In terms of star appearance, the greatest athletics event to take place on Kenyan soil happened on June 20, 1979.
It was a one-off, not as intended but as fate would have it. It paid homage to one of the planet’s great track nations, laid before our eyes a future pregnant with dreams but in the fullness of time only succeeded in leaving us with inerasable memories.
This was the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Athletics Meeting. It was held on the marram track of the Nairobi City Stadium.
This name cropped up at the very last minute. Throughout the preparations, the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association, precursor to the present Athletics Kenya, talked only of a Special International Athletics Meeting. In fact, the meeting was also called the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Games, never mind it was an athletics only event.
Two world heavyweights topped the card. One was Edwin Moses of the United States, then the world 400m hurdles champion, who was in his second of a ten-year uninterrupted winning streak. By the time he lost to fellow American Danny Harris in 1987, he had run 122 races without defeat, to this day, history’s longest winning streak.
The other was our own Henry Rono, who was the holder of four world records in the 3,000m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m.
Yet Moses and Rono were just but part of a star-studded cast. Steve Williams of the USA was at the height of his powers as the world’s fastest man. He had run the 100 metres in a hand-timed 9.9 seconds and the 200 metres in 19.8 seconds. He was a member of the American team that had set the world record in the 4x100 metres relay. He was, naturally, the big gun in the sprints.
But the man with whom he had jointly set the world record in the 220 yards in 1975, Jamaica’s Don Quarrie, was also here. Both had done 19.9seconds. They would raise the murram dust of the City Stadium in the 200m. Other sprinters on the cards were Ghana’s Ernest Obeng, the reigning African champion and Jerome Deal and Leon Coleman both of the United States.
The sprints card could not get heavier than that anywhere in the world. It is like having Usain Bolt and the best the world could throw at him and Jamaica in this age. And it was all happening inside the grey walls of the Nairobi City Stadium behind which the old Mombasa train was blowing its whistle and people were eating nyama choma and drinking Tusker Export beer at Kanyim’s Bar in Kaloleni.
The middle and long distances were just as strong. The leading distance runners at that time were Alberto Salazar, today Nike Oregon Project coach and Rudi Chapa, both of the United States. I found Salazar one of the most pleasant people to interview – but more about that later. Both Salazar and Chapa were here and we smelt a world record, what with Henry Rono properly invincible but the best of the rest wanting to end that enviable period of his career with immediate effect.
Mike Boit, one of Kenya’s most beloved athletes, was expected to spearhead the middle distance challenge in his specialty, the 800m. But in both that and the 1,500m, the United States had brought in heavy artillery. Evans White, Gerry Jones and Craig Masback were all in the top tier bracket in the world at that time. Their presence was sure to electrify the proceedings.
Any competition of this magnitude was always destined to give a cub reporter like me a blood rush. At that time, I was working for a Sunday broadsheet called The Nairobi Times published alongside the famed Weekly Review and the children’s magazine, Rainbow by the Nation Group’s first African Editor, Hilary Ng’weno then operating his own outfit, the Stellascope Group.
I will be truthful with you. The man I was obsessed with – over and above everybody else – was Edwin Moses. I stalked him and finally tracked him down at his residence, the Pan Afric Hotel along Valley Road barely two hours before he was to go to the City Stadium. I must here tell you that getting to the City Stadium from the Pan Afric Hotel on an early Wednesday afternoon in 1979 was a breeze. Don’t imagine traffic jams, much less boda boda.
I found him in the garden restaurant. He was drinking…(ahem!) – a Pilsner beer! I was shocked. Just about the first question I asked him after introductions was, “how can this be?” By my watch, competition time is…goodness me? An hour away? He looked amused. And he did not directly address my concerns; he gently steered me into asking him “good questions like – his life, America, Kenya, the Jomo Kenyatta Meeting…”
He was such a good guy, so approachable, so polite, so respectful and so knowledgeable that you just had to love him as you would a dear family member.
This was the world champion, not so far from his race, apologizing if he had inconvenienced me in my search for him and expressing his privilege at my interviewing him.
Even at that age, I could read body language dispassionately. Moses came away to me to me as an honest man. The interview was short but he promised he would be available for me after his race. And he kept his promise – giving me so much time, that I actually ran out of questions. But there is more before we get to that. He was pitted against our own Dan Kimaiyo. Apparently, Moses hadn’t researched our man.
At the same time, Kimaiyo must have been eating, drinking, breathing, coughing and sleeping nothing else but Edwin Moses. The race was horribly close. The 15,000 people inside our World War II era playground screamed wildly as the greatest athlete in the world over the one-lap obstacle distance almost lost to our unheralded village-mate. It was desperately close.
“Who was that guy?” Moses kept asking journalists after the race. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to the questions at first. All he really wanted to know was “who was that guy?” But he gave his time to us.
He said: “I was not happy with my time. I was feeling the effects of the long travel. But I enjoyed the race. I have run on worse tracks than this one and I think I can do better next time. I would very much like to come back again and compete here one day before long.”
He made friendship with my colleague, Gishinga Njoroge and kept his promises. He came back the following year, ready to run. But guess what happened?
KAAA officials did not even inform him that there was no second Jomo Kenyatta International Athletics Meeting. He came at his own expense only to find exactly nothing.
He tried to find out from Gishinga what exactly the status was. Gishinga was a journalist, not a KAAA official. But he took it upon himself to apologise to Moses for all the trouble and expense. Moses took it all in his majestic stride. Of course, he never came back again – and it was all out fault and loss.
However, thanks to the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Meeting, of the finest people that my profession has given me the privilege to meet, I rank Edwin Moses among the highest. I cannot forget the champion’s humility and his sincere bewilderment at an unexpected challenger. I met a great man unblemished by any hint of arrogance. And decades later, I appreciate the camaraderie with which he treated a 20-year-old reporter.
Alberto Salazar gave me an early lesson in politics. At the time I met him, I was a fan of the mercurial Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. What I didn’t know was that I was going to meet an anti-Castro man who knew Fidel – and like him. His race didn’t go well and I wanted to know why. I waited for him to warm down. That is when Salazar told me his story.
Regarding the race, he said he had a stomach upset. In ordinary circumstances, he would have withdrawn before the competition started. But he had come from so far and he had liked the country so much that he felt the only right thing to do was to tough it out. I told him ‘sorry’, and he nodded with acceptance at my admiration for his endurance.
He told me that his father was an admirer of Fidel Castro but when the Cuban Revolution took a turn for Communism, his parents fled with him to the United States. They wanted freedom and raised him wanting freedom, he told me. Salazar spoke softly but compellingly.
He said he was happy to be in Kenya, a great athletic nation and that he looked forward to our brotherhood for years to come. I remember telling him: “We shall meet many times after this. Thank you for the time.” Alas, we have never met again!
I have been reading stories about the queries he has been asked about doping lately but I hope, just for old times’ sake, that he is the same nice guy that I met as an athlete so long ago. I admired his endeavour, especially after he told me the truth of his situation.
Sorry, I have not given you many results of the first and only Jomo Kenyatta International Athletics Meeting. If space allowed me, I would have told you about our champion, James Atuti and the schoolgirl, Elizabeth Onyambu. I would have told you about Ruth Waithera and Rose Tata-Muya and many other stars who shone that day. But my space is limited.
So there you have it. Enjoy the World U-18s. But never forget that day, June 20, 1979, at the Nairobi City Stadium, when the heaviest of the heaviest in the world of athletics were here.