(With an addendum by Brian Sheriff, an old racing friend of Douglas’s)
Today is the 50th birthday of Douglas Wakiihuri, who remains one of the favorite sons of Kenyan running. Born September 26, 1963 in the seaside city of Mombasa, the Japanese-trained runner won Kenya’s first-ever World Championships gold medal in the Marathon in Rome 1987. Not until Luke Kibet won the world title in Osaka, Japan in 2007, did Douglas have company in that exclusive club. Abel Kirui then claimed entry with wins in Berlin 2009 and Daegu, South Korea in 2011.
Following his own World Championship in `87, Douglas earned the silver medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, finishing 15-seconds behind Italy’s Gelindo Bordin. The next year he won the London Marathon, and then took home the Commonwealth Games Marathon gold medal from Auckland, New Zealand in February 1990.
In this excerpt from Runners Digest Radio we listen to Douglas Wakiihuri on the eve of his win at the 1990 New York City Marathon. In this contemplative moment Douglas describes the marathon as ole Will Shakespeare might well have, if the bard had ever explored the depths of the distance as had Douglas.
Though his PR, 2:09:03 in London, may have been modest even by the standards of his day Douglas Wakiihuri’s excellence in championship competition marks his career as one of the finest in world history. A member of the S&B Team in Japan coached by Kiyoshi Nakamura, Douglas displayed the powerful combination of Kenyan talent and grit with a Japanese-oriented work ethic.
Furaha ya kuzaliwa, champ, for even at the half-century mark and memories of long-ago glory, you “retain that dear perfection which you own without that title”.
(Late last night I received the following response on my Facebook page from Brian Sheriff, a native of Zimbabwe, who was educated in America, and ran professionally in the 1980s and `90s both on the road circuit, and then for the Japanese-based Mazda Ekiden team. Brian is an old racing friend of Douglas Wakiihuri, and fills in my rather thin portrayal of the great champion.)
Thank you Toni – I was trying to get news about Douglas for sometime now. We go back a long time. Perhaps I should enlighten you. He was nurtured by an uncle people may remember, Wilson Waigwa. A graduate of UTEP, Wilson was quite popular in Japan and decided through a Kenyan based Japanese man, Mr.Kobahashi, to get Douglas into the S&B Foods running team. The team was the personal project of legendary coach Kiyoshi Nakamura whose greatest pupil was Toshihiko Seko, two -time Boston Marathon champion (1981, `87), great rival to Bill Rodgers, three-times Fukuoka Marathon champion (1978-`80), and in 1986 both the London and Chicago Marathon champion. Though a two-time Olympian, Seko never fared well in the Games in `84 L.A. or `88 in Seoul.
Nakamura-san set out to build his team specifically for the EKIDEN. Each runner would have to perfect the art of team play… and that may explain why Douglas never ran the 2:05 marathon he was very capable of.
Nakamura-san taught his runners how to race against their opponents with dignity. Showmanship was absolutely unsavory. The runners would settle into a race pace set by the opponents. The S&B Team runners would be capable of maintaining that pace while the others dropped off. Just like we witnessed in Rome in 1987 when Douglas took the title in the marathon.
I had run a personal best in the 10,000 only weeks before with Douglas at the Prefontaine meet. Douglas won the race by a few seconds from me. Warming together before the race he asked what my objective was. “To qualify for Rome” I said. “Me too,” he said and then explained that the other runners in his group would set the pace for an easy but comfortable qualifying effort. Just hold the pace with me through the first 2 k’s, then we’ll set a constant pace through 7k’s. By then the unschooled runners will have burnt out their finishing energy – we’ll take it into the finish smoothly and with confidence for Rome. We will not be out to make other runners look bad. I don’t know about that, but what I am very sure about was that I comfortably ran 28:07 – going under the qualifying mark by a safe half minute.
In Rome, however, Kenya switched him to the Marathon. And now knowing what I know today (from personal experience with his team in Japan) the Kenyan AAA’s decision would not have caused him any concern – he was as prepared to challenge for gold in the marathon as he was in both the 5 and 10K events. The 10,000 was run under the most corrupt of conditions the IAAF has ever displayed.
My late great friend, Paul Kipkoech, shocked the Italian organizers by making a complete mockery of the plot. Yes indeed, it was a plot to guarantee the title for an Italian runner. If Douglas had also run the 10,000 I believe that he would have been one step behind Paul through the major part of the race and probably a step ahead at the finish line. Douglas was mentally superior in his ability to do all that he needed to do before he came to the starting line. No mental games could sway him. Paul’s victory on the other hand was nothing less than a massive kick in the groin for the organizers. Paul was a natural in fighting challenges life threw to him. Douglas on the other hand was a trained assassin in that field. What a race it would have been. And I am confident that Douglas could have pulled a Zatopek.
A few years later we met again in New York. And it was there that he sold me onto the idea of moving to Japan. Unfortunately when I did move a year later, he had been repatriated to Kenya – a matter that still hasn’t been made clear. Rumor has it that S&B’s board had begun to push Nakamura-san to concentrate on business instead of running. The team dropped out of competition and the athletes all retired – Seko included, right in the prime of their careers. Seko would revive it a few years later (and we spoke a number of times…). But Douglas would never have recognized it. Early this year the team was officially removed from the S&B company and taken over by a start-up with Seko at the helm.. The final word about Douglas is that he came from a stoic background and entered a club based on stoic principles. With the two most important people in his life being his uncle and mentor, Wilson, and his coach and patron, Nakamura-san. Happy birthday old friend…