They flew the Kenyan flag and set the standards high and laid the foundation for modern-day athletics.
A majority of them are ageing and frail, while others are battling old age-related illnesses. Others have since passed on.
From their villages, where they still keep their medals and trophies, the veterans are now calling for the establishment of a national sports museum for preservation of the country’s athletics history, punctuated by unmatched resilience.
They want young Kenyans taken, on a mental journey when Kenya’s short and long distance stars started their dominance.
Last December, the country pledged to establish the first and largest online museum to showcase the country’s rich heritage, spanning over half a century.
Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed, while announcing the plan during Athletics Kenya’s 70th anniversary, said the initiative is a collaboration between the Ministry of Sports and Google Apps as well as Google Kenya.
From Naftali Temu (1945 – 2003), who became the first and only 10,000m gold medalist in the Olympics – a history he wrote in 1968 in Mexico City to the legendary Kipchoge Keino, the 1968 1500m Olympic champion and to Suter Chemweno, who represented Kenya in 800m at the Cardiff Commonwealth Games, the country’s veterans are longing for preservation of the nation’s athletics heritage as part of recognition of their efforts.
They ran for the pride of their country and not the money, they say.
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The nation’s veterans claim to be in possession of bullions dating back to the 1950s – and they want the historic moments preserved in a museum.
The retired champions have been visiting each other since last year.
From the visits organised by the Veteran Athletes Association of Kenya started by athletes who retired in the 1990s and early 2000s, they say they encountered rich histories that define the country’s athletics journey.
Joseph Chesire, the 1987 All-Africa Games 1500m bronze medalist who is now 64 years old, says the country’s athletics history dates back to the 1950s.
The three-time Olympian who retired from the military in the early 1990s says the country’s younger generation has a shallow history in the sport that has earned Kenya fame.
“Kenya’s current and veteran athletes walk on the streets of our major towns and no one can recognise them yet they brought medals in global events. The best way for the next generations to remember them is through establishment of a museum,” Chesire says.
“We have done a lot in athletics. I challenge counties who have produced athletes to start preserving our history.”
Chesire says he was shocked to discover that his neighbour in Kipsaos, Keiyo South, Thomas Kimutai Boit who was the 1968 national cross country runner-up and 1970 national steeplechase champion was a decorated athlete yet he was little known.
“I didn’t know much about my neighbour until I visited him. We want this history preserved while we are still alive,” the legend says.
Boit who represented St Patrick’s High School Iten, completing his studies in 1969, and returned to become the institution’s deputy principal in the late 1970s after returning from the US where he studied through an academic scholarship says there are for young athletes to learn from veterans, apart from running.
“I would be the happiest man to see Kenya set up a museum. Most aging veterans are forgotten yet they are still the country’s ambassadors,” Boit told The Standard Sport.
Cosmas Sielei, 74, who lined up in 800m at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and reached semi-finals says apart from recognition, a museum will be the best gift that the country could give sports veterans.
Sielei, who for over a decade, has been battling a brain tumor that resulted in loss of one of his eyes, says he and other legends are willing to advise the government on the best way to preserve its athletics history.
“Most of us are aging and depleted. I have battled illness for nearly 20 years and I wish that my history in athletics is preserved in a museum for the youth to learn more about our rich history. It is never too late,” the retired teacher says.
Paul Cherop, the first national cross country champion in 1967, retired as a primary school teacher and lives in Kapteren village in Elgeyo Marakwet also calls for a gallery, saying it is one way of celebrating legends who laid the athletics marker.
Cherop, who also represented St Patrick’s High School Iten, an athletics powerhouse, in 1500m in the late 1960s says: “I would wish to take my grandchildren to a museum that displays how we laid the foundation for Kenyan athletics.”
According to Cherop, the athletics history, if preserved in a museum, will make one of the world’s biggest sports galleries.
Former 3000m steeplechase world record holder Wilson Kipketer Boit says establishment of a national archive is “long overdue.”
Boit, a former Member of the County Assembly representing Kabiemit Ward in Elgeyo Marakwet County says AK should take a leading role in preserving the country’s athletics history.
“We want to ask AK to employ researchers to document our history. Today, no one knows that one day in 1997, I broke a 3000m steeplechase world record. This could be important part of our 3000m steeplechase history,” Kipketer said.
Former world marathon silver medalist and the surprise winner of the 2000 edition of Berlin Marathon Simon Biwott says Kenya can tap into its sports tourism potential by setting up an athletics museum.
Biwott, who is the Veteran Athletes Association treasurer, said Kenya’s iconic training base — Iten in Elgeyo Marakwet County which received recognition by World Athletics as a world athletics heritage, culminating in the town receiving a plaque last November deserves a museum, which he says would boost sports tourism in the North Rift region.
Biwott said the Veteran Athletes Association will help the government identify a rich collection of relics that will display the country’s rich history in the sport.
He said a museum will motivate more young Kenyans to take up athletics as a career.
“In my opinion, it would be momentous to have one museum in Iten because the training destination has already been recognised by World Athletics,” the former Paris marathon champion said.
“A number of athletes who got scholarships to the US in the 1960s and 1970s are still keeping interesting books they read while abroad and the trophies which they won while competing for various colleges. These collections say a lot about our veterans.”
Biwott asked the Ministry of Sports and the Kenya National Heroes Council which was operationalised last year to recognise the veterans’ association and work closely with the retired athletes.
He further asked universities to create time for athletics veterans to address the institutions on the country’s long and thought-provoking athletics journey.
“They have a rich history on natural food that will help athletes remain strong and sustain their careers for longer periods. They ran without engaging in doping and we need to learn from them,” Biwott said.
Former World bronze medalist (1991), Susan Sirma said the veterans’ association said several veterans are struggling with age-related complications.
The former All-Africa Games 1500m and 3,000m champion said the association has been visiting the legends, to encourage them as they reminisce the days they conquered the world.
“Most of our veterans need help. We have decided to visit each other often so that we get time to laugh as we remember the golden days,” Sirma says.
The Museum of World Athletics gives visitors a unique online experience, highlighting key athletics champions from each continent.
Among the exhibits are items owned by many of the greatest athletes in history, including Usain Bolt.