Who is the greatest long-distance runner in the history of athletics? The answers are likely to be many and divisive, for it is humanly impossible to crown just one single athlete from the many athletes who have graced athletics in the last century.
One athlete, however, who is likely to elicit controversy in such a debate is Henry Rono. Where does he rank among the world’s best?
In his prime, Henry had a higher than the normal running IQ, undoubtedly unparalleled by his then peers. He went as far as breaking 4 world records in a span of 80 days without any help from pace setters. Such a fete is unheralded in modern day running; and had Kenya not boycotted two consecutive Olympic games, Herny Rono was a sure bet for at least one Gold medal.
Henry Rono was a pioneer. He set the pace for today’s athletes by becoming one of the first Africans, in the 70’s, to compete in Europe and North America. Regrettably, his career was reduced to a contest, not with other athletes, but with alcohol addiction.
Henry, who currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, lost his father when he just 6 years old. His dad was driving a tractor on a white man’s farm when he came upon a snake. In his book “Olympic Hero,” Rono explains that his father jumped off in fright and landed on a spinning three-disc plough. He was killed instantly.
The poverty at hand forced his now widowed mother to marry off his sister for a dowry of five cows, five sheep, two goats, and Ksh 500. To supplement this income, Henry’s mother also sold home-brewed Chang’aa and Busaa. Their home became a place where “vagrants and drunks gathered to get high.” The only consolation here being that Henry could now afford tuition fees, the source notwithstanding.
While attending Primary School education, news spread around that Kipchoge had beaten the famed American runner Jim Ryun in the 1,500 meters at a race held in Mexico City. Kiptaragon, Henry’s village, could not sleep. Young boys wanted to emulate Kipchoge, Henry included. They all dreamed to follow in the footsteps of Kipchoge.
Inspired by Kipchoge’s exploits, Henry joined the Kenya Army. He was craving a regimented athletics training, which the Army offered. This became his guaranteed sanctuary for training. And the results were instant. In 1974, at the National Army championships, he bettered Naftali Temu’s records that had lasted for years; in the 10,000 meters, 5000 meters and 3,000 meters steeplechase.
With Kenya’s top talent in middle distance running; Kip Keino, Ben Jipcho, and John Kipkurgat dealing with father time and fast fading, Kenya’s hopes for dominance were now on the shoulders of a young rising star- Henry Rono.
Henry Rono did not have anyone to mentor him in his early days as an athlete. No one had advised him that an athlete cannot train in military boots; yet that is exactly what happened. This (foolish) decision aggravated a childhood injury on his ankle and consequently kept him away from action for almost a year.
After healing a torn ligament on his ankle, in 1972, Henry was preparing for the Montreal Olympics trials. He had qualified to represent Kenya in 5,000 meters and 3,000-meters steeplechase in Montreal. However, while at the Olympic village on the night before the games were due to start, word went around that Kenya had pulled out in protest of inclusion of New Zealand, which still had athletic ties to the apartheid government of South Africa.
In 1976, Henry immigrated from Kenya to attend Washington State University. He soon developed an uneasiness about running under his coach, who he says made him feel like an inferior human being. To make matters worse, the homesickness and anxieties about school were eating on him. He was not ready for university education, given his limited schooling in Kenya. Here, he explains:
“I was accepted in America not because of academic prowess, but because of athletics. Look here, I failed. The program was for academic dwarfs, but physically strong athletes.”
Out of this frustration, drinking, became Henry’s escape. He would drink his fill until the club closed. In his book he describes his drinking habits:
“Each day after my afternoon workout, I would head to the sauna to sweat out my body toxins and fats. After I got out of the sauna, my muscles felt relaxed and rejuvenated, but my throat and mouth were parched by a thirst so deep that I felt only beer could quench it… I would down pitcher after pitcher, quenching my thirst and washing my worries down with every glass until the bar closed at 2.A.M.”
Henry’s first attempt at falling in love with an African American woman named Liz did not go far. She was her classmate who would soon become his tutor. The pair started dating, but Henry grew in frustration over Liz’s refusal to be intimate with him. His assumption was that Liz only cared about his fame. This drove him into more drinking.
Even though alcohol was now part of Henry’s routine, at least it did not stop him from making history in 1978, when he successfully set 4 new world records in middle distance running. In early spring at Berkeley California, Rono broke Dick Quix’s 5,000 metres record by knocking off 4.5 seconds off the previous mark. Rono then headed to Seattle, Washington for a meet and he broke the 3,000-meters steeplechase record.
The following month, in June, Rono broke the 10,000 meters world record held by his compatriot Samson Kimwomba. The same month, while competing in Oslo, Norway, before 30,000 spectators, Rono broke the world 3,000 meters record. All the four world records were broken in a span of 80 days.
Henry Rono would then carry Kenya’s hopes for a medal in the All African Games in Algeria. He went on to win 2 gold medals. He followed his winning ways with another 2 gold medals haul at the Commonwealth games in Canada.
On August 20th, 1978, President Kenyatta hosted a ceremony to receive the Kenyan team that had taken part in the Commonwealth Games in Canada. Since Rono had the mandate over the Kenyan flag, he made his way to State House in Mombasa for the ceremony. After handing the flag to the president, he was rewarded with an Order of the Burning Spear, Second Class, the second highest honor the president could bestow upon a Kenyan citizen. Two days later, President Kenyatta died.
With the earnings he was making in the track, Henry purchased 100 acres of land in Molo. This investment would later be mired in conflict, as his neighbor, a man, he describes as “Ng’eny-a high ranking official in the new Moi regime” started eyeing the farm. In fact, at some point, Henry notes that Ng’eny wanted Rono to trade his land in Molo for 150 acres in Kitale, a proposal he dismissed.
Today, Henry is trying to spring back from the verge of alcoholic ruin from decades of floating around United States doing odd jobs—parking cars, washing cars, checking bags at an airport. He has secured two university degrees, but still can’t find his footing.
Henry Rono’s drinking, though, has never been that funny a topic, for it is rooted in a deep alienation. The last time he saw his wife was in 1986, 33 years ago. Henry, however, has no regrets. He is content with the choices he has made and the path he has traveled, for he knows he cannot undo those choices.
Henry would like to be with his family. “I have no control of my family. I live by myself,” he explains.
Henry is afraid of being homeless in America. He wants to go back home to Kenya where he believes he can live with dignity, utilizing the graduate level education he attained in America:
“I want to go home because I do not want to be homeless. Here in America, I do not do my real job” he explains.
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