The 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul South Korea from 17 September to 2 October. Kenya finished with 5 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze. Up to that point, this was Kenya’s best medal haul ever. Kenya finished 13th overall in the medal standings.
800m: Paul Ereng wins with an assist from Nixon Kiprotich
Before the 1988 Olympics, no one had ever heard of Paul Ereng. He had left for the USA immediately after completing his studies at Starehe Boys centre. And no one gave him a chance to make the final much less win gold. At the Kenya trials, Ereng finished 3rd and barely qualified behind Nixon Kiprotich and the veteran Juma Ndiwa. In fourth place was the highly favoured Robert Kibet. The officials at one point suggested replacing Ereng with Kibet under the guise that Kibet was more experienced. They had never heard of this athlete from the Pokot area and some did not want him on the flight to Seoul. But fairness prevailed and Ereng was allowed on the team.
Running with a chip on his shoulder, and having something to prove, Ereng won his opening heat, finished second in his quarter-final and then won his semi-final. In the finals, he would come up against defending champion Joaquim Cruz of Brazil and his compatriot Jose Barbosa, Moroccan legend Said Aouita, 1987 world championship silver medalist Peter Elliott and American champion Johnny Gray. It was a star studded final.
Nixon Kiprotich and Barbosa set a torrid pace clearing the first lap in 49.5 seconds. Kiprotich would take the lead again with 200m to go. He was intent on tiring out the rest of the contenders in order to clear the field for Ereng who had an incredible finishing kick.With 100m left, Ereng appeared boxed in and Cruz looked set to run away with the gold. But Ereng’s long strides got him across the finish line first, winning in 1:43.45. It marked the first time in Olympic history that a Kenyan had won the 800m.
1500m: Tactical masterpiece from Peter Rono
Miler Peter Rono was yet another unknown quantity, largely because he was also based in the United States. He had participated in the world championships in 1987 but had failed to make it past the first round. But he on the other hand, had won the Kenyan trials and was thus represented Kenya’s best prospect for a medal.
Interestingly, Kenya was represented by the same trio who participated in the 1987 world championships. The other Kenyans in the race were veterans Kipkoech Cheruiyot and Joseph Chesire. Interestingly, a year earlier at the world championships, Rono was the poorest performer of the trio. Whereas he was eliminated in the first round, the other two reached the final with Chesire narrowly missing a bronze medal.
This time however, Rono was on top of his game. He took the leader after 700m and never relinquished it. Each time a runner tried to pass him. Rono increased the pace slightly thus forcing his opponents to run a wider curve. In the final straight, Peter Elliott of Great Britain and Jens Peter Herold of East Germany gave a determined chase but Rono held them off for a memorable win.
3000m Steeplechase: Kariuki and Koech take gold and silver
This race was bound to be a hotly contested one. There was a lot of star power. Kenya had three contenders: First there was Julius Kariuki, who had finished 7th at the previous Olympics. The other Kenyans were Peter Koech and Patrick Sang. American Henry Marsh, who had been highly favoured in 1984 was back. Francesco Panetta, the defending champion, was also in the race as was compatriot Alessandro Lambruschini. Defending Commonwealth games champion Graeme Fell was also considered a favourite.
Panetta set the early pace, hoping to gap the rest of the field as he had done a year earlier at the World Championships. He led for six laps and eventually faded. Kariuki and Koech made their way steadily up the field and took the lead with 2 laps to go. Kariuki took charge of the race with 250 metres to go. Koech gave chase but could not close the gap. Kariuki and Koech took gold and silver
5000m: John Ngugi with a marvellous piece of Frontrunning
Prior to this race, John Ngugi had a lot of success in the cross country. But his success on the track was limited to the African scene. At the 1987 World athletics championships he had finished in 12th position. Also in this final was another Kenyan Yobes Ondieki. The favourite was Domingos Castro the silver medalist at the World championships. Ngugi’s only global success had cm
Ngugi shocked the field when he uncorked a 60 second 3rd lap and a 62 second 4th lap to establish a 50 metre lead. The rest of the field did not follow him, thinking that Ngugi would tire himself out. But Ngugi had enough petrol in the tank to maintain his lead for the remaining 8 laps. With two laps to go, Castro gave chase. But he was unable to close the gap and burned himself out such that he finished out of the podium. Ngugi won the race by 50 metres. A stellar piece of front running.
Boxing: Robert Wangila with a historic gold medal
Robert Wangila became the first ever African to win a boxing gold medal at the Olympics when he won the welterweight berth. Wangila’s success was built on a successful continental campaign when he won the gold medal at the 1987 All Africa games. He was known as a hard hitter. He did not disappoint at the Olympics, knocking out his French opponent in the second round of the final. It was said that had he not achieved the knockout, he likely would have been robbed of the gold medal by judges. During this era, judges were very biased against African boxers. Philip Waruinge had been robbed of a gold medal a decade and a half earlier.
Wangila’s results at the 1988 Olympics
Round 2: Beat Đorđe Petronijević of Yugoslavia by RSC
Round 3: Beat Khaidavyn Gantulga of Mongolia
Quarter-Final: Beat Khristo Furnigov of Bulgaria 5-0
Semi-Final: Beat Jan Dydak of Poland by Walkover
Final: Beat Laurent Boudouani of France by KO
Video of the final
Douglas Wakiihuri won the silver medal in the men’s marathon. Kipkemboi Kimeli took bronze in the men’s 10,000m. Christopher Sande won a bronze medal in the boxing in the middleweight berth. With a 9 medal haul, this remained Kenya’s best outing at the Olympics for another 20 years until 2008.
Upon returning, the medalists were given cash prizes by the governments as well as numerous gifts from private sector corporations.