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Jim Ryun: Why I forgave Jipcho for 1968 mischief

Saturday August 01 2020
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US President Donald Trump (right) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former US Representative Jim Ryun in the Blue Room of the White House on July 24, 2020. Ryun, a three-time Olympian, won a silver medal in the 1500m at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and was the first high school athlete to run a mile in under four minutes. PHOTO | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | AFP

By ELIAS MAKORI

Former Kansas Congressman Jim Ryun sent me an email this week, with a nostalgic photograph attached.

He stood on the left in the photo, with Kenyan track legend Ben Jipcho on the right. Between them was celebrity photographer and curator, Paige Powell.

The photo was taken in 1974, in Portland, Oregon, six years after Jipcho had employed what was then considered illegal tactics by playing “rabbit” (setting the pace) for his captain Kipchoge Keino’s victory in the 1,500 metres final at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. At the time Ryun was untouchable. A red-hot favourite for the gold medal at the Estadio Olimpico Universatario. After all, just a few months earlier, he had shown Keino a clean pair of spikes at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when shattering the world 1,500 metres, clocking three minutes, 33.1 seconds in the USA vs Commonwealth match on July 8, 1967.

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US athletics legend and former world 1,500m record holder Jim Ryun (left) with photographer Paige Powell (centre) and Kenyan track legend Ben Jipcho in Portland, Oregen, USA, in 1974. PHOTO | POOL | RYUN FAMILY

And what’s more, despite the “thin” air of Mexico City (2,300 metres), Keino had entered three races at the 1968 Games — the 10,000, 5,000 and 1,500 metres — against doctors’ orders.

The final of the 1,500m on October 20 would be Keino’s sixth race inside eight days, meaning that a fresh Ryun was expected to effortlessly take the Kenyan captain to the cleaners.

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At the time, Keino was battling gallbladder problems that saw him collapse in the infield with about two laps to go in the 10,000m final on (for him) an unlucky October 13 day of action, with compatriot Naftali Temu bagging Kenya’s first ever Olympic gold medal, crossing the line in 29 minutes, 27.4 seconds to ward off a challenge from Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde (29:28.0) and Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi (29:34.2). 

On October 17, Keino bounced back to dig in for silver in the 5,000m (14:05.2) behind Gammoudi (14:05.0) with Temu (14:06.4) taking bronze.
The Kenyan captain had used almost all his reserves, and no-one gave him a chance of upstaging Ryun, who had floored him in the semi-finals of the 1,500m, with Jipcho grabbing the final qualification slot.

But what happened on the day of the final remains one of the Games’ talking points.

Warned by team doctors that if he ran another race he’d drop dead, Keino was left behind in the Games Village to recuperate.

“But I told our team officials not to remove me from the start list,” Keino recalled earlier this week.

“I asked myself what would I tell the President (Mzee Jomo Kenyatta) if I returned home as team captain without a gold medal?”

He jumped onto the next bus which was caught up in traffic close by the stadium.

“Time was running out and I jumped off the bus and got to the warm up track 15 minutes to the race.

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Kenya's Kipchoge Keino (left) and USA's Jim Ryun during a special ceremony to celebrate global mile legends in Monaco on November 21, 2019. PHOTO | OLAF BROCKMANN

“We would be transported from the warm up track to the competition arena… I should have arrived earlier but I was stopped several times by policemen who told me I wasn’t supposed to be running through that area.”

And when the race started, Keino know just what the game plan was. Team orders were in place, orchestrated by “Team Kenya” coaches who included the late Charles Mukora and British volunteer John Velzian. “I told Jipcho to start off on a fast pace and to be wary especially of Ryun and Tummler,”  Keino reminisced.

And at the starter’s gun, Jipcho blasted off like a man possessed, crossing the 400m mark in a blistering 55.98 seconds, well inside a sub four-minute schedule.

Germans Harold Norpoth and Bodo Tummler (European champion) sandwiched Keino in second and fourth with Ryun way back in eight with the Kenyan captain weighing his options on the outside of the pack, the 800m split: 1:55.31!

“Clearly this is team running for Kenya designed to produce the gold medal for Keino,”  BBC’s peerless television commentator David Coleman read the game plan. “The pace is suicidal, well inside world record pace. If this goes on, the world record will fall at altitude… the American has been taken for a ride, Keino coming up to the bell...”

And with 200 metres to go, it was game over!

“And Keino will never be caught… the Kenyan, beaten in the 5,000m for speed, shows the world record holder the way home,” Coleman wrapped it up.

“Ryun completely misjudged this… the Kenyans have beaten him tactically out of sight!”

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Kenya's gold medallist Kipchoge Keino (right) leads USA's silver medallist Jim Ryun during the medal ceremony for the 1,500 metres final at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. PHOTO | OLAF BROCKMANN

Keino’s winning time of 3:34.91 was a new Olympic record and the 20-metre winning gap the biggest to date in the history of the 1,500m final at the Olympic Games. This infuriated Ryun who was up in arms against the Kenyan’s tactics as pace-making was considered illegal at the time.

Four years later at the Munich 1972 Games, Ryun was, once again, the favourite to win gold in the 1,500m, but with just over a lap to go in the fourth heat, and as he made his move, the world record holder was tripped and fell down, temporarily unconscious. He struggled to get up and finish the race in ninth place.

But his appeal for reinstatement fell through, and that marked the end of his Olympic dream. Months later, a now born-again Christian, Ryun — who in his childhood days, had been dropped from his church baseball team and couldn’t make the junior high school basketball team — forgave the competitor who had tripped him in Munich.

“I realised my responsibility was to be faithful to God and to forgive that man, and ask God to give me a forgiving attitude,” he told JCTV in a 2011 interview.

Ryun wasn’t really interested in politics after his stellar running career, until 1996, the same year he was elected Member of the US House of Representatives in which he served the Second Congressional District of Kansas for 10 years.

And, by coincidence, last Friday, he was awarded the highest civilian honour in the United States of America — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — by US President Donald Trump, the very same day that his nemesis of 1968 Jipcho, 77, died in Eldoret.

“It is good to hear from you though with sad news about Ben’s passing,” Ryun, 73, responded when I reached out to him for a reflection on his competition days with Jipcho.

“Ben was a remarkable athlete with great talents.”

Jipcho, along with Keino became the first Kenyan athletes to turn professional in the 70s, then running on the International Track Association circuit which is, perhaps, comparable to the modern Diamond League.

Ryun recalls that it was during one of their meetings on the circuit in 1974 that Jipcho reached out to him and apologised for the Kenyan ruse at the 1968 Olympics.  “During the International Track Association season of competition, Ben came to me and asked for my forgiveness in illegally rabbiting the 1,500m final at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics,”  Ryun said in our conversation.

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Kenya'a Ben Jipcho leaves world record holder Jim Ryun behind as he wins the mile during the sensational professional debut at Uniondale, New York in this undated photo. Jipcho also won the two-mile event. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“He expressed his disappointment for doing what he did because he knew it should have been a race between Kip and me.

“I readily forgave him having just become a Christian on May 18, 1972.”

The American legend explained that Jipcho had been instructed by Kenyan officials to burn him (Ryun) out.

“Ben had been told by the Kenyan track and field authorities that he would rabbit (set a blistering pace) in the race to ensure a Keino win.

“They promised Ben the next Olympics would be his. His coming to me (to apologise) was completely unsolicited and was a display of great character.  To this day, I admire Ben for his character probably even more so than his running talent.  It is a man’s character that lives on long after our running legs give out and it is character that is passed on to the next generation.  (My wife) Anne and I send our condolences to Ben’s family along with our prayers for Christ’s peace that passes their own understanding,” he said, signing off  with Bible verse John 3:3-8.

Kenya’s 1968 coach Velzian is currently 92 years of age, living alone in Nairobi’s Westlands area.

I reached out to him earlier in the week for comment but with his advanced age, and failing memory, he couldn’t clearly recollect the events of Mexico City. In fact, he hadn’t known of Jipcho’s demise.

“We’ve had good times with Jipcho,” he responded when I broke the news.

“It’s difficult these days for me to speak to any of my athletes… But I’ve had a great life and they have kept me safe and I have kept them safe.”

Velzian says since his son moved to New Zealand and his daughter to London, he’s been living alone.

Meanwhile, as he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Blue Room of the White House last Friday, Ryun fought back tears as he probably recalled the highs and lows of his stellar running career, and his contribution to US track and field.

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A commemorative plaque at Bakerfield College in California where USA's Jim Ryun set the world record for the outdoor mile, with a time of 3:51.1 at the college's Memorial Stadium at the 1967 Track and Field Championships. PHOTO | POOL | RYUN FAMILY

“The United States proudly recognizes Jim Ryun for his meritorious contributions to our nation,” his citation concluded, with Trump describing it as “a tremendous moment” for Ryun and his family.

And of course, the US President threw in his humorous, legendary off-the-cuff comments for good measure as he paid tribute to Ryun. (Throw in Trump voice...)

Trump: In his very first mile race, however, he came in a second — he came in second place to the reigning state champion and a real talented person. Do you ever see him around, by the way?

Ryun: Occasionally.

Trump: He still around?

Ryun: Yes, he is.

Trump: Okay, that’s pretty good.  He’s still saying, “What happened?” (Laughter)

Trump: In Jim’s senior year of high school, he ran against three-time Olympic gold medal winner Pete Snell. He was good, wasn’t he?  Huh? But that was a bad day for Pete. (Laughter.)

With 300 metres left in the race, Jim surged ahead of the pack and swept across the finish line in a fraction of he — his time — what was your time — three minutes and 55.3 seconds?  That’s not bad, right?

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Former congressman and Olympic runner Jim Ryun speaks to loved ones after being awarded the Presidential Medial of Freedom by US President Donald Trump during a ceremony in the Blue Room of the White House July 24, 2020, in Washington, DC. Ryun, a three-time Olympian, won a silver medal in the 1500m at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and was the first high school athlete to run a mile in under four minutes. PHOTO | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | AFP

Ryun: It was okay, sir.

Trump: Not bad. I don’t know. What did Pete say? Was he a gracious — was he gracious about it?

Ryun: Very gracious, yeah.

Trump: In 1967, Jim ran an incredible 3:51.1 mile, which would stand as the world-record mile for almost a decade. Jim still describes it as “the easiest race he ever ran.” Is that right? It was just — it was magic.

Ryun: Amazing.

Trump: It was magic. To this day, it’s the last time an American set the world record in the mile. So that was a while ago. What is the world record right now?  So you’re at 3:51.

Ryun: 3:43 or —

Trump: 3:43 or so, huh?  Okay. That’s a long time, right?  They’ve — training and lots of other things, right?

Ryun: Well, yeah. Some of the other things aren’t so good, but yes.  (Laughter.)

Trump: Oh. We have breaking news now. (Laughter.) This could be the big story today.  Forget about it. That’s great. But that is — that is some long period of time that he held the record.

Thousand of kilometres away from the splendour of the Blue Room of the White House, Jipcho was buried on Friday in the humble settings of his home in Kisawai Village,  Saboti Constituency of Trans Nzoia County.

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Casket bearing the remains of Kenya's athletics legend Ben Jipcho during his burial ceremony at his rural home in Kisawai village, Trans Nzoia County on July 31, 2020. PHOTO | GERALD BWISA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

May the legend Rest in Eternal Peace.

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