Hussein’s marathon win that almost changed course of US history
What you need to know:
- Muhrcke, a retired fire fighter, now 81, won the first New York City Marathon in 1970 after coming off a night shift, while Flanagan ended a 40-year American wait after winning the race in 2017.
- McColgan won the 1991 race on her debut, with Fearnley boasting five New York City Marathon titles in the wheelchair division with back-to-back victories in 2006-09 and again in 2014.
In New York
In 1984, Baptist minister and American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson had a stab at the US Presidency, becoming only the second black person, after Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in 1972, to target the highest political office on earth.
He finished third in the Democratic Party’s primaries with 3.5 million votes.
Inspired, the man who would become a leading spokesman for African-Americans, Jackson – who turned 80 last month – made another run in 1988. And this time round, a Kenyan marathon runner inadvertently almost pushed him across the finish line.
Fired up by back-to-back victories at the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii in 1985 and 1986, Ibrahim Kipkemboi Hussein was the new kid on the block in marathon running, signing up as one of the marquee runners for the 1987 New York City Marathon.
With two million spectators lining the streets of the “Big Apple”, cheering on the 22,000 runners across New York’s five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island in great weather conditions on November 1, Hussein made his move at kilometre 24 in the race flagged off by New York Mayor Edward Koch.
As the pack entered Queens, the Kenyan hit the front and led through the high-rise Manhattan, going into Central Park with an unassailable lead and won in two hours, 11 minutes and one second.
Hussein, at the time a resident of Albuquerque where he studied at the University of New Mexico, floored a strong field that included the Italian trio of defending champion Gianni Poli, 1984 and ‘85 winner Orlando Pizzolato and second-place finisher Gianni DeMadonna.
Born on June 3, 1958, in Kapsabet, Nandi County, he had become the first black man to win the prestigious New York City Marathon.
But events that followed catapulted him to even more unexpected global attention.
ABC-TV covered the race live and towards the end, rather than focus on Hussein’s home run, the American channel’s cameras – and commentary team led by Jim McKay – were trained on the battle for second place between American Pat Peterson and DeMadonna, missing out on Hussein crossing the finish line for the historic victory.
This almost caused a riot in the city, with African-Americans charging that the channel deliberately ignored Hussein “because he is black.” There was uproar among black communities in Harlem, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, with Rev Jackson supporting the demonstrations.
“My victory in 1987 really opened doors for me,” Hussein reminisced in an exclusive interview with Sunday Nation at Central Park on Friday night after he was inducted into the New York Marathon’s Hall of Fame at a colourful finish-line ceremony.
“When you talk about marathons, there’s the Boston Marathon, which is the oldest. But the New York City Marathon is like Hollywood – where the stars are made. This is the marathon that really put me on another level, ” he said. Hussein recalled how his victory and ABC-TV’s snub raised racial tensions in America, almost akin to today’s “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“No African had previously won the race at the time, and people didn’t believe than any Kenyan, or African for that matter, would do well.
“ABC-TV’s commentator was not really kind to me, saying ‘Ibrahim is gonna get problems at Central Park’ and that there’s a possibility that I would be overtaken at Central Park,” said Hussein.
With handicapped runners having started their race earlier, ABC-TV elected to focus on one of the finishers in the that division, alongside the battle for second place in the main race, missing Hussein’s historic finish.
“Some people believed that it was intentional to ignore me. The blacks from Harlem were running besides me in solidarity when I entered Central Park, because they had already heard the commentator was really against me. They cheered me and followed me to the finish line and it was almost like a riot as they wanted to demonstrate,” he recalled.
Building up his second attempt at the presidency ahead of the 1998 US elections, Rev. Jackson rode on the Hussein euphoria with the mantra that the race to the White House was “a marathon, not a sprint,” and that black people had proved they can win the marathon through Hussein’s ground-breaking triumph. ABC-TV had to eat humble pie, apologising publicly to Hussein and inviting him as a special guest at the Good Morning America show that was the preserve of celebrities.
“Not very many people were invited to that show. It was only movie stars and big politicians who were invited. They invited me and apologised for not showing me at the finish,” recalled Hussein who at the time ran under a lucrative contract with sportswear firm Adidas.
Powered by his “Rainbow Coalition” of diverse Americans, Rev Jackson finished second in the Democratic Party primaries behind Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, bagging some seven million votes, some won over by Hussein who, in 1992, also became the first black African to appear on the cover of the global edition of the prestigious Time magazine.
Last Friday was an emotional day for Hussein who was making his first appearance on US soil in 30 years.
“I’m so happy with the American people because they really appreciate sportsmen and when they say that they appreciate, they show it by action. It’s not just saying it. They idolise us.
“Like today I was walking to Central Park and I met several people who approached me, hugging me and almost crying after seeing me for the first time after 30 years. They still recognise me and appreciate what I did, and they believe that I’m a hero… I’m so happy that my daughters (Farida and Khadija) are here with me… they were crying… they can’t believe that we are so honoured even after having retired over 30 years ago,” said the champion.
With the New York City Marathon celebrating its 50th anniversary today, Hussein was honoured as a Hall of Famer in the “Class of 2021” alongside Americans Gary Muhrcke and Shalane Flanagan, Scotswoman Liz McColgan and Australian Kurt Fearnley.
Muhrcke, a retired fire fighter, now 81, won the first New York City Marathon in 1970 after coming off a night shift, while Flanagan ended a 40-year American wait after winning the race in 2017.
McColgan won the 1991 race on her debut, with Fearnley boasting five New York City Marathon titles in the wheelchair division with back-to-back victories in 2006-09 and again in 2014.