John Ngugi leads the 1989 World XC in Stavanger, Norway (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A Kenyan XC Legend – John Ngugi

With little more than a week to go until the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Mombasa, Kenya, 24 March 2007 we take a glimpse back in history to remember one of the all-time greats of the discipline. Brilliant, controversial, and certainly interesting, the career of John Ngugi is now re-told by Kenyan journalist Omulo Okoth.

Five IAAF World Cross Country titles and an Olympic 5000m gold medal marked out John Ngugi as the greatest distance runner of his generation.

Yet less well known than his global race record is the story of how the Kenyan team once threatened to go on strike if Ngugi was included in the team. Or how Domingos Castro taunted him in the warm-up area before the start of one of the Kenyan's finest track performances.

John Ngugi Kamau

Born: May 10, 1962, Kigumo, Murang’a

As a boy, aged 3, young Ngugi moved with his parents to Ol Kalou in Nyandarua. His father, Kamau Thirunga, and mother, Gladys Waithera, were settled in Ngano settlement scheme along with other poor immigrants from the Kiambu, Muranga and Nyeri districts of Kenya's Central Province. They were peasants, who depended largely on state support for the survival.

In 1970, Ngugi was enrolled in Munga Primary School, which he attended up to Standard Three.

“While in primary school, I used to run well during games. I was determined to run along with the soldiers," Ngugi says.

“Whenever I saw soldiers in Nyahururu, I wondered what sort of people they were. I admired them so much that I held them in awe. But by then, I had not thought about joining the forces.

“I used to take milk to a local processor, which meant that I would run for 10km daily carrying a heavy can of milk.

"Top athletes who used to camp at Nyahururu made a huge impression on my mind and I was determined to be like them.

“The Nyandarua district sports officer, Steven Mucheru, knew my teachers and had heard of my potential. He prodded me one evening to try it out with the local authority athletes. I started like a joke, but my victories earned me prizes like troughs and blankets, which really inspired me.

“Quietly, coaches Waichinga and Mwithiga spotted my talent and made a decision that I would join them. They employed me in 1984 as an army civilian. I used to repair vehicles when not running. That same year, I ran 5000m in Olympic trials, finishing fourth in Nakuru and fifth in Kisumu. Paul Kipkoech won both trials. Some Muge and Joshua Kipkemboi followed.

These guys were showing off

"Then, in 1985, I was employed as a soldier and taken for training in Lanet.

“After completing my training in Lanet, I was posted to the workshop battalion in Kahawa garrison, Nairobi. Other athletes with me in Kahawa were Sammy Nyangincha, Joseph Chesire, Simon Kemboi, Samson Kitur, James Atuti and Joseph Chepkwony.

“The same year, I won the 1500m at the East and Central African Championships in Cairo. Before the race, I did not understand why athletes were already ‘running’ even before the gun went off. I thought they were showing off. I did not understand that athletes warm up before races.

"In my mind, these guys were showing off. I promised myself to show them dust during the race. I warmed up in the first two laps and beat them hands down.

"Then we went to Seoul in an Olympics dress rehearsal, where we ran against athletes from Ethiopia, Morocco, USA, Canada and others. I finished second to Kipkoech.”

Wanting to run like mad

Ngugi’s success in cross country started in the Kenyan trials in Kabarak, where he finished second to Kipkoech. They moved to Embu for a training camp before heading to Switzerland for his first World Cross in 1986.

Ngugi arrived in Neuchatel and found an atmosphere “that made me want to run like mad”. Here really was a Kenyan "unknown" who ran away from the rest of the field to win the 12km race, with Joseph Kiptum in third and Kipkoech fifth to help take the team title away from Ethiopia.

A whiff of ‘mutiny’ in the air

The following year was eventful for Ngugi. He performed poorly at the Kenyan cross-country trials in Kabarak, finishing only 77th. “My knee had just been operated on in London. Robert Ouko, of the Kenyan AAA, had arranged for me to undergo the operation", although most of the money used to fly him to London was his own. Ngugi was winning good prize money after he won races in Bali and Italy.

But despite his being the defending World champion, following his poor showing at the trials, others within the Kenyan team were against Ngugi's inclusion in the national team selected to race at the 1987 World Cross in Poland.

“After the trials, the coaches and athletes threatened to strike if I was included. But Ouko argued that since I was defending champion, and I had won many other races, it was only fair that I am included in the team."

Boniface Merande, who was in the team, confirmed the "mutiny": “There had always been a problem in selection, which used to take an obliquely tribal trend. This was not the first time such a thing had happened, but this time it made it into the public domain,” Merande says.

Ouko’s strict style, and the discipline that was trademark in Kenyan teams then, helped cool tempers. Ngugi was allowed in the team and went to Warsaw.

In Warsaw, the hostility towards Ngugi continued. One of the coaches - he refuses to name him - tried to mislead him about the course, “but a certain white man helped me, showed me the right direction”. Ngugi duly retained his World title.

Back home, later that year, he won the 5000m title at the All African Games in Nairobi and proceeded to Rome for his first IAAF World Championships in Athletics. There, he finished fourth as Morocco’s Said Aouita won the title.

The course was like a paradise

The following year was possibly Ngugi's finest. He started the season with a seventh place at the Kenyan cross-country trials. The World Cross was going to Auckland, which offered a course at Elleslie racecourse that Ngugi now considers his favourite.

“I experienced no difficulty at all. The weather was placid, the course was like a paradise, none of the mud that I always encountered in Europe. I just waited for the race to settle then I took charge in the second lap. I never let go until the end,” says Ngugi. For the second year, Ngugi and Kipkoech finished one-two at the World Cross, as Kenya finished eight runners in the top nine places.

Asked why he did not win the home trial, Ngugi said all he wanted was to be in the team. “It was just a matter of qualifying, then do the rest out there, knowing the benefits that went with it.”

Less than a second away from half a million US$

One global title safely collected, Ngugi flew from New Zealand to Indonesia, where he and Kipkoech had been invited to run in what was then the world's richest road race, the Bali 10km event, offering $500,000 to any man or woman who broke the world best.
Ngugi arrived straight from the World Cross, but without any road racing shoes. Frantic phone calls to Jakarta saw to it that a selection of shoes were flown to the tropical paradise island and Ngugi was able to choose a pair, though they were less than a perfect fit.

The race was staged very early in the morning - before the worst of the intense, humid heat of the day. But as Kipkoech and Ngugi loped away from the rest of the field, well inside record pace, a tropical storm broke over the road around the island's tourist resorts. The Kenyans reached the finish line, but missed the World record - and the rich record bonus - by less than a second.

Olympic champion

Ngugi would return to the Far East later in the year for the Olympic Games in Seoul and this time return with priceless gold.

But ahead of his 5000m final, one of Ngugi's rivals, Domingos Castro, of Portugal, started to taunt the Kenyan. Ngugi had always beaten Castro in their cross-country encounters, but now the Portuguese turned to him and said, “You, you only know how to run in the bush.

"I am going to beat you thoroughly on this track.”

Ngugi, understandably, was angry. “This annoyed me. In fact, it haunted me throughout the race. John Velzian told me to start the race and just go,” he says.

Mike Kosgei says: “I asked Ngugi: how far was the race when you won in Auckland? He said 12km. And I asked him how many kilometres is this race? He said 5.

"So I told him to just sprint throughout.”

Ngugi duly followed the team coach's instruction, to the surprise of his team mte. “When I took off in the third lap," Ngugi says, "I told Yobes Ondieki to join me, but he said it was too early.

"So I continued opening the gap until at the bell, they could not close the gap." Ngugi was Olympic champion.

"I owe it to Castro for his taunts which inspired me to win, and to Velzian.”

Treated like kings

Ngugi's World Cross Country tour's next stop was Norway in 1989, where he was greeted with exactly the sort of freezing European mud beside the fjords in Stavanger which the Kenyan professed to loathe.

But away from the racing, Ngugi had never before been treated so well. “Here we were treated like kings, true celebrities of the sport.

"We were put on an open-air carriage right from the airport into the city centre, complete with outriders and blaring horns from escorting admirers. This was a real royal treatment that I will cherish in my life. It was only fair that I won again the World title.

“But it was not easy. Back to the muddy Europe, I had to use my long strides to beat Tim Hutchings and Steve Moneghetti. They were very strong athletes."

Ngugi won his fourth title, by nearly half a minute this time, with Hutchings in second place behind and Wilfred Kirochi in third place.

Injuries

But after a five-year run of hard racing and success, injuries began to catch up with Ngugi. “I think I raced many times after the Seoul Olympics. I received many invitations from around the world and the lure of prize money always tempted me to honour them.

"In the end, I suffered many injuries."

So, in the next World Cross, in France in 1990, Ngugi finished only 20th in 1990, though with five men in the top 10, Kenya comfortably retained the team title - without Ngugi making the scoring six.

Khalid Skah, of Morocco, won that day, with Moses Tanui second and Julius Korir was third.

The following year, in Antwerp, Ngugi did not even manage to finish the race. Skah retained the title, with Tanui again second, ahead of Simon Karori and Richard Chelimo. Was the great Ngugi finished?

Before the 1992 season, Ngugi says, “I prayed hard and appealed to God to restore my hope and strength. I knew deep inside myself that I still had strength to win more world titles."

And so it was that Ngugi again made the Kenyan team, this time to race at Boston. Just months before his 30th birthday, and Ngugi was again World Champion, for a record-breaking fifth time. “I always enjoyed difficult conditions. In Boston, there was a lot of snow, almost ankle deep and a tough hill. I like such conditions and that is how I won the title,” he says.

Suspension

Ngugi does not like discussing events that followed his victory in Boston. The following year he was suspended by IAAF for not taking a mandatory out-of-competition drug test.

Then misfortunes snowballed. Soon, he was forced out of his 10-acre Rumuruti farm. He also lost his Boston complex in Nyahururu, and with it a rental income of Sh70,000 a month.

“This property used to finance a lot of my other commitments. Now I went down to an income of Sh25,000 a month."

The suspension meant the effective end of his career, while his business interests was salvaged by a Catholic priest who bought his property in Rumuruti and Nyahururu.

Ngugi then moved out of the town and invested in Nairobi, where among other things, he has worked as the deputy technical official for the Mombasa 2007 World Cross Local Organising Committee. So if there's some extra European mud, or an added hill, on the Mombasa golf course track this March, it may just be that the deputy technical official has had it added to recall the good old days.

Omulo Okoth for the IAAF