Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Very Welcome Redcoat

John Velzian, the personable British coach of the Kenya national track team, has used diligence, ingenuity and ability to turn the country's untrained athletes into runners whose performances are startling the world

As in other new African nations, one of the most serious problems in Kenya has been the creation of a feeling of national unity among a disparate lot of peoples who, aside from the customary political divisions, do not even speak one language. There are no fewer than twoscore different tribes in the country—among them the Baluhya, who live near Lake Victoria and are known for their stature and dignity; the coastal Nyika, who are short and introverted; the cattle-worshiping Turkana, whose principal food is milk; and the Wakamba, who lately have turned from the long bow and poisoned arrows to remarkably progressive agriculture but still file their teeth. In Kenya's African population of nearly 10 million there are four main language groups, with various dialects in each of them, not to mention the fractured Swahili of resident Englishmen and the variety of Asian tongues.

When he came to power in 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta, himself a member of the Kikuyu tribe, recognized the problem forthrightly. He established as a national slogan the word harambee, which means "Let's all pull together." (Our own E pluribus unum is not too different.) Now there is beginning to be genuine harambee in Kenya, and it is being advanced by something the politicians never considered. The Kenyans are finding a source of unity in their dazzling sports figures and are taking a pride in their athletes' feats that is truly national.

No small part of what Kenya is discovering about athletics, and what the world is discovering about Kenya's athletic potential, can be attributed to the unique and dedicated man at left, a small, sprightly, ceaselessly working Englishman named John Velzian. Hired by the British eight years ago as a physical education officer for Kenya, he did not leave the country, as many of the British teachers and administrators chose to do, after the granting of Kenya's independence in 1963. Instead he remained to oversee and improve the physical education program in the fast-growing school system.

He has succeeded so well that other countries have sent representatives to see what he has achieved. Among other things, he has set up standards for schoolboy and schoolgirl athletic performances, with the government awarding formal certificates of merit to those who exceed certain marks and distances—a system just now being started in the U.S. as the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. This is the kind of thing Velzian is paid to do, and it takes up much of his time. But he is also coach of the Kenya national track team, and the evidence suggests that as a coach he has few peers.

Sport never meant much to Kenya's Africans when their country was a British colony, or before. When the colonists finally introduced games they did so in a spirit which implied that nothing much could or should be expected of natives in sport. The African concept of competition was embryonic, if anything, and there were some colonials who believed that its full development might well end in a threat to management. One early report on this aspect of the problem held that "a victory over the dominant race in the field of sport by the people in bondage may have a dangerous effect and there is a risk that it could be exploited by the local opinion as an enticement to rebellion."

For quite a while events seemed to bear out the correctness of the colonial idea. When soccer first was introduced to Kenya, a game frequently would degenerate into a random contest to see which player could kick the ball highest, and never mind the score. Barbara Dodds, a pioneer organizer of physical education in Kenya who was assigned there just before the end of World War II, relates that in the country's first netball match between blacks and whites a member of the African team was distressed that her side was winning by a large score. "For, madam," the girl explained, "they are our visitors." Miss Dodds's efforts to introduce the broad jump to Kenya proved to be "amusing but aggravating." Broad-jump practice would turn into a rhythmic exercise, "finishing with a jump of about six inches, all of the team working in complete unison."

It is quite different now. In the brief period since that netball game, Kenya's Africans—and Africans of other new nations—have learned that winning, or trying to win, is basic to sport. Soccer is now immensely popular in Kenya, and Kenya teams are so eager for victory that they have acquired a reputation for rough play.

All Kenya's sports have shown remarkable development, both in interest and quality, but it is in track and field that the country's emergence as an athletic force has been most apparent. Kenya has been involved in international track and field competition as a team only since 1954, when it participated in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C. with no great distinction. In 1962, in Perth, Australia, Kenya and some other African countries began to take home Commonwealth gold medals in some quantity for the first time (three for Ghana, two for Kenya and one for Uganda). Four months ago at Jamaica they won 12 (five for Ghana, four for Kenya and three for Nigeria).

Now, with the Olympic Games coming up in 1968 in Mexico City, Africans are receiving a great deal of attention, and Kenya is leading the way. The new country has produced Kipchoge Keino, who turned in the world's second fastest mile (3:53.4) in London last August and, perhaps correctly, considers himself better suited to the three-and six-mile distances. Then comes Naftali Temu, who defeated Australia's magnificent Ron Clarke in the six-mile at Jamaica. "I can't believe it," Clarke said afterward. "I don't believe it. I've got to take a cold shower to make me believe it." He had, after all, lost to the unknown Temu by 140 yards. A few days later Keino beat Clarke at three miles. There is also Wilson Kiprugut, the Olympic bronze-medal winner in the half mile; Ben Kogo, a steeplechaser; John Owiti, the second fastest sprinter in Africa; and Daniel Rudisha, the Masai who had participated in only five races before he went to Jamaica and narrowly missed taking a bronze in the 440. "Give him more experience," says Keino, "and Rudisha will be one of the greatest." Keino may well be right. It is even more interesting, though, that Keino, a Nandi tribesman, went out of his way to compliment a Masai. That is harambee working.

The rapid rise of Kenya in sport pretty much coincided with the arrival of John Velzian, whose approach and dedication certainly have spelled the difference between mediocrity and excellence. He set out by challenging the ancient view that primitive peoples are primitive by nature and must remain so. "The reason it has taken so long for Kenya to come through in athletics," he says, "is that Kenya was a colony and sport was run by a colonial sports department. Sport was organized for the African, the Asian and the Arab, but there was no integration. When I came to Kenya the attitude was that you organized a sport meeting for the Africans because it was the done thing. When one of them won you rewarded him with something useful or, the belief was, he would not run at all. When I suggested that the African was capable of running for the pure amateur love of it and would work hard to achieve, I was held up to ridicule before the Athletic Association. Oh, yes, I was. To dare suggest that the African athlete would work for the intrinsic value of sport—that was unthinkable. I spent my first four years trying to break down this colonial attitude, and I succeeded. The willingness of the African to compete and to work for the glory of it is now established."

Velzian's first coaching appointment after his studies at London University and Carnegie College of Physical Education was with the Outward Bound Trust, an organization dedicated to counteracting the softening influences of civilization on the young. To some extent this may account for his belief that the African has greater potential than most peoples in sport because "he has not been enervated by so-called civilized living, but has been conditioned to accept a very severe physical existence."

Although Velzian does not believe that a "natural" athlete can achieve greatness without training of high quality, he does believe that some African tribesmen start out with natural advantages. "Among certain tribes," he says, "there is a better ratio of leg length to overall body height. I can stand next to a Nandi athlete of the same height as myself and his navel will be two inches higher than mine.

"The differences among the Kenya tribes are very marked. Nearly all of our athletes in the explosive events—the shot, the discus and the sprints—will be Luo, who come from around Lake Victoria. They are protein eaters—they eat fish from the lake—and one cannot get an explosive performance without a high protein diet. The middle-distance men are the Nandi and the Kipsigis, who are largely vegetarians and milk drinkers. [A good part of Keino's diet is milk, beans and cornmeal mush.] The climate around Lake Victoria is hot and sticky, so no distance runners are likely to develop there. Our long-distance men are Kisii, because they live in a hilly terrain. And all of our athletes are used to severe living conditions. We are only just beginning to tap the tremendous potential in Kenya."

There are those who hold that Nairobi, situated 87 miles south of the equator on the sweeping, game-rich Athi Plains, has the world's most desirable climate. Its altitude is 5,500 feet and therefore, despite its equatorial location, the temperature seldom rises above 80° or falls below 50°. This accident of altitude may prove quite meaningful in the 1968 Olympics, for Kenya's athletes will be among the few who have been trained to compete at a height comparable to Mexico City's 7,500 feet.

"The man who trains at altitude and competes at sea level has a real advantage in distance events," Velzian says. "Most of the world is astounded at how little training Keino does [it averages out to about six hilly miles three times a week at 6,500 feet and includes various kinds of over-distance or under-distance work when getting ready for certain races], but six miles of good-quality work at this altitude is the equivalent of as much as 15 miles at sea level."

Velzian travels about Kenya a great deal, covering several thousand miles in a year. Some of his trips are planned because he has heard of an athlete of promise—a schoolboy sprinter, say, who is described as having beaten 10 seconds over 100 yards. Most of the time the boy turns out to have been running on a short track. Or one hears of a spectacular high jumper, only to learn that he has been taking off from a mound. But an occasional outstanding athlete does turn up, and then Velzian tries to find a place for him in one of three institutions, depending on his interests and intelligence: in college, in the police or in the army. "Athletics is a discipline," he explains, "and the army and police initiate that discipline with regular hours, regular meals and regular sleep, all of which are vital to top-class athletes."

Keino is a good example of Velzian's system. He was completely untrained when Velzian first saw him run a 4:21.8 mile on a grass track at Nyeri in 1962. A program was started with the impossible goal of getting Keino down to the mile standard required to take him to the Commonwealth Games in Perth. Keino failed that, but did achieve the three-mile standard and represented Kenya in Perth, where he finished about seventh, Velzian recalls.

"Since then he set new Kenya records at one, two and three miles," says Velzian. "Once in the police championships he set three records—one-mile, three-mile, six-mile—and ran in a record 440 relay, too, all in one afternoon. I am convinced he is capable of a sub-3:50 mile at sea level."

A police instructor, Keino lives much of the time in a barracks bungalow 200 miles from his home village of Kaptagunyo. He has a full work schedule and once got in serious trouble when a photographer caused him to be late. "The government," says a high official, "expects Keino to function as a police-academy instructor. His running is a secondary matter." A chastised Keino has refused to see photographers since, unless Velzian himself brings them. In turn, the government has become increasingly conscious of Keino's international stature and is letting him have time off for extensive travel.

In his free periods, Keino goes home to Kaptagunyo, his 21-year-old wife, Jane, and their 2-year-old daughter, Emily. Their house is a mud cottage of four rooms, with a prized corrugated-iron roof. Previously they had lived in a nearby two-room hut with a thatched roof. He makes $67 a month as a policeman, but he also owns seven cows, a few hens and some acreage devoted to raising vegetables and tea.

Though Velzian developed him, Keino's training now is mostly self-supervised. If a problem arises, Keino consults Velzian. Then, too, before each important event, the coach works out race strategy with him. This see-me-when-you-need-me arrangement is precisely what Velzian wants.

"Right from the beginning," he says, "when I have an athlete I teach him to be independent. I want him to be realistic about the fact that when he steps out on the track there is no one in the world who can help him. I give an athlete a training schedule, but it's up to him to make amendments to it. I discuss these amendments with him and advise and guide him where necessary. This means that the athletes do become independent, very much more so over here than in the U.S., where the coach is sometimes looked on as something of a god. Keino very largely goes his own way, because I've encouraged him to work out his own problems."

Unstated here is a subtle factor in training athletes in Africa. The blacks are not anxious to be administered to by the whites. They are eager to be helped, to be shown, but the ordering days are over. Velzian's understanding of this is part of his genius. "He has a way with Africans," says one of his government superiors. "He tells them what to do and why, and then comes back in three weeks to see how they are doing. He makes them responsible. Our people take to this well, where they might balk completely at constant supervision or ordering around."

The U.S., incidentally, gets some very poor marks for its relationship with the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association. The American Amateur Athletic Union offended the Kenya AAA mightily early this year when it wanted Keino to compete in Boston after running in Los Angeles and New York. According to the Kenyans, the AAU wired Velzian that Keino should stay in America, in part because he needed the kind of coaching he could get in the U.S.—this went over very big in Kenya—and then implied Keino would not be invited to the U.S. again if he did not consent to remain and run at Boston. Keino came straight home. Other faux pas have found the U.S. sending athletes of inferior quality for goodwill tours in Kenya. At times the Kenyans—expecting to learn from the Americans—beat them badly, to the keen embarrassment of both.

Such things would be more amusing than serious if Kenya did not need various kinds of assistance quite badly—primarily in the area of equipment and more coaches. By U.S. standards, Kenya, like all of Africa, has shockingly little to spend on sport. The Nigerian track team arrived at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica without track shoes. Kenya gets its track shoes free from the German manufacturer Adidas. "Without that help," says Velzian, "we would still have Kenyans running barefooted." The entire country has but one aerodynamic javelin, which Velzian bought for $48—a sum that came out of his own pocket—and one fiber-glass vaulting pole, which he bought second-hand. Velzian, whose travels throughout Kenya to see his athletes are not paid for, spends many of his evenings in his workshop making track equipment: hurdles, high jumps and the like. The homemade device that pleases him most is one to mark running lanes on tracks. Unable to pay for one, he tinkered for weeks and finally invented and built one of his own design. Dawn on the day of a big meet will find him out in his shorts lining the track, shoveling sawdust into jumping pits and getting pole-vault standards in place. In his way, Velzian is Kenya track.

Essentially, the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association operates without government assistance. "The association's only funds come from its membership and what little we make from our championships," Velzian says. The Kenya Sports Administration (a government department) assists in the provinces, but there is no direct government aid to the KAAA. The government helps send the Kenya team to the Commonwealth Games, but there are even problems with that. This year it wanted to cut Velzian's squad by two in order to send two government officials. Velzian said O.K., he would cut Keino and Kiprugut because they did not need international experience and the others did. The government decided not to trim the team after all.

"But you can see why we get disturbed," says Velzian, "when your AAU sends us a cable of several hundred words and asks for an immediate reply by cable. We often don't have the money in the bank for a five-word cable."

Velzian schedules most of his training at the Kenya Institute of Administration track in Nairobi. Set among flame trees, conifers and Australian blue gum trees, it is surely one of the world's most attractive playing fields. The athletes in the Nairobi area come there a couple of days a week. Whereas only a few years ago Kenya had but one track, and that a grass one, there are now many fine tracks scattered about the country, most of them made of murrain, a volcanic substance found in the mountains. Also called lactite, it had previously been used for tennis courts and hockey fields, but Velzian was the first to try it for tracks. It turned out to provide a very fast surface on which weeds and grass will not grow. There are now five such tracks in Kenya's Central Province alone.

What Velzian has achieved in Kenya is serving as a stimulating example to the rest of Africa's emerging nations. Except for those areas where endemic diseases like malaria or primitive conditions of hardship still prevail, the enthusiasm for sport is spreading everywhere. At the African Games in the summer of 1965 Dr. R. William Jones of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), put it this way: "On the one hand, there is a scarcity of adequate facilities and equipment, of cadres, of structures and of occasions for emulation and testing and, on the other, there is a fervor, an enthusiasm and a freshness that bring us back to the heroic times of sport in the older countries. Because of this, sport in Africa is still practiced by a minority of young people. It is rather more a sport of the elite than a sport of the masses."

This is true enough, but the concept of the elite in sport is quite different from that in some other areas of life. The elite in sport emerge from the masses and in turn inspire the masses to produce more of the elite. That is what is happening in Africa, and nowhere more than in Kenya.

"All over the country now," says Velzian, "there are athletes who go out and train regularly for the sheer joy of training and the knowledge that possibly one day they will represent Kenya. Before independence they could not have cared less about representing their country."

In sport, at least, harambee is working just fine.


A happy Velzian views the scene at Nairobi's Jamhuri Park, where international stars were competing in Kenya's national championship.


Velzian conducts a small physical education class at the Delamere boys' school in Nairobi for a typically multiracial group of students—African, Asian and European.