- The heavies of world athletics in 1979, including Edwin Moses, Henry Rono, Steve Williams, Mike Boit attended 1979 Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Meet.
In terms of star appearance, the greatest athletics event to take place on Kenyan soil happened on June 20, 1979.
It was a one-off, not as intended but as fate would have it. It paid homage to one of the planet’s great track nations, laid before our eyes a future pregnant with dreams but in the fullness of time only succeeded in leaving us with inerasable memories.
This was the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Athletics Meeting. It was held on the marram track of the Nairobi City Stadium.
This name cropped up at the very last minute. Throughout the preparations, the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association, precursor to the present Athletics Kenya, talked only of a Special International Athletics Meeting. In fact, the meeting was also called the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Games, never mind it was an athletics only event.
Two world heavyweights topped the card. One was Edwin Moses of the United States, then the world 400m hurdles champion, who was in his second of a ten-year uninterrupted winning streak. By the time he lost to fellow American Danny Harris in 1987, he had run 122 races without defeat, to this day, history’s longest winning streak.
The other was our own Henry Rono, who was the holder of four world records in the 3,000m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m.
Yet Moses and Rono were just but part of a star-studded cast. Steve Williams of the USA was at the height of his powers as the world’s fastest man. He had run the 100 metres in a hand-timed 9.9 seconds and the 200 metres in 19.8 seconds. He was a member of the American team that had set the world record in the 4x100 metres relay. He was, naturally, the big gun in the sprints.
But the man with whom he had jointly set the world record in the 220 yards in 1975, Jamaica’s Don Quarrie, was also here. Both had done 19.9seconds. They would raise the murram dust of the City Stadium in the 200m. Other sprinters on the cards were Ghana’s Ernest Obeng, the reigning African champion and Jerome Deal and Leon Coleman both of the United States.
The sprints card could not get heavier than that anywhere in the world. It is like having Usain Bolt and the best the world could throw at him and Jamaica in this age. And it was all happening inside the grey walls of the Nairobi City Stadium behind which the old Mombasa train was blowing its whistle and people were eating nyama choma and drinking Tusker Export beer at Kanyim’s Bar in Kaloleni.
The middle and long distances were just as strong. The leading distance runners at that time were Alberto Salazar, today Nike Oregon Project coach and Rudi Chapa, both of the United States. I found Salazar one of the most pleasant people to interview – but more about that later. Both Salazar and Chapa were here and we smelt a world record, what with Henry Rono properly invincible but the best of the rest wanting to end that enviable period of his career with immediate effect.
Mike Boit, one of Kenya’s most beloved athletes, was expected to spearhead the middle distance challenge in his specialty, the 800m. But in both that and the 1,500m, the United States had brought in heavy artillery. Evans White, Gerry Jones and Craig Masback were all in the top tier bracket in the world at that time. Their presence was sure to electrify the proceedings.
Any competition of this magnitude was always destined to give a cub reporter like me a blood rush. At that time, I was working for a Sunday broadsheet called The Nairobi Times published alongside the famed Weekly Review and the children’s magazine, Rainbow by the Nation Group’s first African Editor, Hilary Ng’weno then operating his own outfit, the Stellascope Group.
I will be truthful with you. The man I was obsessed with – over and above everybody else – was Edwin Moses. I stalked him and finally tracked him down at his residence, the Pan Afric Hotel along Valley Road barely two hours before he was to go to the City Stadium. I must here tell you that getting to the City Stadium from the Pan Afric Hotel on an early Wednesday afternoon in 1979 was a breeze. Don’t imagine traffic jams, much less boda boda.
I found him in the garden restaurant. He was drinking…(ahem!) – a Pilsner beer! I was shocked. Just about the first question I asked him after introductions was, “how can this be?” By my watch, competition time is…goodness me? An hour away? He looked amused. And he did not directly address my concerns; he gently steered me into asking him “good questions like – his life, America, Kenya, the Jomo Kenyatta Meeting…”
He was such a good guy, so approachable, so polite, so respectful and so knowledgeable that you just had to love him as you would a dear family member.