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Keino and the art of flying

He entered the South African Airways Flight 304 from Cape Town, somewhat uncertain as he looked for seat 21E.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2003 02:11 IST

He entered the South African Airways Flight 304 from Cape Town, somewhat uncertain as he looked for seat 21E. He moved slowly, wearing a black T-shirt advertising the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and clutching two 2003 World Cup memento hats and a little bag.

Slowly, the face and the name came together. Kip Keino. One of the greatest long-distance runners ever. Then, this correspondent realised that Keino was heading straight towards his row, in fact, to the seat right next to his.

A little scar on the right side of the forehead, a broken thumbnail on the left hand. This was the man who had set the track on fire, this man who was so hesitantly opening the packets of food and tea bags.

"Excuse me sir, are you Kip Keino?" was the hesitant question. "Yes," came the even more timid reply, and then the smile.

Born in 1940, Kipchoge 'Kip' Keino became one of Kenya's and the world's top track athletes and a two-time gold medallist at the Olympic Games. At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Keino represented Kenya in their first games as an independent nation, placing fifth in the 5,000m event. Later in 1964, he set two world records --- in the 3,000m distance with a time of 7 minutes 39.6 seconds, and in the 5,000m distance with a time of 13 minutes 24.2 seconds.

But it was in 1968 Olympics at Mexico City that Keino had his most famous victory. After having to jog a mile to the stadium because his taxi was stuck in traffic, he won the 1,500m in an Olympic record of 3 minutes 34.9 seconds. The mark stood until 1984. He also won the silver medal in the 5000m despite an acute gall bladder infection.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he won his second gold, in the 3,000m steeplechase, and also won a silver medal in the 1500m.

Keino retired from international running in 1973. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife, Phyllis, purchased a farm in Kenya, on which they began an orphanage. Keino also began coaching Kenyan track-and-field teams.

Back in the aircraft, the discussion shifted to the World Cup Opening Ceremony, where Keino was one of African athletes who marched with the teams. Inevitably, the conversation shifted to Kenya and New Zealand's decision to boycott their game there.

"It is their decision," Keino said. "But I refuse to believe that they were ever the target. The terrorist attacks were targeting the US and the Israelis."

But is that not enough for anyone to get scared? "Yes, fear will always be there, but sportsmen are hardly ever the target of terrorists and extremists.

"Whatever the reasons, it is sad that New Zealand refused to play in Nairobi," Keino added. "The people there were looking forward to the World Cup matches."

Cricket, Keino says, will soon catch up with football in Kenya. "There is a lot of interest, and many youngsters are taking up the game. But they need a lot of money to get the game really going."

Then he had his own set of questions. "There are so many talented women athletes in India, why don't they come up to international levels? And what is happening to hockey? You were so good at it."

The Opening Ceremony drew a lot of praise from Keino. "I will most probably be back for the final. And I will also be in India for the Afro-Asian Games."

By now, we had landed in Johannesburg, and Keino got up and left hurriedly. He had to catch the connecting flight to Nairobi.

Last seen, he was jogging towards the international terminal, and that brought a smile and sadness. A smile, because if Keino can't run and catch a plane, no one can. Sadness because there went an old man who had once ruled the world, but had no one now to escort him to his next plane, so that he could get there with dignity.

First Published: Feb 13, 2003 02:11 IST