Kipchoge Keino is a modest man, and it takes some prodding to get the great Kenyan runner to recall how he felt on Oct. 20, 1968—when he won his first gold medal, in the 1,500 meters in Mexico City. The day hadn’t started out well. Keino was suffering from stomach pains that later turned out to be a severe gallbladder infection. His doctors advised against running; he ignored them. During the race, Keino was so focused on competing against American ace Jim Ryun that, in retrospect, “without watching a video, I wouldn’t know what happened at the finish.” He does remember what happened next. “I ran an honor lap. I ran it to celebrate and to let my body recover. I felt overcome by the excitement.” It was not the only memorable event in his life that day. Back home, his wife, Phyllis, gave birth to their third daughter, named Milka Olympia Chelagat in celebration of her father’s victory.
Keino went on to win a silver medal in the 5,000 meters in Mexico City and a gold and a silver four years later in Munich. He then became Kenya’s Olympic running coach from 1976 to 1986, furthering his nation’s dominance in distance events. Kenyan runners have captured 32 Olympic track medals since 1964 and won the last six consecutive Boston Marathons. This summer, Keino will be in Atlanta as chief of the 120-athlete Kenyan delegation, which could include his son Martin, 23, a former NCAA 5,000-meter champion at the University of Arizona, hoping to qualify for the 1,500 meters.
But Keino’s athletic accomplishments are not the only reason he is a hero in the town of Eldoret in northwestern Kenya. Thirty years ago, Keino and his wife—who now have seven children of their own—began taking orphans into their home. Their house became so crowded that they raised funds to build a dormitory and a dining hall on a nearby farm Keino owns. Income to support the facility comes from the farm, his sports shop and fees he has received from the Kenyan government over the years. Today, 73 children and young adults-aged 2 to 22—live on the farm. “I think I have been lucky,” Keino says. “Now what is important is how I use what I have to help others.”