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
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
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
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.