When track legend Henry Rono was last home, Ronald Reagan was President of the USA and Alf — a story on a furry, arrogant but friendly alien from the planet “Melmac” — was the trending television series.
Top Gun (starring Tom Cruise) and Crocodile Dundee (Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski) were blockbusters on the silver screen and Mike Tyson was winning his first world boxing title (defeating Trevor Berbick), while Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova were Wimbledon singles champions.
Eliud Kipchoge was just a two-year-old baby, while fellow world record holder David Rudisha wasn’t even born!
That was 1986.
On Tuesday, after spending 33 roller-coaster years in USA, Rono touched down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport amid a cocktail of emotions. The scene fitted the script of the Biblical prodigal son, but the only difference was that roles were reversed.
It was more of a “prodigal father” as Rono’s son Calvin (37), accompanied by his uncle David Meli (43), were at the airport to receive their father and brother who wasn’t able to recognise them!
Simply extraordinary scenes...
“I feel fresh like a new born baby. It has not been easy staying way for three decades, but, nevertheless, I was mentally and physically prepared for this moment. It’s a long time for sure but I am happy to be back home,” said Rono, who arrived accompanied by his grandson Anthony Rono, a medical doctor.
“It’s with mixed emotions that I couldn’t recognise people’s faces, including my son who was four, and my brother, who was only 10 when I left in 1986. They are now big men. JKIA also looks much better than when I left,” said the multiple world record holder, who was occasionally interrupted by calls from his daughter Maureen, who was barely two months old when he left for the USA.
Rono is known for his historic streak in 1978 when he broke four world records within a span of 81 days, a year he also won the 10,000 metres and 3,000 metres steeplechase gold medals at the Commonwealth and African Games, respectively.
However, despite his prowess on track that saw him earn millions of dollars, mismanagement and alcoholism, cutting across three decades, ate deep into his resources, leaving him a pauper.
Rono’s move back to the USA in 1986 to resuscitate his career worsened things with a cocktail of poor form, corrupt agents and alcoholism deepened his woes.
Since 1986, Rono has been in-and-out of alcoholism rehabilitation centres, but only got to get a full reprieve five years ago when he quit drinking completely as efforts were made to help him return home.
Rono blamed the poor set-up of sports management locally and abroad, racism in athletics and rogue managers for his frustrations that saw him seek solace in alcoholism.
“Sports management in Kenya and abroad was poor with no structures to support athletes, especially Africans. As a young man with a lot of money, I wasn’t getting the support I needed or advise from anyone not even Kenya Amateur Athletics Association (KAAA),” said Rono.
“No one wanted to manage me openly because of the racism and early discrimination in the first world countries.”
Rono said that most of the agents who managed him “conned” him of his hard-earned cash, with most taking advantage of his romance with the tipple to grab his assets, rendering him almost destitute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he used to reside.
“I was reduced to security guard duties at the local airport and when I came home, no one wanted to help me.”