April 14, 2024

Henry Rono: Kenya's first track superstar dies at 72

Henry Rono: Kenya's first track superstar dies at 72
Henry Rono in his prime

Over 81 days, as a 26-year-old Washington State sophomore, he set world records in the 3,000m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and 3,000m steeplechase, a feat accomplished by no one else before or since.

The athletics fraternity has once more been thrown into mourning following the demise of former world record holder, 72-year-old Henry Rono after 10 days in hospital.

Rono, who spent the majority of his active career in the United States, is remembered for a remarkable feat in the 1978 season when he broke four records.

Over 81 days, as a 26-year-old Washington State sophomore, he set world records in the 3,000m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and 3,000m steeplechase, a feat accomplished by no one else before or since.

Those four runs alone would have guaranteed a place in any all-time greats but Rono proceeded to secure a 10,000m and steeplechase double at the All-Africa Games in Algiers and toyed with some high-class opposition before claiming 5000m and 3000m steeplechase golds at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada.

He went unbeaten in 31 outdoor races in 1978 until an epic two-mile tussle with Steve Ovett in the end-of-season IAC-Coca Cola meeting at Crystal Palace, the Briton’s formidable kick taking him to victory in a world outdoor best of 8:13.5.

After missing the 1980 Summer Games, he started the 1981 season with a beer belly but finished it with another 5000m world record, running 13:06.20, breaking his Berkeley time by 2.2.

Sadly, the drinking took its toll. In the years that followed, Rono endured periods of homelessness, was arrested for drunk driving, and undertook a string of menial jobs in towns and cities across the USA just to survive.

Happily, though, in the late 1990s, he started to get a grip on his alcoholism. He learned English properly for the first time, qualified as a teacher, and started coaching.

“I’ve been to the top of the highest mountain and then came down to the bottom of the world,” Rono reflected when receiving the 2008 Inspiration Award at the World Athletics Gala in Monte Carlo. “Looking back now, I can remember what happened in 1978, but then the next eight years are more or less a blank.”

The period in his life of which he is most proud, he insists, is not when he broke four world records in 81 days, but the time when he enrolled in community college and finally achieved the goal that had long eluded him: a mastery of English.