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Amos Biwott: Moi was supportive, held pioneer athletes in very high esteem

Saturday February 8 2020

Rwanda's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Louise Mushikiwabo (centre), Amos Biwott (left) and his wife pose for photos with the heroes’ award that Amos won on December 11, 2014 during Nation Media Gala held at Safari Park Hotel. Biwott was the first Kenyan to win the 3000m steeplechase gold in 1968 Olympics in Mexico. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE |

Rwanda's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Louise Mushikiwabo (centre), Amos Biwott (left) and his wife pose for photos with the heroes’ award that Amos won on December 11, 2014 during Nation Media Gala held at Safari Park Hotel. Biwott was the first Kenyan to win the 3000m steeplechase gold in 1968 Olympics in Mexico. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

BENARD ROTICH
By BENARD ROTICH
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As we enter into the compound of pioneer Olympic 3,000 metres steeplechase gold medallist Amos Biwott in Mlango, Nandi County, in the early hours of Friday, we expect to find mzee still fast asleep.

But to our utter astonishment, we learn that the 72-year-old legend was up at 5am and has just completed his morning run!

We find him about to complete his breakfast after the run in what has been a routine for him since he retired from athletics in the mid-1970s.

Despite his age, Biwott gets up at 5am and goes for a four-kilometre morning run, just like teenage athletes in the county that prides itself as the “source of champions.”

The legend welcomes us into the homestead, in the company of his wife Cherono Maiyo. They are both in sport gear, having maintained the daily morning run tradition.

Like Biwott, Cherono is also a former elite athlete, in fact one of Kenya’s pioneer female Olympians having competed at the 1972 Munich Games where she reached the semi-finals of both the 800m and 1,500m.

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Biwott’s daily routine is regular and predictable. He’s always up at 5am and goes for a morning run, crossing into the neighbouring Uasin Gishu County towards the Eldoret International Airport and back, covering a distance of four kilometres.

Outside their single bedroom house, running shoes are laid out in the sun to dry after soaking in the early morning dew gathered from the run.

The couple’s home is a few metres from the Eldoret-Kapsabet highway, and this is where they have been living together since they got married in 1973.

'KEEP GOING'

Cherono dutifully prepares breakfast for the legend as he returns from his morning run, saying he needs to eat well to keep going.

The couple sometimes hit the road together before retiring to the day’s business.

She sells traditional vegetables in the neighbourhood in the morning before going to her shed in the afternoon to continue selling food.

“After breakfast, I normally go round selling traditional food as one way of keeping fit and, later in the day, I will settle in the shed where I will continue with the business.

“That is what I do for a living and it has kept us going,” says Cherono.

Biwott will be remembered as the first Olympian to win gold for Kenya in the 3,000m steeplechase race at the 1968 Mexico Olympics Games while he was still a student at Lelmokwo High School. At the Mexico final, Biwott’s winning time was eight minutes, 51.02 seconds, with compatriot Benjamin Kogo taking silver in 8:51.56 and American George Young going home with bronze in 8:51.86.

This victory opened the steeplechase floodgates with the race now celebrated as a preserve of Kenyans. And, interestingly, Biwott only ran in the steeplechase as he missed out on his specialties – the 5,000m and 10,000m – at the national championships, with Kenyan track officials requesting him to try the water and barriers race.

“I used to run in 5,000m and 10,000m races but when I got a chance to participate in the 3,000m steeplechase, I had more energy and that made me to perform better than my competitors,” the legend explains. But he fitted so well in the steeplechase and was popular for his technique of clearing the water jump and landing on the dry mat unscathed.

This gave him the momentum to widen the gap on his pursuers.

“I would run for the seven laps without jumping into the pool of water because I had extra strength due to my long distance races training,” he tells us.

“That helped me so much during the Olympic Games because I managed to widen the gap and crossed the line first,” says Biwott.

His good performance, together with that of his teammates, landed them an invite from President Jomo Kenyatta at his home in Gatundu where they would celebrate their achievements with the Head of State.

His achievement saw President Kenyatta award him a scholarship to Form Two at Njoro High School where he studied until Form Four.

In 1970, Biwott represented Kenya in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburg, Scotland, where he finished third.

He then finished sixth at the 1972 Munich Olympics Games.

In 1974, he finished eighth at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, before hanging up his spikes.

ACCUSATIONS OF THEFT

After completing high school, Biwott went to St. Joseph Teachers College in Trans Nzoia where he wanted to train as a teacher, but was picked by Andrew Saikwa, the first African Commissioner of Kenya Prisons, to serve in the uniformed forces.

This was largely thanks to his Olympic exploits which earned him favour with the day’s authorities.

He was posted at the Lang'ata Prisons where he served until 1978 where he was forced to retire amid accusations of theft that blotted his illustrious life.

Although he managed to shake off these accusations, he remained unemployed from 1978 until 1986 where he landed a job at the freshly constructed Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, as a guard. As we continued our interview, Biwott, we couldn’t avoid reminiscing about the late president Daniel arap Moi.

Biwott disclosed that, although he had interacted on many occasions with Mzee Moi, then as Vice-President, it was while on guard duties at Kasarani that he had an opportunity to get closer to Kenya’s second president.

Biwott says he met Moi on several occasions when he would accompany Kenyan teams to State House to get the president’s blessings before they travel for assignments abroad, or when they returned from various events.

“I met Moi when I was working at Kasarani as a security officer and he used to invite me to State House whenever he met delegations travelling for various assignments.

“He was happy to know that I was among the first pioneers in athletics and would always want to associate me with athletes visiting him,” he says.

As our conversation goes on, tells us Moi was "a man who loved sport.”

“I would like to send my sincere condolence to the family of Moi for the loss,” Biwott offered. “He was a cheerful leader who loved sports and wanted to always find out the progress of athletes in various races,” says Biwott.

In 2018, Biwott was invited as one of Kenya’s legends to grace the IAAF World Under-18 Championships in Nairobi. The trip to Nairobi saw him, for the first time ever, use the Eldoret International Airport, which, incidentally, is virtually a stone’s throw from his home. He praises Moi for building the airport and for helping develop the North Rift’s infrastructure apart from putting up two international stadiums in Nairobi, the Moi International Sports Centre and Nyayo National Stadium.

“Moi was a hardworking man and that is why he managed to build Kasarani and Nyayo stadiums and we will always remember him,” he says.

Born on September 8, 1947, Biwott joined Ndonyongaria Primary School in 1956 where he used to run back home during the lunch break and back to school, a stereotypical routine many top Kenyan runners endured.

ENDURANCE

This, he says, that it helped him identify his running talent besides building his endurance.

He later joined Mutwot Primary School and would run for almost five kilometres daily, and this was just fun to him. But, on a more serious note, these runs catapulted him onto a track career.

He would then compete in various meets, representing his school, and would win serially in the 10,000m and 5,000m, all the way up to the national level.

He married Cherono in 1973, largely due to their interaction at the 1972 Olympics Games in Munich. Cherono was the only Kenyan athlete to make the 800m quarter-finals where she managed a fifth place, clocking 2:04.86.

She later retired in 1973 after she got married to Biwott but could only join her husband in light training at home.

“I met Biwott in Munich and he proposed to me, and that’s where we managed to start our family.

“I didn’t go back to athletics again after giving birth to my first child,” she tells Nation Sport. The couple have six children, five boys and a girl. But despite their trailblazing achievements, they struggle today to put bread on their table. Cherono urges the government to remember retired athletes because they used to run for the country, and nothing was awarded to them in terms of cash back in the day.

She proposes that the government starts a kitty that will help all the athletes who represented Kenya in the early 60’s and 70’s live comfortably.

“I would like to ask the government, through President Uhuru Kenyatta, to remember the legends who used to run for the country and got nothing came back despite their good performance and duty for the nation,” implored Cherono.

The two legends will be following the State funeral of President Moi on radio as they don’t have a television set in their humble abode. They don’t even have running water and have to make do with trips to the well.

Such a shame for two great athletes who helped place Kenya on the global map, Biwott having opened the floodgates in the steeplechase, a race we now jealously guard as our track staple.

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