As Wilfred Bungei entered the home straight at the end of the men’s 800m final on Saturday he looked up at the screen through his dark shades and realised he was in a rare position. Ahead of him was a prize, a big one. The biggest one, he says.
“Winning a gold medal in the Olympics is like winning an Emmy award, or winning a Nobel prize,” he says. “For a sports person this is the highest prize that you can get whatever your sport. A medal in the Olympics is the best.”
Four years ago, Bungei had gone to Athens as the undisputed favourite for Olympic gold. He’d led the world from 2003 to 2005, clocked two sub-1:45s in 24 hours to win the brutal Kenyan trials that year, and won fast races in Madrid and Zurich, both in world-leading times – 1:43.72 and 1:43.06 respectively.
But in the Olympic final he allowed Djabir Said Guerni to set the tempo and paid for his mistake, finishing a disappointing fifth. Now he had another chance and this time he was determined to get it right. After all he had the hopes of two nations riding on his shoulders.
With the tall Sudanese Ismail Ahmed Ismail bearing down in him, and the world champion Alfred Yego coming hard round the outside, the Kenyan team captain stretched his legs and pushed for home, his right arm flailing wildly at his side in a style that’s become something of a trademark over the years.
“I just saw the line and saw the screen and saw that I was going to cross the line before anybody,” he says. “I was like ‘Wow, it is there’.”
With no quick times to his name and few appearances on the European scene, Bungei had taken the quiet route to Beijing. Few were tipping him, but that was all to his advantage. The groundwork for Kenya’s middle distance successes in Beijing was laid at two month-long training camps, one before the Kenyan trials and one before coming to the Games.
“I knew that when I came here I had a slower time compared with the guys who are running very well,” he says, referring to the defending champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy and Abubaker Kaki, the teenage sensation of the year, who both went out in the semis. Borzakovskiy’s exit meant there were no Euroepans in the final.
“At those camps we harmonised our training and I knew that if I ran my best at least I was going to get something.”
With the lessons of 2004 ringing in his head, Bungei set off at the front to control the pace himself. “I thought the best thing to do is just to go there and if I find myself in the front I should just relax and not panic,” he says.
“I didn’t want to plan the race, because if you plan a race and it doesn’t work for you then you will think that you are going to lose it. The best thing is just to take it the way it comes.”
It is a lesson the 28-year-old has learned over the years, sometimes from bitter experience. Indeed, it was his experience, he says, that in the end was the key to his victory.
“Experience plays a big part in what any athlete does,” he says. “When you look at the likes of Hicham El Guerrouj, he failed in 96, failed in 2000, but in 2004 he got something.
“Kaki came here as a favourite but the boy is still very young and I believe he was not able to handle the pressure he put on himself. I know what he underwent because I went through it myself in 2004 when I started as favourite. It cost me, and it’s the same for him.”
Not that Bungei felt no pressure to perform himself. he hails from Kaspabet, after all, the famous home of Kenyan 800m running – birthplace of world record holder holder Wilson Kipketer and African record holder Sammy Koskei, to name just two. It’s also home to Pamela Jelimo and Janeth Jepkosgei who became the women’s Olympic gold and silver medallists on Tuesday night.
“Two 800 metres winners from the same town,” says Bungei with a smile. “It’s great for us. It’s difficult to explain, but there must be something there.”
If a single spot can be described as the centre of Kenyan running, it is probably Bungei's village of Kabirirsang. The tiny hamlet, about 12km east of Kapsabet is the birthplace of multiple world record setter Henry Rono. Two or three kilometres west is Kapchemoiywo, Kipketer’s childhood home, and also home of the legendary double Olympic champion Kipchoge Keino. About 3km east is Arwos, home to Koskei, and Olympic silver medallists Peter Koech and Ben Kogo.
Indeed, Bungei is actually Kipketer's second cousin, and related to Rono through his mother’s first cousin. It’s quite some blood he has.
All that heritage comes with a few expectations, though. Even the women’s performances earlier this week actually added to the pressure on Bungei and Yego. After all, Bungei is Kenya’s team captain and Yego world champion. “Come on, let’s see what you guys can do,” was the message from management.
Indeed, Bungei admits he feels relieved as much as anything, to have finally snagged a major title. After finishing second at the World Championships in 2001 and fourth in 2005, his only major honour was gold from the 2006 World Indoors in Moscow.
“I am very relaxed now,” he says. “I can go back to my family, spend a few days with them and then think about doing a few races in Europe.”
Although Kenya is his home, Bungei also owes his success to Europe, specifically to Italy where he has been based for six months of every year since he was discovered at the 1998 World Junior Championships by manager Gianni Demadonna, and started training with Gianni Ghidini, the Italian national coach.
“Italy is my second home,” he says. “I have trained there for the last ten years, I have an Italian coach, I have an apartment in Verona.
“If I was able to divide this medal into two, I would have one half for Kenya, and one half for Italy. If it was possible to split it half-and-half I would do it.”
So maybe there was a European in the final, after all.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF