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To win gold at the Olympics is something, but to win gold at the Olympics in a race you’ve barely run before is something else. When Kenyan middle-distance runner Kip Keino discovered that the 5,000m clashed with the 1,500m – for which he had won gold in 1968 – he knew he couldn’t do both. So he entered the 3,000km steeplechase instead. “I had no experience, I hadn’t practised how to jump, so most of the time I was stepping on each hurdle,” says Keino. All 23 other competitors had better personal bests than him. “No one thought I would even make the final, but three-quarters of running is mental … I said to myself ‘I have speed’”.
Not only did he win gold, the police officer set a new record too, a remarkable success in a tumultuous Olympics. In the midst of what the Germans had billed “the Happy Games”, Palestinian gunmen kidnapped 11 Israeli team members. Keino, whose team was lodged opposite the Israelis, says the first he knew anything was awry was when he saw people wearing masks. Within 24 hours the hostages and five kidnappers were dead following a botched rescue attempt. “We thought that was it for the Games, we thought they would not continue,” says Keino, who was yet to race. “I agreed with the decision to go on – if not, the Palestinians would have been the winners.”
Both Keino’s parents died when he was young and he ran barefoot to school and back four times a day. The first African to run a mile in under four minutes, he escaped a cheetah at the age of 12 by climbing and tying himself to a tree overnight. “When you’re running for your life you can even run faster than anything else; the track is leisure,” he says.
He won his first Olympic gold in 1968 with gall stones. After collapsing in the early heats, his doctor banned him from the final. He sneaked out, took a bus until it got stuck in traffic and then ran to the track just as the final call for his name rang out. He went on to claim gold and a new world record. He also competed at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in the face of racist death threats: “Someone came up when I was training [abroad] and said ‘What are you doing you monkey? I can blow your head’”. Keino merely raced an hour early, avoiding the sights of three telescopic weapons that police later recovered from the gunman.
Today, at 72, he is head of Kenya’s Olympic Committee and busy with the 2012 team, pausing mid-flow to tell organisers where best to get uniforms designed. He still runs a couple of times a week but these days it’s “for life, not competition.” Keino believes that winning comes down to courage, and knowing your opponent: “If you lose you know you lost to a better man; if you win you know you are a better man.”