Costly whisper that denied Barmasai Sh70m 21 years ago

Bernard Barmasai of beats compatriot Christopher Koskei in the Mens 3000m Steeplechase race during the Weltklasse Golden League Meeting at the Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich, Switzerland in August 1999. Barmasai missed the $1 million-dollar Golden League jackpot that year. [Stephen Rutto, Standard]

The conspiracy that denied Barmasai $1 million 21 years ago

Compatriot Koskei inists he did not hear what Barmasai was saying, but IAAF ruled they brought the game into direpute

He spoke to his compatriot Christopher Koskei who had broken away (in the local language), asking him to slow down so that he wins the jackpot.

It was sometime in August 1999 and the venue was Zurich.

As it is today, Kenyan athletes were dominating the track and road races.

Bernard Barmasai of Kenya was headed for a victory in 3,000m steeplechase at the Weltklasse Golden League meeting, but his compatriot Christopher Koskei proved to be too strong for him in that event.

But a collusion between the two athletes would lead to Barmasai’s disqualification for that year’s $1 million Golden League jackpot – cash that was enough to purchase over 100 acres of land in rural Uasin Gisu County, and still remain with a substantial amount.

Costly whisper that denied Barmasai Sh70m 21 years ago
Retired 3000m steeplechase athlete Bernard Barmasai is carried shoulder-high after a past race. Barmasai missed the $1 million-dollar Golden League jackpot in 1999. [Courtesy]

The Kenyan duo embarked on a move that remains as confusing as it is controversial 21 years later.

Barmasai, a former world record holder in the distance was already unbeaten in four out of seven steeplechase races in that year’s Golden League meetings and winning the Zurich would make him a clear winner of the $1 million Golden League jackpot.

An athlete was required to chalk five straight wins out of seven races to win the jackpot.

During the Zurich race, Barmasai’s compatriot, Koskei, then aged 20 was putting him under pressure in the final lap. Barmasai was visibly running out of gas.

As Koskei tried to break away, Barmasai, who was at the time 25 years of age was seen whispering something to his compatriot.

After the brief conversation in the track, Koskei eased off, allowing Barmasai to take the lead, before improving his pace to draw close at the finish line.

Barmasai says they are still close friends with Koskei. Both retired athletes come from Keiyo South Sub-county of Elgeyo Marakwet County.

“I told my younger friend Koskei, “Leave it for me,” and that’s why he slowed down.

Koskei was a good athlete and he knew I was going to lose the jackpot money,” Barmasai recalls.

He finished the race in 8: 05.16, just 0.27 seconds ahead of Koskei.

Costly whisper that denied Barmasai Sh70m 21 years ago
30 Jun 1999: Bernard Barmasai of Kenya in action in the 3000m steeplechase during the IAAF Golden League Series Mobil Bislett Games at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo, Noway. Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason /Allsport

“Koskei’s last 100 metres was really good. When he tried to pass, I tried to talk to him. He would have won today but because he’s a friend and we have to live together… the jackpot is for me and my friends,” he was quoted by international press, moments after the controversial win on August 11, 1999.

He recalls that the conversation happened in the local Keiyo dialect.

Barmasai says he is currently engaged in farming in Kipkabus after retiring from athletics, just like his friend Koskei, who is a farmer in Keiyo South.

“We missed the jackpot cash in 1999 but we remain great friends. I have not met him (Koskei) in recent days. I met him during the Eldoret City marathon and we recalled memories of our competitions in the 1990s and in the 2000s,” he told Standard Sport.

The admission cost him the jackpot prize after then world athletics body International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) argued that the collusion amounted to an unfair win.

The parent body of athletics launched a formal investigation into the matter “to ensure that the principle of fair play was fully respected.”

The collusion came at a time when the sport’s image had been damaged by a succession of high-profile doping cases.

A then spokesman for the Zurich meeting, Nicolas Russi, was quoted saying: “There is no rule that one athlete can’t speak to another during a race. We can’t do anything about it.”

Days later, Barmasai was disqualified from the Golden League million dollar jackpot after the sport’s governing body found him guilty of bringing athletics into disrepute for asking Koskei to slow down in the 3,000m steeplechase at Zurich in August.

IAAF Council had decided he was ineligible for the jackpot but that the result of the race would stand because there was no evidence of a conspiracy.

Wilson Kipketer of Denmark (800m) and Gabriela Szabo of Romania (3000m) won the jackpot in the men and women categories respectively.

No ban

The federation said Barmasai would still be allowed to compete in the remaining Golden League meetings in Brussels and Berlin.

“But if he wins them both and completes the Golden League challenge of winning every selected event in the season, he will not be eligible to claim the expected $1m prize,” the council said in its decision.

Former 3000m steeplechase Wilson Boit Kipketer of Kenya (who is not related to Wilson Kipketer, the 800 m athlete who represented Denmark), one of the three other athletes – along with the United States sprinter Marion Jones and the Romanian middle-distance runner Gabriela Szabo — also unbeaten with only two Golden League events remaining, said they were surprised with the Barmasai-Koskei conspiracy.

On August 13, 1997, at the Weltklasse Zurich, Boit Kipketer set the world record in the steeplechase at 7:59.08, the third of three world records set in a 70-minute period of time.

He was the second individual after Moses Kiptanui to run under eight minutes.

But his record only stood for 11 days before it was crushed by a controversial Barmasai who took almost 3 and a half seconds off the mark, a performance that set off their rivalry.

 A week earlier, Boit Kipketer led a Kenyan sweep of the same race in the 1997 World Championships, edging out Barmasai and then world record holder, three-time defending champion Kiptanui.

“The jackpot was important but the main thing was to run the race. You can’t get paid until you do the job,” Kipketer says but notes that Barmasai remains his friend.

Koskei has denied any collusion with Barmasai and said he would not have been able to hear any instructions from Barmasai because of the noise of the crowd.

However, Barmasai maintains he had asked Koskei to slow down in the finishing stretch to allow him to remain the favourite for the jackpot at the time.

After winning in Zurich, Barmasai said he spoke to Koskei during the race. “I saw he was trying to pass me,” Barmasai told reporters immediately after the race. “I said `leave it for me,’ and that’s why he slowed down.” He also hinted that, if successful in his quest, he would share the winnings with Koskei.

Koskei also denied any attempt to fix the race.

Barmasai said a combination of exhaustion, joy and insufficient knowledge of English led reporters to misunderstand him. “You say the wrong things and use the wrong words,” he said.

Barmasai said that he apologised to the IAAF for the uproar his comments made and had expected a warning, but nothing more.

He added that the issue upset him so much that it affected his performance at the World Championships, where he finished fifth, with Koskei winning.

In 1995, Kenya’s Moses Kiptanui raised eyebrows in several quarters by slowing down as he won the world steeplechase title.

He explained afterwards (with questionable frankness) that he wanted to save beating the world record for a meeting where he would be paid for it.

The most controversial incident involving alleged on-track collusion between athletes occurred at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – and on that occasion it was the Kenyan who lost out.

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