When Charles Kamathi returned home after winning 10,000m gold at the 2001 World Athletics Championships in Edmonton, Canada, his mother could not first recognise him.
Reason? His missing tooth had been replaced and the sugar brown teeth had been cleaned by a specialist dentist, who saw Kamathi smiling to the global audience.
“He saw me winning the gold medal and the smile was not so good because of the gap. He wanted me to get a good smile. He opted to help replace the missing tooth and clean up the rest of the sugar brown to milk. The dentist said it was his contribution to improve my image.
“He came to the Athletes Village in Edmonton, booked an appointment with our head coach and approached me. I felt it was a good idea and, more importantly, he was a volunteer. Our officials sought confirmation from Canadian authorities to ensure he was a genuine doctor. He was running a dental clinic,” he said.
Kamathi’s teeth were affected by water with high fluoride when he was young. This also messed up his gums.
He said he was grateful that through athletics, he can afford a handsome smile and perhaps that helped him get enlisted into National Police Service, where dental care is a consideration.
Kamathi, who is now retired, has asked Kenya’s long distance stars to polish their speed ahead of 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games and 2022 World Athletics Championships set for Oregon, USA if Kenya was to win the elusive 10,000m title.
Kamathi, an Inspector of Police and the last Kenyan to win a medal in 10,000m at the world championships, said time was up for Kenyans to rise to the occasion and end the 19-year drought in 10,000m at the Worlds.
“We have what it takes to win the title. Our athletes have had improved time trends, and I cannot rule out a possibility of victory in major events. They are good in the laps except for the final one where they do 55 seconds when the Ethiopians are doing 53 or 52 seconds,” he said.
Kamathi, who stands out as the only athlete to have beaten Ethiopia’s multiple world record holder Haile Gebresellassie in the 24-lap race, said the Ethiopians – and by extension, Briton Mo Farah and Moses Kipsiro and Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda – have learned the tactic and keep beating Kenyans in the final 400m.
“We are good in the 23 laps and only need to sharpen our finishing power. If our coaches should be working on this now, we will win the gold medal at the World Championships. Look at an athlete like Paul Tanui (the world silver medalist), he has strong lapping strategy and can even win it.”
“In 2001, my manager then, Dr Gabrielle Rosa, tipped me on this and I took it seriously and it paid off when I beat Haile in the final stretch. I also had an advantage since Haile undermined all the Kenyans since Paul Tergat was not in the lineup. And I surprised him,” he said.
On Kenya’s 5,000m and 10,000m training regimen, Kamathi said, there is need to improve on speed work.
And Kipsiro, the 2014 Commonwealth Games 10,000m champion, concurs with him.
“Mo Farah told me Kenyans have a poor 100m finishing kick and I just sharpened mine in London before the Commonwealth Games. But I believe Kenyans have the endurance and that’s why Ethiopians beat them in the last lap,” Kipsiro said in a past interview.
Kamathi, however, wants to see the young Kenyans re-enact his brilliant shows.
“The dynamics of the sport have changed. During our time, we used to run 27 minutes and nowadays they are running 26 minutes,” he said.
Former national head coach Mike Kosgei, who guided Kamathi to gold medal in Edmonton, concurs.
“Our athletes are strong enough to win the medals. We only need to combine our talent with tactical skills and conquer them. The first step should be selections, where we should have a good combination that can agree and plan for victory,” said Kosgei, an alumnus of athletics-rich St Patrick’s High School Iten.
“Winning gold medals in the two races (5,000m and 10,000m) at the World Championships demands a lot of teamwork and planning.
“It’s sad that women do better than men when men were actually the pillars of the two races. Teamwork should be factored in when awarding wild cards.
“We know Mo Farah tactics and we should develop our own tact to counter him in the same way we did in Edmonton to win 5,000m (Richard Limo) and 10,000m (Charles Kamathi), something that has never happened since then,” Kosgei said.
In Edmonton, Kosgei said, he studied how Haile beat Tergat by the thickness of a vest at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“I decided that we should not allow Ethiopians to gauge us but we must outsmart them. I had John Korir and Paul Kosgei in the team.
“The Ethiopians trained on a warm track near the main stadium. I went there and peeped through the fence. I realised they were doing a lot of speed work. So, I psyched up my team; told them to do 13 minutes and 25 seconds in the first 5000m.
“Korir started to do the pacing then told Kosgei to take it up from there as Kamathi keeps close tabs. I told Kosgei to sprint from 5000m. Kamathi rallied from behind to upstage the Ethiopians,” he said.
Before Kamathi’s shows, Moses Tanui won the 1991 World 10,000m title in Tokyo and Kenyans have tried to break the jinx without success.
Paul Tanui has won bronze twice (2011 and 2013) and an Olympic silver over the race in Rio Olympics. It remains to be seen if he can pull a surprise at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Kenya has not won Olympic women’s 10,000m gold medal and basks in one men’s 10,000m gold medal won by Naftali Temu in 1968.
This is despite the fact that Kenya made its debut at the Olympics 1956 in Melbourne, Australia.
But change might be realised thanks to the new Sports Act that came into force in August, which will streamline Athletics Kenya operations.