There are those who put a lot of stock in birth order in determining a person’s psychological development. Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was one of the first in his field to suggest that birth order played a determinative role in how one approached friendships, love, and work. Later studies challenged his birth-order theory, but generally speaking first-born children were said to be more conscientious and achievement oriented, while laterborns were more rebellious, open, and agreeable. (Sounds about right in my sibling lineup)
But beyond in what order you may have been born within your own family, there is also something to be said for being born at the right time in the history of man in determining one’s future path. Not in the astrological sense, as in Mercury being in retrograde when mom spit you out, but in the sense of coming along when the world is prepared to appreciate and remunerate your particular skill set.
When Australia’s Derek Clayton reset the marathon world record in Antwerp, Belgium in 1969 at 2:08:34, he broke his own record of 2:09:37 set in Fukuoka, Japan two years earlier. But riddle me this? Who were the guys back in Nairobi, Ngong, Eldoret, or Iten, Kenya at the time who weren’t racing in Fukuoka or Antwerp? Who were the guys that we never knew, never heard of, but may well have been the best marathoners of their generation but never were?
Looking at Track & Field News yearly rankings in the marathon (and God speed to the TFN crew for an unwavering 70 years of devotion to the sport as they announced that the December 2017 issue would be their last in printed form) one sees eras of dominance. The Finns in the 1950s were particularly strong, notching five world number ones, and often placing another two and as many as five in the top ten. The Japanese had a solid streak in the mid-1960s, and Americans Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers each ranked number one three times in the 1970s, with Alberto Salazar continuing their legacy taking top honors in 1981 and 1982.
But there has been nothing in the past to equal the current East African marathon dominance. The last time a non-East African runner ranked number one in the marathon was 2005 when Morocco’s Jaouad Gharib held the top spot, and even then the remaining nine positions went to East African athletes.
Ondoro Osoro was first Kenyan ranked number one in the world in the marathon in 1998. Joseph Chebet followed in 1999. Paul Tergat in 2003 was next. Evans Rutto 2004; Martin Lel 2007; Sammy Wanjiru 2008, 2009; Patrick Makau 2010; Geoffrey Mutai 2011; Wilson Kipsang 2012; and Eliud Kipchoge 2014-2017. In the 20 years since their first, 14 times a Kenyan man has been ranked number one in the world.
But it goes deeper than that. 2010 was first year the entire top ten was all either Kenyan (1,2,4,5, 8,9) or Ethiopian (3,6,7,10). In 2011, the top nine spots were all held by Kenyans, as only Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia broke in at number ten. The entire top ten in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 were East African. Only the emergence of American track star Galen Rupp in 2016, when he ranked number 4, then 2017 at number six, broke the East African monopoly. But again, the other nine all were from East Africa in both years.
With that pedigree in mind, who were the guys that could’ve been the 2:08s to Frank Shorter’s 2:10, the 2:07s to Bill Rodgers’ 2:09? We know now they existed, had to have existed, because look at what their grandchildren have accomplished.
What were they doing before the lessons were learned, both how to train and how to race the distance, before Ibrahim Hussein became the first Kenyan to win in New York City in 1987, then Boston 1988 after three wins in Honolulu 1984-’86? In other words, before the deluge, where were the pool of great Kenyan marathoners dammed up? Were they dreaming, or simply farming?
Until Hussein in the late 1980s, Kenya had yet to come out fully beyond the track and shorter road races, before the marathon offered them a potential living. We see how Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde won three straight Olympic Marathon gold medals for Ethiopia from 1960-’68, with Bikila ranked number one by TFN in 1960, ’61, and 1964. But back in Mexico City 1968 the Kenyans were still firmly track bound.
In 1968, Wilson Kiprugut won Olympic silver in the 800m, while Kip Keino famously beat America’s Jim Ryun for gold in the 1500. Neftali Temu earned bronze in the 5000 and gold in the 10,000, and then ran 19th in the marathon won by Ethiopian Mamo Wolde. A guy named Paul Mose of Kisii, Kenya finished 48th in the Mexico City Olympic Marathon, running 2:55:17 in the 75-man field.
Four years later Julius Sang took bronze in the 400 in Munich, Mike Boit bronze in the 800, Keino silver in the 1500, Paul Mose finished 16th in the 5000 heats, Ben Jipcho 32nd, and Evans Mogaka 53rd. None made the final. Then Mose finished 13th in the 10,000 final in the days when there were still three heats used to qualify for the final. Imagine, only one Kenyan ran the Munich Olympic Marathon won by Frank Shorter, and he, Richard Juma, DNFd.
By Montreal ’76 and Moscow 1980, international political boycotts robbed Kenya of two straight Games, Ethiopia just the one in Montreal. But those boycotts were deeply affecting.
By the late 70s/early 80s we knew how deep the talent pool really was in the Central Highlands of Kenya, because we saw Henry Rono, Samson Kimwamba, Mike Musyoki, Joe Nzau, Peter Koech, and Ibrahim Hussein all running for American universities. Still, men like Rodgers, Jerome Drayton, Gerard Nijboer, Rob de Castella, Juma Ikangaa, then Salazar, Carlos Lopes, Dionicio Cero, Steve Jones, Rodolpho Gomez, the Soh brothers and Toshihiko Seko were the top stars in the marathon, not Kenyans – though Joe Nzau won Chicago in 1983 in a great duel against England’s Hugh Jones when Chicago was still developing into a major.
Who were they, these forgotten men of history, men who were born before their time arrived? I have always found it an interesting question. I wonder if anyone has an answer?