News03 Feb 2009

Henry Rono recovers his place in history and receives Inspirational Award


Henry Rono celebrates his victory in the 3000 Metres Steeplechase at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, August 1978 (© Getty Images)

The Kenyan distance running legend set four world records in 81 days in 1978 but his battles in the subsequent three decades were mainly against the bottle rather than the clock.

Extract from IAAF Yearbook 2008

Henry Rono is sitting in the bar of Monte Carlo's elegant Fairmont Hotel a few hours ahead of him receiving the 2008 IAAF Inspirational Award at the World Athletics Gala. He is sipping from a ginger ale while talking to the many people who know him and greet him. He knows what his problems have been and he is no longer in denial about them.

"I'm a recovering alcoholic but I've been sober for the last seven years. I believe I've recovered my dignity and my place in society," said the 56-year-old teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is also a successful coach in the high-altitude American running Mecca.

"I've been to the top of the highest mountain and then down to the bottom of the world.  Looking back now, I can remember what happened in 1978 (when he set world records over 3000m, 5000m, 10,000m and the 3000m steeplechase) but then the next eight years are more-or-less a blank," reflected Rono calmly.

There is an often-told story that, in September 1981, Rono got drunk the night before he was due to run a 5000m in Knarvik, near Oslo. The following day he ran for an hour in the morning to sweat out the alcohol and recover from the hangover and that night set a World record of 13:06.20.

Rono acknowledges the facts are broadly true and it is a testament to his phenomenal physical ability that he was able to achieve such a feat but it was also to be his last entry into the record books. The drinking was soon to take its toll and he had reached his final mountain peak.

The following July. Rono lost that particular World record to Britain's David Moorcroft, in a race in which he finished a distant fourth. By 1984, with Kenya returning the Olympic arena after boycotting the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, Rono's drinking and rising weight sadly meant that he was a long way from being in the top echelon and was unable to compete on the global stage.

Homelessness, arrests for drink-driving, and menial jobs just to survive - punctuated with occasional road race appearances as he never lost his love for athletics - were the story of his next 15 years until he started to get a grip on his alcoholism in the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, Rono is not now a bitter man at the cards that fate dealt him.

"What I am doing in my life right now is like a gold medal to me. The issue of not going to the 1980 Olympics is now behind me and so too are the problems I had for 21 years from 1978.

"The successes of the Kenyan team at the last Olympics in Beijing were also like the gold medal I didn't get in 1980.

"I am still proud to be a Kenyan even though my home is now in the United States. What was particularly impressive were the results of the women, especially the gold medallists Jelimo and Lagat, because in my day the ladies were not so prominent."

Now Rono hopes that his example will help many of his compatriots, runners and non-runners alike, to take a look at their own lives and those around them.

Kenya is a country which has a high incidence of alcohol abuse although there are few statistics on how widespread it is and also very few places where help to overcome it can be sought.

It is also widely known that other top Kenyan athletes, both past and present, have drinking problems but Rono is almost unique in openly admitting to having succumbed to the disease, which is just one reason why he can be called an inspiration.