By Levin Odhiambo Opiyo
Glad to see Henry Rono returning home after being away for 33 years. Undoubtedly, he still remains one of Kenya’s greatest runners.
He once split a bottle of whisky with a friend and then ran a 5000m race in 13min 9 sec.
Peka Rhine, who once served as his manager recalled how he broke the record in Nervik in 1981, saying :
” On friday he ran in Crystal Palace. He had not eaten all day; afterwards he ran straight to the bar drinking until 1 am. Saturday he flew to Norway. Sunday he broke the world record.”
Such was the life of Henry Rono: Drunkard by night, record breaker by day.
Rono’s struggle with alcoholism started in 1977 after he deserted the Kenya Army and took up a scholarship at Washington State University. This was after the 1976 Montreal Olympics when Africans boycotted the games.
The American society soon became extremely fast for Rono.However, this did not interfere with his desire to run.
He amazed the world by setting 4 world records in 81 days.
The fame which ensued was overwhelming. As a Kenya Army soldier, Rono had earned a meagre salary. Now race directors and kit representatives offered him millions of shillings, and Rono spent the money as fast as he had run to earn.
Without a manager or agent success swamped him .
Kenya’s boycott of Moscow Olympics over Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, robbed him his best shot of Olympic glory and he quit Washington State University to live and train in Eugene Oregon with other Kenyans.
“That turned to be unmitigated disaster,” said John Chaplin, Rono’s coach at Washington State University. ” All those guys were buying him beer and telling him what a great guy he was.”
Rono’s behaviour became more erratic he would agree to run in an event then suddenly disappear for weeks. No one knew where he would turn up next.
But when he did resurface, he was often severely overweight but very fast. Periodically he would surprise the track world with flashes of brilliance.
Friends who tried to help Rono quit alcoholism always vowed never to approach him again:
“When he is sober he is the nicest man in the world,” said one. ” But when he is drunk he becomes violent and aggressive.”
It reached a point where Rono could no longer make his body do what his mind desired. Race directors stopped inviting him. But he continued to live in his own world of fantasy where he was the greatest once and always.
Unwilling to adjust, he kept spending lavishly staying at the Nairobi Hilton. Hiring taxis to drive him around Kenya and running up extravagant bar bills.
” We have an old saying that, what you are not taught by the family the world will teach you,” said Kipchoge Keino. “An athlete must think of the future, I told Rono about investment. I said don’t do this do this. He took it as discouragement. He didn’t listen. He did what he wanted, and he lost.”
Rono ended up working as an attendant in a car wash, a baggage handler in Albuquerque, coaching high school children in Reno and selling insurance in Boston.
But you can’t blame Rono, he was a pawn in a bigger game than he could comprehend. He wanted to take advantage of a system he didn’t fully understand. His difficulties were similar to those of many African runners who always experienced culture shock of American college life.
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