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Saturday Magazine
Saturday, June 3, 2000

After the gold rush



PETER NJENGA talks to retired athlete Paul Ereng who began the 1988 Olympic gold rush, Kenya's greatest performance ever on the world stage.

By PETER NJENGA


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One of the most memorable newspaper headlines on a sporting event read: "Yes! It's a gold and the rush for more begins". The photo of Paul Ereng, the man who inspired this headline, was splashed on the front page of the Daily Nation, with a wide grin and his outstretched arms hugging the air.

The first and, to date, last Turkana champion athlete had just won the gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics 800 metres race. Overnight, Ereng became a celebrity at home and a sought-after runner the world over. This was the time Kenyans were yearning to sustain the rally in national sports which started the previous year.

In 1987, when Kenya had hosted the 4th All-Africa Games, the famed boxing 'Hit Squad' collected all the gold medals on offer. A young driver known as Patrick Njiru became the first African to conquer the Safari Rally in nine years. Gor Mahia FC brought home Kenya's first continental soccer title - the Cup Winners Cup - with another relatively unknown youngster, Peter Dawo emerging the highest goal-scorer in the tournament. Kenya could claim a huge reservoir of national sporting heroes but there was still a need for more.

Ereng's gold was sweeter in 1988, the first time since 1972 that Kenya was competing in the Olympics Games as a complete unit. (After the two political boycotts of 1976 and 1980, performance in the 1984 Olympics was less than stellar).

A few days after Ereng's gold, four other Kenyans - Peter Rono, Julius Kariuki, John Ngugi and the late boxer Robert Wangila - won gold medals in the best games for Kenyans in the history of the Olympics. The memorable homecoming for these gallant soldiers was electrifying. Many Kenyans turned up at the airport to meet and greet Ereng and Wangila, who were the Olympic squad members least expected to do well.

Kenyans who braved an early morning chill at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport that day were greatly impressed by the smooth-talking, broad-smiling athlete. Ereng blew kisses to Kenyans who thronged the road from the airport to Uhuru Park. Men and women responded emotionally throwing money into the open Land Rover carrying the five Olympian medallists. It soon emerged that Ereng was educated at Starehe Boys Centre in Nairobi before proceeding to the United States for further studies. Ereng addressed an assembly at the Centre the following morning, a rare gesture accorded to an important personality. Even the New Stanley Hotel (now The Stanley) where Ereng was staying threw a farewell party for the 21-year-old student of West Virginia State University.


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Ereng gave Kenya its first ever 800 metres Olympic gold medal in breathtaking style, with a record time of 1 minute 43.45 seconds. He was the dark horse of the games. Unknown and without any international credentials apart from victory in the National Collegiate Athletics championships (the equivalent of the national university championships) held in Eugene, Oregon three months earlier. He was included in the games team after beating the then Africa champion Sammy Koskei during the trials in Nairobi.

In the final, defending champion Joaquim Cruz of Brazil and Moroccan Said Aoiuta were tipped to win. But Ereng moved from the back at the 700-metre mark and produced a blistering pace to take the gold and improve his personal best time of 1:45.10.

A beneficiary of the American collegiate system, Ereng immediately commanded a legion of fans especially in urban areas notably Nairobi where he went to school and Nakuru, his first work station as a postal worker. His brand of showmanship, evident during the triumphant ride, is absent in athletics today, leaving runners with greater achievements than Ereng relatively unknown at home. In his day, Ereng was the most popular athlete in the world, behind American Carl Lewis, who meet promoters paid huge amounts in appearance fees to grace their meetings. In return he exhibited the versatility only comparable to Wilson Kipketer, the Kenyan-born Danish citizen who has dominated the two-lap event since 1994. Ereng won the world indoor title and dipping under 1:44 on five consecutive occasions.

On July 14 1989, Ereng started his first of many victories when he clocked 1:43.60 in the London Grand Prix. Five weeks later, he clocked 1:43.72 in Brussels. In between he also won in Spain and Germany posting 1:44 twice. No athlete since the days of Briton Sebastian Coe in the early 80s. Even after failing to compete in the 1990 Commonwealth Games held in Auckland, New Zealand, Ereng remained at the top. Ereng and Billy Konchellah, another Nairobi-bred runner, created such a large following for their explosive 800 metres meetings in Nairobi that as many as 20,000 spectators used to turn up at the Nyayo National Stadium or MISC Kasarani to watch the two giants clash.

But apparently his fast rise to the top was as dramatic as his fall. In the 1991 world championships Ereng faded to fourth as Konchellah defended his title. Officials still believed in Ereng who they entered in the 800m in the Barcelona Olympics but he did not even make it to the finals.


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