Kenyan runners that many people have come to expect that all Kenyans are predisposed towards distance running and that they are all lean and thin distance running machines. All over the internet you will find articles quoting so called “experts” describing what they call an East African body type. The general consensus amongst these so called experts is that East Africans and Kenyans in particular are genetically predisposed towards distance running whereas west Africans are genetically predisposed towards sprinting. In fact this is far from the truth. In reality, Kenya has produced more world class sprinters then every West African country except for Nigeria and possibly Ghana.

Kenya’s sprinting history starts with Seraphino Antao, who was a Kenyan of Goan decent. He grew up in Mombasa, Kenya’s second city. He made it to the semi finals of the 1960 Olympics in the 100m. In 1962 he made his biggest splash at the Commonwealth games which were held in Perth Australia. There he won gold medals in the 100 and 220 yards. Not only did he win the 100 yards, but he literally blew the field away. These were Kenya’s first ever gold medals in any international competition. That same year, he also won the 100 and 220 yards at the British amateur athletics championships in emphatic fashion. At age 28 in 1965, Antao finally hung up his running cleats and moved to London.

Serpahino Antao in action

The first time Kenya competed in a continental championships was in 1965 when they joined other newly independent African nations to compete in the 1965 All Africa games held in Brazzaville, Congo. At those games, Wilson Kiprugut who was the first Kenyan ever to win an Olympic medal, won the 400m to add to his 800m gold at those same games. At those same games in 1965, Kimaru Songok started Kenya’s tradition of producing top tier 400m hurdlers when he won the men’s 400m hurdles. John Owiti won the silver medal in the men’s 100m. Diana Monks became the first Kenyan woman to win any athletics medal when she won the silver medal in the women’s 80m hurdles

Kenya’s next moment of sprint glory came in the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico city when the quartet of Daniel Rudisha, Matesi Nyamau, Naftali Bon and Charles Asati won the silver medal in the 4 X 400m in a stellar time of 2:59:64. The world was shocked. No one had expected Kenya to do well in any event much less a sprint event. Its worth noting that Rudisha’s son David became the world record holder in the 800m 42 years later.

Kenya’s next sprint hero however was Charles Asati. He went on to win 2 gold medals at the 1970 Commonwealth games in the 400m where he ran 45.01 and in the 4 X 400m. He went on to win a bronze medal in the 200m at 20.73. At those same games, Charles Koskei and Charles Yego became the first Kenyans to medal in a global hurdling event when they won silver and bronze in the 400m hurdles. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Asati finished fourth in the 400m finals behind another Kenyan Julius Sang who won bronze. Asati was part of the Kenyan 4 X 400m quartet that shocked the world by winning the Olympic gold medal. Charles Asati went on to win gold in the 400m at the 1973 All African games. He capped a glorious by winning 2 gold medals at the 1974 commonwealth games in the 400m and 4 X 400m. All said and done, Asati is the most accomplished sprinter Kenya has ever produced.

Asati’s compatriot at the 1972 Olympics was Julius Sang. He won the bronze medal in the 400m, becoming the first Kenyan sprinter ever to win an Olympic medal. But the glorious moment came when Sang teamed up with Asati, Munyoro Nyamau and Robert Ouko to win the gold medal in the 4 X 400m. The world was shocked.

Tecla Chemabwai was Kenya’s next great female sprinter after Diana Monks left the athletics scene. Chemabwai became the first Kenyan woman to win All Africa games gold when she won the 400m. Along with another sprinter, Lydia Stevens-Oketch and Elizabeth Chesire, she became the first Kenyan women at the Olympics.

Fatwell Kimaiyo made waves at the commonwealth games of 1974 when he won the mens 110m hurdles in a then Africa record time of 13.69. Nearly 40 years later, it is still a Kenyan record. John Mwebi put Kenya on the map for the first time ever in the 100m when he won silver, finishing second to legendary Jamaican Donald Quarrie, the Usain Bolt of that era.

Kenya was to miss the 1976 Olympics so the golden generation of Kimaiyo and Chemabwai missed an opportunity to showcase their skills. The rustiness showed by 1978 when the country participated in the 1978 All Africa games. However there were a few bright spots; Most notably Fatwell Kimaiyo who obliterated the field to win the 110m hurldes. Compatriot Philip Sang was second. Daniel Kimaiyo emulated his namesake by winning the 400m hurdles and continuing Kenya’s proud tradition in the low hurdles. It was a spectacular coup as Kimaiyo beat the legendary Ugandan John Akii Bua who had been an Olympic gold medalist and had dominated the event all over the world.

Daniel Kimaiyo stole the show at the 1978 commonwealth games by winning the 400m hurdles there. He went on to play a pivotal role as Kenya won the 4 X 400m relay. It was now the 3rd time in a row that Kenya had won the 4 X 400m at the commonwealth games. The following year 1979, he won gold medal in the 400m hurdles at the African championships. Wilson Kibeigo finished second.

1978 also saw the emergence of the legendary Ruth Waithera. While only 20 years old, the precocious Waithera won bronze in the 200m at the 1978 All Africa games. She was offered a scholarship to attend college in the USA where she ran the 200m and the 400m. Ruth Waithera once again earned a podium spot winning the bronze in the 200m at the 1979 Africa championships. She set Kenyan records at both events. Both records still stand nearly 35 years later. In the 1984 Olympic, she reached the final of the women’s 400m and break the Africa record in the 400m. That was quite an accomplishment because in those days, Kenyan women rarely reached the finals of any Olympic event be it sprint or long distance. In 1984, she was the only Kenyan woman to do so.

Billy Konchellah was only 18 years old in 1979 and a student at Upper Hill secondary school when he ran 45.38 in the 400m. The supremely talented Konchellah represented Upper Hill at every event from the 100m to the cross country. Konchellah was offered a scholarship to attend college in the USA. Here, his coach converted him to an 800m runner. Whereas he did well in the 2 lap event, it is intriguing to think of how good he had become had he continued with the 400m. The time he ran at age 18 is similar or better than what other legendary one lap runners like Michael Johnson ran at the same age

In 1979 the 18 year old Konchellah won a bronze medal at the first ever Africa athletics championships. The silver medal was won by another Kenyan James Atuti and Kenya won the 4 X 400m. On the womens side, Mary Chemweno won the bronze medal in the 400m and Kenya bagged the silver medal in the women’s 4 X 400m.

The 1982 commonwealth games and the 1983 world championships were disastrous for Kenya not just from a sprinting perspective but also from an distance perspective. Kenya had boycotted the 1976 Olympics to protest apartheid and was arm-twisted into boycotting the 1980 Olympics. The rustiness showed as Kenya won hardly a medal at both events. Some solace came in the 1982 Africa championships. Philip Sang and James Kokoyo went 1-2 in the 110m hurdles and James Atuti won silver in the 400m and anchored the Kenya team that won the 4 X 400m. Then Kenya went 1-2-3 in the decatthlon with Charles Kokoyo, Patrick Cheruiyot and Solomon Kaptich winning gold silver and bronze respectively.

But it was on the women’s side that Kenya shocked the continent. First, Alice Adala won the 100m beating the much fancied Nawal El Moutawakil of Morocco and Nzaeli Kyomo of Tanzania. Then Ruth Atuti won the 400m. Incredibly, Kenya won both the women’s 4 X 100m and 4 X 400m. Frida Kiptala won bronze in the heptathlon.

At the 1984 African championships, once again the Kenyan women sprinters outshone the men. Joyce Odhiambo win silver in the 100m in 11.93. Joyce Odhiambo is easily the greatest 100m runner Kenya ever produced. She set the Kenya 100m record of 11.62 in 1987. 24 years later, the record still stands. Ruth Atuti and Mable Esendi went 1-2 in the 400m. Incredibly, Kenya retained both the women’s 4 X 100m and 4 X 400m beating the much vaunted Nigeria and Ghana teams. Frida Kiptala improved to silver in the heptathlon. The only medal won by Kenyan male sprinters was the gold medal by Philip Sang who retained the men’s 110m hurdle title he had won in 1982.

Kenya legend Joyce Odhiambo, now a coach

Today Joyce Odhiambo (left) passes on her experience to younger runners including foreign ones like Stephanie Heminger above

Simon Kipkemboi emerged as Kenya’s premier 200m runner of the 1980s. He won gold medals at the 1985 Africa championships and the 1987 All Africa games. He was also part of the Kenya 4 X 100m teams that won silver medals at both events. In 1989 he switched to the 400m and won silver at the Africa championships that year. Along with David Kitur he was part of the Kenya team that won the 4 X 400m gold at the 1985 Africa championships. Come 1987, Innocent Egbunike spoiled Kenya’s party when he closed a two metre gap to snatch the gold from Kenya in front of a partisan Kenyan crows that included the president. Kenya earned a measure of revenge by beating Nigeria to the gold in the 1989 Africa championships.

Nevertheless the 4th All Africa games held in 1987 had quite a few positives for the Kenyan sprinting corps. Simon Kipkemboi firmly established himself as the best 200m runner in Africa by winning gold over that distance. In the womens 400m, Francisca Chepkurui and Geraldine Shitandayi went 1-2 in the womens 400m. Gideon Yego grabbed silver in the mens 110m hurdles as did Shem Ochako in the 400m hurdles. Kenya’s 4 X 100m quartet of Peter Wekesa, Elkana Nyangau, Joseph Gikonyo and Kennedy Ondiek took silver and in the process set a Kenya record that lasted until 2010.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Kenya sprint scene was exciting. There was an intense rivalry between Ondiek, Wekesa and Gikonyo. Races between the trio attracted huge crowds and were the stuff of legend. The Kenya 4 X 100m team reached the semi finals at the 1988 Olympics. Qualifying by itself would have been a significant achievement. But going through the prelimiaries thrugh the quarter finals and to the semis especially in this steroid laden era was quite an achievement.

If Kenyan women dominated the sprints in the 1984 African championships as noted above, it was the men who stole the show in 1990. Joseph Gikonyo had recently relocated to Spain after having won a running scholarship. The advanced training paid immediate dividends. At these championships, he won both the 100m and the 200m. In the process he set a new Kenya record in the 100m at 10.28. A record that lasted nearly 18 years. He later set the Kenya record in the 200m at 20.43. That record still stands 21 years later. At those same championships, Samson Kitur announced his arrival to the big time by winning the 400m. His elder brother David Kitur won the silver. Gideon Yego came within a whisker of winning the men’s 110m hurdles but finished second.

Kenya continued its dominance of the 4 X 400m at the commonwealth games when they won gold yet again, finishing a full 2 seconds ahead of the rest of the pack. The young Samson Kitur, won the silver medal in the 400m. Gideon Yego continued Kenya’s string tradition in the 400m hurdles by winning silver.

By the early 1990s, women’s sprinting in Kenya had fallen completely off the map. The glory days of the early days when Kenyan women matched the likes of Nigeria step for step were but a fading memory. The Kenya athletics officials of the time did not help with their policy of completely ignoring the sprints. Still there was a notable silver for the Kenya women’s 4 X 400m at the 1991 All Africa games. Also notable was Caroline Kola, Kenya’s greatest heptathlete She won the Africa championships in 1996 and silver in 1993.

The men however continued to hold their own. Eric Keter won gold medals at the 400m hurdles in the 1991 All Africa games and again at the 1993 Africa championships. Kennedy Ochieng proved his mettle by winning the 400m at the 1993 African championships and again at the 1999 All Africa games. But it was Samson Kitur who made the early 1990s a time to remember for Kenya sprint fans. Kitur won gold medals at the 1991 and 1995 All Africa games and bronze medals at the 1992 Olympics and 1993 world championships. His storming anchor leg enabled Kenya to win the silver at the world championships. Kenya actually placed 3 runners in the finals of the 400m at the 1993 world championships: Kennedy Ochieng, Simon Kemboi and Samson Kitur.

Charles Gitonga was Kenya’s next great one lap runner. His 44.20 is the second fastest ever by a Kenyan and is still amongst the fastest ever in the world. No European or Jamaican has run faster. He won the gold medal at the 1994 Commonwealth games. At those same games, Gideon Biwott and Barnabas Kinyor won silver and bronze in the mens 400m hurdles.

By the late 1990s to the early part of the new millennium, the neglect of Kenya athletics officials did untold damage to Kenya’s sprinting. They had decided that the sprints were not worth investing in. Kenya sprinting thus went into the dark ages for both men and women. There were hardly any medals to show between 1996 and 2010. Where Kenya routinely won the 4 X 400m at the commonwealth games and Africa championships, they did not come close to winning any medals at the commonwealth games. Perhaps the only good performances was Ezra Sambu’s gold at the 2003 All Africa games and a gold medal in the 4 X 400m at the 2006 African championships. Sambu went on to run 44.43, the third best ever time by a Kenyan.

By the time Kenya hosted the 2010 Africa Championships, the country officials started to take slight steps towards reclaiming the lost glory. It paid off with a gold medal in the 4 X 400m at the tourney and a 400m gold for Mark Mutai at the 2010 Commonwealth games.

Kenya’s 4 X 400m at the 2010 Commonweath games

Mutai (left) anchored the team to relay glory along with Anderson Mutegi, Vincent Mumo and Vincent Kipkosgei

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2 Responses to Kenyan Sprinters: A historical perspective

  1. Charity Dell says:

    Excellent article! thanks for this perspective. I have always admired the fantastic
    Kenyan long-distance runners. We African-americans have always been known as
    sprinters–but the truth is, very few coaches push or train us to compete in the longer distance events! Many of our children and youth would be excellent marathoners IF our coaches and physical education people would TRAIN THEM in
    cross-country and distance running. We have many young people with thin, wiry
    physiques, just like the Kenyans–although the bulk of us are of Igbo descent. So we have the OPPOSITE problem here–Kenyans need to develop their sprinters, and we need to develop more middle and long-distance runners. Perhaps we should exchange coaches and coaching techniques to achieve these goals!

  2. Robinson Musundi says:

    Wonderful article,im a young kenyan and i do alot of sprint workouts and training jst by myself,im hoping to revive kenyan lost glory in sprinting events..kindly if any1 has coach Joyce Odhiambo’s contacts to kindly assist Thanks…

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