The 1987 World Athletics championships were held at the Olympic stadium in Rome from August 28 to September 6. Most of the world did not expect much from Kenya. The country had performed dismally at the inaugural World championships that were held in Helsinki in 1983. Also Kenyan athletes lacked exposure, having boycotted the Olympics in 1976, 1980 and the Commonwealth games in 1986.
However Kenyan fans had some hopes given that the country had done exceptionally well at the 1987 All Africa games, sweeping almost all the medals from the 800m to the 10,000m.
In the end, Kenya surprised all by winning three medals, all gold
800m: Billy Konchellah
Coming into this race, Konchellah was world number one in this event. A month earlier, he had easily outrun the field to win gold at the 4th All Africa games. So a lot was expected from him. He ran a tactically sound race, staying in the middle of the pack until the last 300m when he made his move. When he took the lead with 150m to go, it was curtains closed for everyone else since Konchellah had the best finishing speed. As an 18 year old in 1979, he had clocked 45.38 in the 400m at the Africa athletics championships, an effort that earned him 3rd place.
Konchellah’s winning time of 1:43.06 would remain his personal best for the rest of his career. What was most impressive about him is that he was suffering from Asthma and Tuberculosis at the time.
10,000m: Paul Kipkoech
It was a spectacular win for Paul Kipkoech against a very strong field. Kipkoech had been at the 1983 world championships, competing in the 5000m. There he finished a dismal 9th. But he had learned a lot in the intervening years, and training hard for the cross country which he and John Ngugi dominated in the mid 1980s.
Kipkoech too had won the gold medal at the All Africa games. In this race, he threw down the gauntlet, taking off on his own and setting up a torrid pace halfway through the race. The rest of the field did not follow him, thinking that he would burn himself out and they would the reel him in. But Kipkoech just continued expanding his gap. He was so far ahead and had overlapped so many people that he caused confusion leading to the last lap bell being run a lap early. This proved disastrous for many runners who had made their last lap move too early thus burning themselves out.
Among the runners that Kipkoech overlapped was the Ethiopian contender Wodajo Bulti. In the end, Kipkoech finished nearly 80 metres ahead of second place Francisco Panetta of Italy and had overlapped almost the entire field.
Marathon: Douglas Wakiihuri
Almost no one in Kenya knew who Douglas Wakiihuri was prior to the 1987 World Athletics championships. No one expected a Kenyan to win this race because Kenya had typically done poorly in the marathon in global events. In fact only a month earlier, at the 4th All African games, Ethiopian runners had swept the podium while the top Kenyan finished 5th. Nobody knew Wakiihuri because he was based in Japan. He was the only Kenyan entrant in the race. In those days, the marathon was an afterthought for Kenya.
He however upset form book, beating a strong field that included noted marathoners who had won several city marathons such as Gelindo Bordin of Italy. Mohamed Salah of Djibouti, Steve Moneghetti of Australia and Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania.