domingo, 25 de diciembre de 2011

Henry Rono's Sixth World Record

Henry Rono set world records in 4 different events in 81 days, back in 1978
Photo: George Herringshaw  
          Who is the best long distance runner in history? When the question is raised most track and field followers usually point to classic Ethiopian names as Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele. Also double Olympic champion in Moscow Miruts Yifter should not be discounted; neither should the most prestigious Kenyan runner ever, Kip Keino. Some like to dip deeper in time to remember the overwhelming dominance of the “flying” Finns for decades since the old days of Hannes Kolemainen and Paavo Nurmi to the great champion of the 1970s Lasse Viren. All of the runners cited above had a long and fruitful career, winning several Olympic gold medals and setting uncountable records but there have also been others as talented as them, who for one reason or another could not fulfil the expectations their potential had arisen. The foremost example is Kenyan Henry Rono, an athlete who went from multiple record holder to alcoholism and homelessness, but whose eventual redemption can serve as inspirational lesson for everybody.  

Henry was born in Kaptaragon, at the Nandi district the 12th February 1952. As he was 7, his father died in an accident, while driving a tractor. Then he moved with her grandmother and had to tend cattle so he joined a classroom later than usual and could not graduate from high school until he was 22. The sports he practised at the time where soccer and volleyball. Yet one day in 1971 he heard Kipchoge Keino was coming to run to a nearby place. Despite he was living just three miles away, Rono had never seen the renowned star and thus went to the meeting. After the magnificent impression he received from watching the Olympic champion, Henry Rono decided to become a world class athlete like him. The Kaptaragon youngster started training on his own without any coach, building up his running endurance patiently. (1) His steady progression came to the attention of the national team officials. He was selected to compete at the steeplechase in Montreal but the African boycott cut for the first time Rono’s Olympic dream.
That year he was conceded a scholarship in the United States and in the fall took a flight to study Industrial Psychology at Washington State University, a privileged destination for Kenyan athletes until our days, including double world champion Bernard Lagat. Back in 1976, Coach John Chaplin counted with Rono, Samson Kimobwa, Joshua Kimeto and Joel Cheruiyot. That is to say arguably the strongest line-up of distance runners in NCAA history. Chaplin would allow them to train on their own rhythm. (1) In his words, after a 4 months phase of building-up, Rono was doing about 90 miles a week, with brisk roadwork in the early mornings and intervals on selected afternoons. The athlete used to listen to his own body, deciding when the right moment to push was and which days it was better to go slower, in a typical Kenyan way, heir of Velzian and Lydiard. The ephemeral Kimobwa set a new 10.000 world record in 1977, which Rono would improve the following year. The latter would collect six NCAA titles, including three in Cross country, two at the 3000m steeplechase and another one at the 2 miles indoors. His performance at the steeplechase in 1978 is still a championship record.
1978, his sophomore year, was the stellar one of Henry Rono. During the spring, in a span of 81 days, he would successfully culminate his ferocious assault to four world records at the 5000m in Berkeley, California (13:08.4), 3000m steeplechase in Seattle (8:05.4), 10.000m in Vienna (27:22.4) and 3000m flat in Oslo (7:32.1); an unprecedented feat in track and field and never surpassed afterwards. Besides, all of them were accomplished without pacemakers and without any challenging rival. Rono would bite several seconds to the previous best in every race, up to eight at the 10.000m. In spite the huge progression in distance events in the last two decades, thanks to the likes of Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, Daniel Komen and Kenenisa Bekele, Rono’s marks still look more than respectable today. Especially, the 8:05.4 at the steeplechase stood for 11 years and is still beyond the capabilities of all but a couple of chosen ones. In 1978 Henry Rono won no less than 31 consecutive races outdoor, and his streak was only put an end in the last stages of a very long campaign in September, by future Olympic champions Bronislaw Malinowski and Steve Ovett. (2) That year the Kenyan athlete also shone at the Commonwealth Games, winning gold medals at the 3000m steeplechase and 5000m, and at the All-Africa Games, where he grabbed two more titles, again at the steeplechase and at the 10.000m.
Not quite at the same marvellous form, Rono still kept a good level during the four next seasons, achieving a last world record in 1981, improving his 5000m timing further to 13:06.20. The Nandi runner talked about his confidence in dipping under 8 minutes at the steeplechase, under 13 at the 5000m and under 27 at the 10.000m. (3) He was the first athlete in setting such ambitious targets. For sure he was gifted enough for this and more. It is worthy to consider, even in his magical season he states he was just 85% fit, and always had to dedicate plenty of time to his academic duties. Therefore he still had a lot of room to improve. However reality was much harsher: he was denied again his participation at the Olympic Games, because of a new boycott, and soon came his tragic fall.     

Henry Rono in 1978, his groundbreaking year
Photo: George Herringshaw  
Henry Rono was unable to handle his ascent from ashes to riches as it was also the case of Daniel Komen, another Kenyan track and field shooting star, some 20 years later. In Rono’s time, there were not as many world class athletes from the Rift Valley as nowadays. Actually, he was one of the African pioneers in going to live to the Western world, along with Mike Boit, Ben Jipcho or Mike Musyoki and he would be described as “a fish out of the water”, struggling to find his way. (4) In every interview of the time, Rono would complain about a negative attitude, full of prejudices, from too many people in his host country. Some  US born citizens were amazed of his intention to return to a land they believed with no food and no jobs: "Lot of Americans, if you say you like it here, they think you do not like it at home. Who does not like home? If I tell you that you have a fine house, does it mean I live in a poor one?" (1) Contemporary athletes as Bernard Lagat, Sally Kipyego, Sam Chelanga or Lawi Lalang are warmly welcomed and integrated without any trouble to their College and US life in general. Yet, Henry Rono and his compatriots were accused back then of just coming to take advantage of the NCAA system, stealing scholarships which should have been for national students. Nevertheless, African runners also contributed to improve the level of the local athletes they were competing with, as Alberto Salazar or Rudy Chapa, who was quoted recognising how much he had learned from Kenyan tactics. (1) Race was in the centre of the controversy and Rono even denounced to have received death threats. (3) He was astonished of that rarefied atmosphere, so different to what he had known in Kenya, and also about the way kids were instilled prejudices by their parents in America.

Henry Rono felt as “a fish out of the water” and also as “a fish swimming among the sharks”. (5) In 1981 he wanted just concentrate in getting his degree but people around was pressuring him to make him race in as many places as possible. It was about the time another athlete, with great personality, Edwin Moses, would deceive all expectations not competing in one year, to fully focus in his studies in Physics, then would found Utopia Track Club with just two members: he and his friend and then roommate Henry Rono. (6) Unfortunately, the Kenyan was not as wise to deal with that interested world of corrupted coaches and unscrupulous agents and promoters. He felt they never thought of him as a person, about what he really wanted. Instead, he was treated just like a moneymaking-machine. (3) He took personal all those things and was affected in a way he lost altogether his balance, embracing a bottle as a solution. Famously, Rono had been drinking all the previous night, before achieving his last world record in 1981. So immense was his talent. In the following years the Kenyan champion would often appear in a pitiful condition at the meetings or would not appear at all. Among pizzas, quiches, beer and whisky, with his weight almost doubled up and a deteriorated wealth, soon it was impossible to keep competing.   
Despite his six figure contract with Nike, all the money was quickly gone, siphoned by Athletics Kenya, European agents, meeting directors and by his own addiction and failed investment in real-estate. Thereafter, the living ghost of the old champion went from friends’ houses to rehabilitation clinics in different towns all across the country, when he was not arrested for driving drunk. Eventually he would temporarily join a homeless shelter at Washington D.C. and Salt Lake City.  Puma had rescued John Akii-Bua from a refugee camp, but Rono was denied help by their track and field partner Nike, as he went to their base in Beaverton, Oregon in 1995, asking for a job cleaning floors. Nor much luckier was his visit to the Kenyan consulate, which refused to assist him telling the former athlete “he was a disgrace for his own nation.” (7) Any job should fit him and he was spotted in Portland parking cars and washing windscreens, then in Alburquerque carrying luggage at the airport. In the latter destination, on occasion of having helped survivors from a van crash, his photo appeared on the local newspaper, with a simple epigraph: “Henry Rono, skycap.” (8) The whole world had forgotten him.    

Nonetheless, Henry Rono never quit in a race and in the turn of the century his struggles had brought him to a newly recovered life, no more a victim of the alcohol. He has started running again, losing many of his 220 pounds. Now in his fifties, Rono is competing in races in the Masters category, hoping to improve the mile best and set his sixth world record, a very long way from the fifth one. Besides he was admitted as a coach, and also as a special education teacher in an Alburquerque high school. Guiding athletes, the Kenyan is highly appreciated by his trainees: “He seems to understand the little things the body goes through, what the body needs. I think that must come from the fact he was not in shape all the time during his career. Being in shape or out of shape, he had to figure a way to get back.” On the other hand, Rono is also admired as a person: “He is really selfless. He gives us a lot of personal attention and he is very optimistic, the most optimistic person I have been around.” (5) Recently, Rono had accepted a job to train in Yemen but was back again in Alburquerque, escaping the unsettled situation of the Arabic country. He has also published his autobiography, entitled “Olympic Dream.” Henry Rono hopes the account of his troubled life and final redemption, overcoming 20 years of alcoholism and homelessness, will be an inspiration for people also experiencing tough times. Now the old champion can feel proud of his ultimate triumph, beginning to see the light after so long in the interior of the darkest tunnel. It has been his most remarkable record.

Henry Rono, joining forces with the new generation of track and field
Photo: Henry Rono

             "I learned my mind was too small and weak. I was not able to handle or channel the energy in the proper place. I learned how you abuse yourself when you are successful. You think you can handle all that happens because you are a champion and champions handle things. I used to win races when I was drinking. Who is (to tell) me I am an alcoholic? ... My first profession is sports. My second is teaching. My ability, my talent of running is something I want to maximize while I am still at the age I can. I want to use it the right way this time around. Before, I do not think I used it properly because my life was mixed up, with my lifestyle in college, with alcohol, with struggling in the American culture. I understand it all better now." (9)             


martes, 10 de mayo de 2011

Filbert Bayi, the boldest runner ever

Filbert Bayi, one of the best middle distance runners ever.
Photo: Ed Lacey/ George Herringshaw, May 1975
           Do you remember the first athletic race you happened to watch?  As a child I was fond of every sport broadcasting on the radio or TV: the Netherlands, Brazil and Italy in Argentina’s World Cup, Yugoslavian basket-ball players, Hinault versus Zoetemelk at the Tour de France…  Then there were the Olympic Games, held in Moscow.  I probably swallowed avidly every dish on the menu during that whole month but I only have memories for one runner and one discipline: a black man from Tanzania called Filbert Bayi, overcoming hurdles and fearsome water jumps with ease, always running ahead of the field and dominating the races in spectacular fashion.  This guy’s performance at the heats and semi-final left me astounded and I was craving for the day of the decisive race.  Yet, for reasons I cannot remember I missed that race... forever.  Evening TV news did not really help me: they just said Spanish steeplechasers had finished fourth and fifth; not even the name of the winner…  Who cared about national representatives?  
        We did not have Internet then and the efforts of a young kid for gathering information had modest rewards.  I kept watching athletics but there was no trace of this runner, neither a hint of the results of that final.  Finally, about three years afterwards, the answer was on the ground: a piece of paper, where there was something you do not see anymore in the Spanish sportive media: a thorough yearly analysis about an Athletics discipline: the 3000 meters Steeplechase.  My name’s hero was written down on it.  Filbert Bayi was ranked 8th in the all-time lists, with 8:12.48, which he had achieved at Moscow Olympics, where he had finished… runner-up.  I could not find any logic explanation for this invincible man I once had known defeat.  Anyway, there was no way back: Athletics had become my number one sport, I always wanted to win black African runners and steeplechase is still my favourite event. 
Filbert Bayi wins the 1974 Commonwealth Games in a new world record time
(I am afraid the full race is nowhere to be found).

You may laugh at reading about my winning preferences, but back in 1980, we were not experiencing this sort of Kenyan and Ethiopian overwhelming superiority in middle and long distances we are living today in Athletics.  British, Finnish, Americans, Portuguese or Italians had then as deep a field as African nations could have.  In the time of Filbert Bayi’s international debut at Munich Olympic Games, brother Colm O’Connell had not created yet the first Kenyan training camp, and ugali had not been analyzed by nutritionists, in that craziness around the search of the Kenyan success formula.
Athletics was still an amateur sport and the first African pioneers were mainly moved by their passion for running. The same as triple Olympic champion in the sixties, Peter Snell, said he would have defended in Mexico could he afford it, Bayi stated he had met several other talented local runners as a child but they had no more interest in the sport once they grew up.  But he had!  The future Moscow silver medallist cited Kip Keino as his inspiration.  Abebe Bikila had been the man who started it all, but Keino was and still is the role model and most charismatic athlete ever born in East Africa.  
Black athletes were also moved by race pride. In the United States, the civil rights combat was at its peak and, in Africa, colonialism was being swept out.   Tanzania became a sovereign country in 1960 and Filbert Bayi was maybe its first flag-bearer.  People did not really know this young nation and the runner had often to locate it on the map: “Tanzania is in the South of Kenya”, he used to answer to journalists enquiries.

Henry Rono, Don Quarrie, Nick Akers and Filbert Bayi at 1978 Commonwealth Games
Nor much knowledge existed about those rising athletes circumstances.  Western reports and interviews of that time show a curious blend of intuition, ingenuousness, legend and stereotypes.   Filbert Bayi, who was born in 1953 in Karatu, Arusha, at the foot of Kilimanjaro snowy hills, offers in one of them, without pretending it, hints to anthropologists and biologists about an uninterrupted since the dawn of humanity hunting custom, which brings to genetically acquired tribal endurance: “As a kid, in the company of my dogs, I used to give chase to the gazelles.  You needed to run no more than 16 kilometres until they got tired”. (1) Besides, Bayi pointed out to the hot and humid conditions of the region he grew up, so as he argues it would have been easy for him to run “32 kilometres daily in New York”.  For such natural-grown runner, his training as an elite athlete could not be other than self-coached and intuitive: “In Dar-es-Salaam, the capital, where he had migrated when he was 17 in search of better opportunities, Bayi would pick out and sprint alongside a moving bus and rest when the bus was loading and unloading passengers --some form of interval training. (2)  No wonder, he could not perform comfortably on indoor surface “without pure oxygen and always turning around, with little place to overcome the other runners”. (1)  Specially intriguing is a 1976 Sports Illustrated article which explains how the man with the toughest training in the world was beaten in San Diego by Kiwi Rod Dixon, who, due to nursing a chronic shin injury, had prepared the race "watching TV, playing pinball and going to the zoo with my wife". (3)  Bayi’s uneasiness on indoor tracks arguably would have played a factor in that defeat.

Indeed, the Tanzanian prodigy could only run on his own pace.  Still as a junior at Munich Olympic Games he failed to advance in both 1500 metres and steeplechase, stating he was boxed.  Unable to run into the pack he decided from then on to do it ahead of the field, to avoid been disturbed.  It sounds like David Rudisha, when, after a tactical mistake left him out of 2009 World Championships final, opted for front running, never losing a meeting since, to the date.  However, there is a slight difference: the Kenyan 800 metres record holder, like other historic front runners, establish a strong yet reasonable rhythm in order to control the race, to win it with a last burst of speed in the end. On the other hand, Filbert Bayi used to sprint in the first lap, looking for a 20-30 metres advantage, keeping then a suicidal pace, who nobody dared to follow, and sprinting again each time someone tried to get close to him.  He obviously slowed down in the last stages of the competition, sometimes being caught by some of his opponents, sometimes still achieving a sensational victory.

Filbert Bayi breaks Jim Ryun's world record for the Mile, back in 1975.

With Bayi's bold and anarchic trademark behaviour on the track, there was never a boring race when he was in.  His first victim was no less than his idol Kip Keino at the 1973 Lagos African Games.  As Bayi was almost an unknown miler, reportedly, some commentators thought the man running ahead was the second Kenyan, working a fast race for his illustrious leader.  Yet, when Keino finally failed to overcome him, they had to discover their mistake.  Trying to know the brand new champion they found out he had further ambitions: “Now I would like to beat the world record and win the Commonwealth Games”. (4) Keino, retired soon afterwards, had a worthy heir.
The brave runner from Arusha would only need one year to reach both targets. On the 2nd February 1974 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the X Commonwealth Games closed with what is widely regarded as the best 1500 meters race ever. In front of a formidable field, Filbert Bayi took the lead from gun to tape, smashing Jim Ryun’s 3:33.1 world record in the process. (5) The 21-year-old winner managed a 20 meters advantage until the beginning of the last lap. Then Ben Jipcho, who had already collected two gold medals in the previous days, unleashed his attack in the homestretch, followed by a still more devastating kick by promising local runner John Walker.  It seemed like the latter was bound to victory but Bayi held off to stop the clock in 3:32.16. (6) In his wake, Walker too improved on the former world record (3:32.52), Jipcho became the 4th fastest runner all-time (3:33.16), Rod Dixon the 5th (3:33.89) and Australian Graham Crouch the 7th (3:34.22).
John Walker congratulates Filbert Bayi, on his victory and World Record
at Christchurch Commonwealth Games

In similar fashion, Bayi broke the other Ryun’s world record, in the Mile, the following year in Kingston by one tenth of a second (3:51.0), though John Walker would improve it only 3 months afterwards. In that race, Filbert was caught by Eamonn Coghlan and Marty Liquory with one lap to go, yet he surged away again in an unbelievable demonstration of power and determination. Despite his strenous front running all over the race, he ended up looking much fresher than all his rivals.
 Bayi’s and Alberto Juantorena’s records in the seventies were the last ones achieved in middle distance events without rabbits help.  We have not seen anymore since then either racers executing this kind of risky strategies.  Filbert Bayi exciting running style and his strokes of genius are still remembered and admired until today, with all sort of enthusiastic praises:  That guy ran like an absolute pimp. Jetting out to a 20m lead and then holding off all challenges over the last 150m. In a championship? Guy should be in the badass hall-of-fame.”(7)
    Sebastian Coe would finish up with these records in 1979 and would finish up with improvisation as well, thanks to methodical pacemaking, by the likes of Billy Konchellah, future 800 metres double world champion.  In that new era of middle distance running, led by the British stars, then by North Africans, every effort, in both training and competition, had to be measured and controlled in the search of the best possible individual performance.  Some ask, what could have got Bayi with rabbits? Perhaps not much, perhaps someone like him would have not felt all right, had someone else done the pacemaking.
Unfortunately, Filbert Bayi could never become an Olympic champion, and the eagerly awaited clash of the titans between him and the first man who produced 100 timings under 4 minutes in the mile never materialized. It was precisely John Walker’s country who provoked the Pan-African boycott to Montreal Olympic Games, playing rugby matches in South Africa in the worst moment of the apartheid. (8) Yet, the Walker had refused several times to run in that country and his relationship with Bayi was excellent.  Both had planned to go to compete to each other countries in the Olympic year but politics, the New Zealander’s Achilles tendon injury and the Tanzanian’s malaria made it impossible.  Anyway, they met in order to chat as good friends in the USA. (3)  In the summer, John Walker would easily become new Olympic champion, while the question about how well would have performed Bayi with his recent sickness will remain forever unanswered. 

Filbert Bayi and Bronislaw Malinowski at the 1980 Steeplechase Olympic final
Photo: George Herringshaw, July 1980

Malaria plagued Bayi for the rest of his athletic career.  In 1978, the 1500 record holder defended his African title but was overtaken in the last metres by David Moorcroft in the Commonwealth final.  Bayi was not older than 27 for the 1980 Moscow Olympics but had lost some of his speed and explosiveness, so he decided to move to the 3000 steeplechase, which he had never worked seriously since his international debut in Munich. Bayi switched events but not strategy.  In the final, the Tanzanian great practiced his characteristical "catch-me-if-you-can", running ahead alone, well under world record schedule until 2000 meters.  Yet the experienced Bronislaw Malinowski, double European champion and silver medallist in Montreal, ran at his own pace, slowly closing the gap, until he overtook Bayi just before the last water jump.  The Polish accelerated unstoppable to the finish line and won the gold medal in an excellent 8:09.72. His rival finished exhausted, narrowly holding the second place, just ahead of Ethiopian Eshetu Tura. (9) Sadly, it was last Malinowski victory before his untimely death in a car accident one year later.   
After Moscow Olympic Games, Filbert Bayi kept running but without special relevance.  As his star was fading, so did Athletics in his country.  During the seventies and eighties, Tanzania had been one of the powerhouses of African distance running, only slightly inferior to Kenya and Ethiopia.  Bayi was its most celebrated athlete, but Suleiman Nyambui won a sensational second silver medal in Moscow at the 5000 metres and kept the world indoor record at that distance for 15 years, besides achieving two astounding victories at Berlin Marathon.  Gidamis Shahanga won back-to-back Commonwealth titles in Marathon and 10.000 metres and finished in a praiseworthy fiftth position in the latter distance at the inaugural 1983 World Championships, held in Helsinki, where Agapius Masong also got a fifth place in the Marathon.  Juma Ikangaa, arguably the best Tanzanian ever in that discipline, crossed the finish line sixth at Los Angeles and 7th at Seoul Olympic Games and triumphed in many classic marathons as Tokyo, Fukuoka, Beijing and New York.  
 Then, while Kenya and Ethiopia started to win everything, producing more and more world class runners and other African nations as Uganda and Eritrea started to rise, Tanzania inexplicably did not follow the same trend but the opposite.  In the last two decades just one-hit-wonders as John Yuda, Samson Ramadhani or Christopher Isengwe.  Moscow’s two silver medals remain the only ones won by Tanzania at the Olympic Games and talented runners like Filbert Bayi seem unlikely to appear again in this country.  Yet, you can only see athletes like Bayi once in a lifetime.

Lost and found: Filbert Bayi's epic race at the 3000m Steeplechase in Moscow Olympics. (Many thanks to Suso ("Kublai") for this video, which I was searching for so long)