jueves, 19 de mayo de 2011

John Ngugi and his time

John Ngugi, in action during the last of his 5th World Cross Country 
victories, in  Boston, in the year 1992.
Getty Images   www.iaaf.org 
           African nations are understandanbly upset these days. One of the oldest events in sport, the World Cross Country Championships, which has been held every year since its creation in 1903, with the only break of the world wars, has suddenly become a biannual event.  They say westerners are ashamed of the absolute stranglehold in the discipline by black athletes and this is the main reason for that decision. And they are not totally wrong.  After 31 consecutive team victories by Kenya and Ethiopia in the men's contest, 24 of them by the former nation, with an astonishing 18 winning streak, without any precedent in any sport, European countries have started deserting the event.  Some runners do not have any more interest in crossing the line as the first non-African-born in place 23rd, the old continent audience statistics have also dropped dramatically, because of its representatives failure to face Kenyans and Ethiopians, and sponsorship is being increasingly harder to get.  As incredible as it might sound, last world championship was not broadcasted in Spain by any TV channel, despite being the host country.           
     It is hard to believe now, Cross Country, once in the Olympic Games schedule, used to be immensely popular all over the world.  It started as a British nations contest but gradually more European countries, the United States, Australia… were invited.   World Cross Champs were the only athletics event where every elite runner from the 1500 to the marathon was present, so the race was a truly challenging one, and a gold medal in it was one of the most prestigious rewards an athlete could get in his sportive life.  Ehiopia and Kenya only entered the event in 1981, but they did in style since the very beginning. 

        Great expectations were created in the Madrid’s “Hipódromo de la Zarzuela” venue, because of that debut, especially around the Ethiopian team performance. The East African powerhouse had been back to the Olympic Games, in Moscow, just the year before, and the 10.000 metres riveting match against Finnish athletes, was still fresh.  Among the members of that memorable 1-3-4, Miruts Yifter and Mohamed Kedir were present and so was steeplechase bronze medallist Eshetu Tura.
Their performance in Madrid was going even better than expected: Six Ethiopians were well ahead of the rest of the field with one lap to go, but inexplicably they stopped, as the bell started ringing, thinking they had already finished.  In the middle of the chaos, they resumed running and still managed a first team victory, while Kedir had the guts to challenge until the end American Craig Virgin, who could defend successfully his title.  Yet, the runner-up must have been raging all the year because of that unfortunate race, and did not give Alberto Salazar in Rome-82 any option to follow on his compatriot steps.  A 20-year-old youngster called Bekele Debele obtained a second victory for Ethiopia on Gateshead mud, while Some Muge grabbed the bronze for the first Kenyan individual medal ever.  Between them, Carlos Lopes won the silver. The Portuguese veteran was in his best form ever and no runner could match him, neither in the two following editions of the World Cross Champs, nor in the 1984 Olympic Marathon, which he won at age 37.  Ethiopia had the small consolation of the 4th and 5th team victories.  No one could imagine at that moment Carlos Lopes was going to be the last man born outside of African shores in winning the World Cross Country championships.  26 years have passed since and counting.       

Bekele Debele edges Some Muge, Carlos Lopes (hidden), Antonio Prieto, Alberto Salazar and Robert de Castella
at 1983 World Cross Country Championships, held in Gateshead
http://www.elatleta.com /  http://ourathletes.blogspot.com/
The 1986 edition was to be held in Neuchatel, Switzerland, without the titleholder, Carlos Lopes.  It had been raining copiously and the weather was chilly and windy, and journalists had stated Ethiopians, as pure track specialists were at disadvantage.  On the hilly and mud- covered loop, John Tracey, already a champion in identical conditions some years before, and other European and North American runners were labelled as favourites.  Yet, John Ngugi knew better than any journalist what his real chances were.
            After 3 kilometres of warming up, three Kenyans, Sisa Kirati, Some Muge and John Ngugi went to the front, increasing dramatically the pace.  One of them, the debutant Ngugi kept that brutal outburst and soon was more than 60 metres ahead of the field.  Alberto Cova, who was no less than current Olympic, World and European champion tried to respond, but it was in vain. The Kenyan national champion was gaining more and more distance, with a far from elegant but highly effective style of running. A small group with four more Kenyans, Ethiopians Bekele Debele and Abebe Mekonnen, and United States representative Pat Porter, were following.  Mekonnen, a fifth placer at the Marathon World Cup the year before, took the initiative and started a fierce chase, destroying the group, and eventually making the miracle of catching Ngugi in the last lap. Notwithstanding, the Kenyan was faster in the end and thus obtained the first of his five World Cross Country titles.  Joseph Kiptum (bronze), Paul Kipkoech (5th), Kipsubai Koskei (7th) and Some Muge (8th) finished also in the top-10, almost halving the previous team scoring record for a total of 45 points. (1)  Ethiopia had lost its crown and the world was in awe after that groundbreaking collective demonstration. A legend was born.
       Ngugi displayed similar tactics under similar weather at Warsaw-87 but, this time, his mate Paul Kipkoech went with him until the finish line.  The defending champion won the sprint by a whisker. The same duo again won gold and silver in the next edition of the championships, held in Auckland. In this occasion, eight Kenyans finished among the nine best, splitted up by Abebe Mekonnen’s fifth place.  The team would have beaten the rest of the world combined!

      But the question is: how Kenya had managed to set such overwhelming superiority in the Cross Country discipline in just a couple of years?  
       Of course, Ethiopia had lost ground.  Their weak performance at the inaugural World championships in Athletics in 1983 was the first evidence indicating something was going wrong.  Moscow 3000 steeplechase bronze medallist Eshetu Tura was almost lapped in his heat, while Mohamed Kedir, who owned much of the credit for Yifter’s Olympic gold medal in the 10.000 metres, was a shadow of himself, running throughout the final without conviction, having no answer to Schildhauer’s final kick and eventually fading to 9th, one place ahead of Bekele Debele.  One can wonder how the national team trained for that championship.  Only Kebede Balcha with his silver medal in the marathon could save the honour of his country.
No other big victory was obtained in the next eight years.  However, it does not mean necessarily lack of talent.  Ethiopia had four World Junior Champions in Cross Country during the eighties, besides other medallists, but all of them failed to make an impression as seniors, with the sole exception of Addis Abebe.
            Abebe Mekonnen was the flag bearer of a whole lost generation.  Being no less than the inmortal Abebe Bikila’s nephew, great things were expected from him.  For instance, besides doing well in Cross Country, he triumphed in many prestigious Marathons as Rotterdam, Boston, Beijing, Tokyo or Paris and holds a record Guinness of 32 sub 2:15 timings.  It just means he raced too much.  Like his compatriot, long time marathon record holder Belayneh Dinsamo, he wasted his energy making as much money as possible in the international circuit.  They never prepared properly a major championship and it is better not to remember their performances in them.
            Anyway, most of these athletes missed the chance of taking part in the most important championship of all, the Olympic Games, since Ethiopia boycotted both Los Angeles-84 and Seoul-88.  It does not make too much sense training hard if finally you can not have the opportunity of competing in the Olympics.  This sad boycott can be cited as main reason for Ethiopian athletics decline and lost of identity in the eighties. Internal war, instability, endemic drought and famine, can be blamed too.  It would be needed the arrival of such athletics personalities as Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie to bring back, with their Olympic victories and charisma, confidence and passion for running to the country.

Henry Rono (r), training with college mate Samson Kimobwa

      Kenya athletics had had to overcome a similar crisis the previous decade.  Its boycott to Montreal-76 and Moscow-80 deprived a whole generation of the chance of chasing their dream in the Olympic Games.  Athletics were languishing in Kenya and in words of John Manners “US College scholarships helped keep track from dying altogether in Kenya” (2)  Fred Hardy from Richmond had pioneered since the sixties, with Kip Keino’s collaboration, the initiative of bringing talented African runners to help American Universities shine in national championships. (3) All the young Kenyan promising runners as Samson Kimobwa, Henry Rono, Mike Musyoki, Sosthenes Bitok or Wilson Waigwa were there to develope their athletics career.  Grassroots work in their homeland had come to nothing and Kenyan athletics authorities were not doing either their ambassadors athletes life easy, owing their passports, trying to control every one of their moves, cashing every earning they had and causing them problems to compete in European meetings. Henry Rono, one of the most gifted distance runners ever, who achieved the unbelievable feat of smashing four world records (3000, 5000, 10.000 metres and steeplechase) in only 81 days, as a young Washington State collegian (4), ended precociously his career victim of alcoholism, altogether alienated.  He had become a moneymaker for agents, promoters and Kenyan authorities and his dream of competing for a medal in the Olympic Games was just unattainable.
      Kenya returned to a major global competition on the track for 1983 Helsinki World Championships.  Its results were not better than Ethiopians: a seventh placement in a final was its highest achievement.  No man was entered in the 10.000 metres event. At that point, African athletes seemed to have become mentally inferior to European or American ones.  Nevertheless, things improved in Los Angeles Olympic Games the following year. Among other high note performances, Julius Korir, brougth back to Kenya the steeplechase gold medal his predecessor in Washington State University, Henry Hono, was unable to fight for.  Anyway, results and image were still a world away from the ones at Mexico and Munich Olympic Games. 

However, it was not at the track but at the Cross Country specialty that a radical change in approach was going to change the face of Kenyan athletics forever.  Two men, Mike Kosgei and John Ngugi were the responsible of this Kenyan revolution which shocked the athletics world and encouraged and inspired all future coaches and runners in the country. (2)
Initially, it was German Walter Abmayr who coached the national team and fostered Kenya’s entrance at 1981 World Championship.  The first results were not bad: two third and two fourth collective places.  In 1985 the IAAF started subsidizing poor countries.  This budget rise allowed Abmayr and his assistant Mike Kosgei a more complex system of regional trials, bringing to the national Championships, and a three weeks training camp at Nyeri.  This time Kenya finished a close second to Ethiopia and Paul Kipkoech grabbed the silver individual medal, after Carlos Lopes.

John Ngugi and Paul Kipkoech at 1987 Warsaw World Cross Champs.
Bob Martin /Getty Images/ All Sport


  After Abmayr’s depart, Kosgei took over and started to work his own way.  Firstly, he moved the camp to Embu, on the Eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, far away from friends, girlfriends and family who used to disturb the concentration in Nyeri. Secondly, he increased the number of workouts from 2 to 3 daily, including both high intensity and high mileage.  This killer preparation meant a radical rupture with tradition in Kenya.  A natural talent like Kip Keino could win an Olympic final with an almost casual training but it was not anymore possible in the eighties, with the huge science of sport advances and with every athlete being a full time professional.  Kosgei found a priceless ally in the rookie John Ngugi, who was also as ambitious as him and a hard-work fanatic.
       Ngugi, a Kikuyu, born in May 1962, who had migrated to the Nandi district as he was 3 years old, decided to join the Army forces in 1984, where he was employed as a mechanic. (5)  Soon he started to build up a solid reputation.  He used to wake up in the night and run for hours with the help of a torch.  Then he would went to sleep and in the morning would join the others for the scheduled training.  (2) Ngugi participated at Los Angeles Olympic Trials and the following year got his first international medal at the Easter and Central African Championships.  After winning both Army and National Championships, he was selected for the training camp in Embu.
      Mike Kosgei brutal workout regime did not seem enough to fit him, because he used to run on his own on a longer path, which was to be known as “the Ngugi route”. After his victory at the 1986 World Cross Champs, other athletes would join him the following year and, by 1988 he was leading the whole team on the “Ngugi route”.  The sensational results in successive championships would have the consequence of spreading the example everywhere in Kenya.  Now, every distance runner started trying Kosgei and Ngugi’s workout methods in order to become the next champion.
        More and more training camps were founded and the work at grassroots level was reinvigorated.  It really helped the newly launched IAAF World Junior Championships, which could serve as starting point for teen careers and at the same time as a showcase, where talents could be scouted by agents and international Universities.  Brother Colm O’Connell chose the first Kenyan team for the inaugural championships in 1986, held in Athens.  Despite saying he has just selected a dozen youngsters he new around, Kenya came back with nine medals.  Some of these teens like 5000 and 10.000 meters champion Peter Chumba would never start a professional career, while others like Wilfred Kirochi and Peter Rono would become celebrated stars.  These championships were also a starting point for African women athletes. Kenyan and Nigerian girls, won three and four medals respectively, the first ones they had collected in a global championship, in 1986, and Derartu Tulu, in the 1990 edition, with her gold medal at 10.000 metres would open the Ethiopian women road to success.
      O’Connell would also pioneer this incorporation of African female to the athletics circuit. The legendary coach, who had come from Ireland to St. Patrick School in Iten as a teacher of geography in 1976, did not have any knowledge of athletics when he started his sportive mission and learned everything from “watching the guys running”.  However his training camp has been for decades one of the most reputed Kenyan factory of champions, maybe because his intuitive teaching never tried to apply westerner contrasted training methods to African mentality. (6)

Lydia Cheromei wins the World Junior Cross Champs at the record age of 13
Gray Mortimore/ Getty Images/ All Sports

         Brother O’Connell first training camp was the Sing'ore summer High School for girls. In a society where the traditional female role is to get married and look out for the children and the house it was hard to assume they could follow a long term athletics career. The first Kenyan women in championships were just young girls, who were never thought to continue running once married.  Yet, O’Connell's protégée Susan Sirma, the first black African woman in winning a major track and field medal, a bronze in the 3000 metres at 1991 World Championships, just one year before Derartu Tulu’s gold medal at Barcelona Olympics, moved to Japan for athletics, far away from family and all the men who could control her life.  She was the admired role model for future star cousins Sally Barsosio and Lornah Kiplagat.  " We sang songs about her.  We would walk around her house.  When I would run after a goat, I would think "run like Susan".  Susan was like a really big thing." (7)  Brother O’Connell also mentored olympians Selina Chirchir, Hellen Kimaiyo and Lydia Cheromei. (8) The latter rose to fame, after winning the World Junior Cross Championships in 1991 at age 13!  After several dropouts and comebacks, Cheromei is still running competitively today as a marathoner.  Since 1991, East African women have only lost once in the senior World Cross Country and are unbeaten in the junior race, which was incorporated to the athletics calendar to their glory in 1989.
         Dedication and hard work were paying off, and Kenya proved to themselves and to the rest of the world they were ready to become the distance powerhouse in Track and Field, with their excellent performance at 1987 Rome World Championships and 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.  Paul Kipkoech started the Kenyan party in Rome in the 10.000 metres, playing his part as announced by coach Kip Keino: “We will take some risks and see what happens” (9).  Kipkoech came past the whole field, to run lap 5 in 60 seconds, then surged away again twice to unsettle the field and eventually went alone in lap 14, running the second half in an incredible 13:24 split, to win for more than 10 seconds.  Always second to Ngugi in Cross Country, he could show in Rome all his greatness.  Sadly, he fell soon victim of malaria and tuberculosis and died in 1995 at age 32.  
            Billy Konchellah also was plagued by several illnesses, all along his career, but in spite it could achieve two world championships victories in 1987 and 1991 in the 800 metres with his majestic and effortless stride.  Douglas Wakiihuri, who had gone on his own initiative to Tokyo to be coached by legendary Kiyoshi Nakamura, closed the games winning the third gold medal for his country in the marathon.  He would also get the silver the following year at the Olympic Games.
            Despite, being Kipkoech and Konchellah absents, Kenya increased its harvest to four golds in Seoul.  Paul Ereng ran as smoothly as Konchellah the 800 metres; Julius Kariuki continued the tradition in the steeplechase, romping home just one tenth of a second shy of Henry Rono’s world record; Peter Rono was the first of a long lineage of Brother Colm O’Connell pupils in winning an Olympic gold medal, in the 1500 metres distance; and finally, John Ngugi could translate his Cross Country hegemony to the track, in the 5000.  In Rome, the race had been too slow for him, and he had been passed by Said Aouita and almost everybody in the last lap.  Mike Kosgei, always a king of strategy, decided the most simple is what best fitted his trainee: “Just sprint throughout” (5).  Obedient, Ngugi surged in the third lap and never stopped, opening a gap nobody could close.  Amazingly, his tactics were not really different to what Romanian Paula Ivan had done in the 1500, after losing the 3000 race.
            Ngugi won his fourth Cross Country title in a row the following year in Stavanger, but injuries slowed him the two following years.  Kenya still kept the team title but Khalid Skah of Morocco won twice the single event, thanks to his powerful ending kick, over Moses Tanui.  Nevertheless, in 1992 the leader was back.  In Boston, the weather was as tough as you can imagine. The scenario seemed like a sign for a man who always had obtained his best triumphs in the hardest conditions. The Kenyans grouped in the front in a narrow point of the course and Ngugi went alone.  Skah never dared to follow him. With crops of snow floating in the air and covering everything, you still could distinguish his familiar long stride and his ferocious look.  It was the last big victory for a man whose contribution to the rising of Kenyan athletics can not be measured.   

Brother Colm O'Connell in his Athletics School in Iten.
John Gichigi/ Getty Images

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