Spikes11 Dec 2014

I, Julius


Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego (© Getty Images)

Pioneering Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego enjoyed an historic 2014, claiming a Commonwealth Games and African Championship double. ‘Mr YouTube Man’ tells SPIKES about the noble motives behind his mammoth throws.

Julius Yego’s status as one of the world’s elite javelin throwers is one of athletics’ modern miracles. He has no regular on-site coach, little by way of equipment and limited access to only rudimentary training facilities.

Yet in a heart-warming reminder of the egalitarian nature of athletics, the Kenyan spear chucker has defied the odds in the 2014 season, claiming major titles and international recognition.

Unlike so many of his fabled countrymen, Yego was never an endurance runner. After being lapped during a primary school 10,000m race aged 13 he wisely sought an alternative discipline.

“I used to watch the guys throw a wooden javelin at primary school and I had an inner feeling I could throw better [than them] if I tried,” explains Yego, the fourth eldest of eight siblings from the rural Tinderet area of Nandi County. “My brother [Henry Kiprono] was doing well in javelin, so I tried my luck.” 

Kenya's Julius Yego in action in the javelin

Yego learned early that distance running wasn't for him

It proved an inspired intuition. He soon defeated his older brother of four years to win his first school title, and at secondary school Yego continued to develop.

With basic equipment and training facilities at a premium – he set a Kenyan junior record in 2006 competing in a pair of running shoes – gaining a foothold in a country where endurance running is king proved a painstakingly difficult process. Yego had never been coached, and there was literally nobody who he could turn to for guidance. On several occasions he threatened to quit the sport because of a lack of support.

In spite of being isolated and alone, Yego could not walk away from his passion. He began to hone his technique by studying the likes of former world and Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen and 2007 world champion Tero Pitkamaki on YouTube.

“My personal inner desire and will to achieve the best I could drove me,” he explains. “I always wanted to be like a Kipchoge Keino [double Olympics gold medal winner] or Paul Tergat [former marathon world record holder] and all those other running icons, but to make a difference in the javelin. I wanted to open the way for the marginalised field events in Kenya because we have great talent there as well.”

In 2010 his persistence finally started to reap rewards. On his international debut he won bronze behind Egyptian Ihab Abdelrahman El Sayed at the African Championships in Nairobi, with a new personal best 74.51m.

A reality check came later that year after he trailed home seventh at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi with a modest 69.60m. “I saw that my technique was pathetic,” Yego admits candidly. 

Julius Yego

After learning the basics from YouTube, Yego's throws really took off thanks to the coaching of Petteri Piironen

The following year he received a scholarship to train at an IAAF-accredited training centre in Kuortane, Finland, and spent two periods training there during the countdown to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

The experience proved invaluable. It was there he met leading javelin coach Petteri Piironen (coincidentally the coach of El Sayed); an encounter that transformed his career.

“He is a brilliant coach,” Yego says of Piironen. “I still use the programme Petteri set me when I first met him. We created a good relationship and he is readily available to help me whenever I ask.”

In 2012 Yego, a passionate Arsenal fan who spends most weekends satisfying his love of the English Premier League, landed the African title. That year he broke the Kenyan record three times, including a best of 81.81m, and qualified for the Olympic final in London, where he finished 12th.

Since then, continuing to train alone but with occasional input from Piironen, the stocky Kenyan, who stands at 1.75m tall, has continued his rise.

At the 2013 World Championships in Moscow he set a new Kenyan record of 85.40m, elevating him into bronze medal position in round five. It would have been a first ever global field event medal for his country, but Russia’s Dmitri Tarabin, roared on by his home supporters, hurled an 86.23m to deny Yego an historic podium spot. 

Julius Yego

"I wanted to open the way for the marginalised field events in Kenya because we have great talent there as well"

Success finally came in the 2014 campaign. On a rainy July night at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Yego threw a third round 83.87m which put him in first place. A groin injury sustained during the warm-up meant he passed on his final three attempts, but he had already done enough. None could match his throw, not even Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad & Tobago: gold was Yego's. It was a first ever Commonwealth javelin gold medal for him, for Kenya, and for the whole of Africa.

Just 12 days later he won his second major title of the summer and claimed a second major scalp in the process. World number one El Sayed was the victim as Yego retained his African title in Marrakech with a season’s best 84.72m.

Yet beyond any personal glory, Yego hopes his success can pave the way for more of his compatriots to compete in the javelin.

“We have some tremendous talent here [in Kenya],” he says. “I just hope we are supported in the field events in the future and then maybe one day Kenya will be the home of the javelin throwers.”

It already has one of the world's best.