Wilson Kiprugut: Trailblazing Olympian’s dream deferred

Jackson Tuwei

Athletics Kenya President Jack Tuwei (centre), accompanied by 2020 Tokyo Olympic 800m silver medallist Ferguson Rotich, award legendary athlete Wilson Kiprugut, during the National Olympics Committee of Kenya Gala hosted by Tusker at Eka Hotel in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County on October 6, 2021, night. This was in recognition of his bronze medal in Tokyo 1968. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Chumo passes on before repeated promises to rename Kericho Green Stadium in his honour are realised

Legendary athlete Wilson Kiprugut Chumo has passed on before the repeated promises to rename the Kericho Green Stadium in his honour were realised.

Chumo developed breathing complications on Tuesday at his Kipchebor home in Ainamoi Constituency, Kericho County, and died while undergoing treatment at Siloam hospital. 

He died at around 1.30pm while doctors struggled to save his life, according to family members, led by his elder daughter Sarah Langat and youngest son Gideon Kipng’eno.

Chumo lost his wife, Ruth, on July 20, 2020, after which his health deteriorated and he did not quite recover until he breathed his last.

In the sunset years of his life, he grappled with poor eyesight and hypertension which slowed his public engagements.  

By being the first Kenyan, and east African, to win a medal of any colour at in the Olympics (bronze in the 800 metres at the 1964 Games), Chumo inspired a new generation of athletes.

Interestingly, 57 years later, in the same city (Tokyo) and (same) Olympics competition, Ferguson Rotich from Kericho won a silver medal in Kiprugut’s 800m specialty.

Chumo watched the 2021 competitions from the comfort of his sitting room, having missed a chance to travel due to health issues and the Covid-19 outbreak.

It marked the passing of the baton of sorts in the South Rift region, from one generation to the other in the 800m. Both Chumo and Rotich are from Ainamoi Constituency.

Symbolic handover

Rotich clocked one minute, 45.23 seconds to settle for silver as compatriot Emmanuel Korir took the ultimate prize — gold — in the race.  Rotich was feted by the Kericho County Government with then Governor Professor Paul Chepkwony hosting him at the county headquarters.

“We are working on renaming Kericho Green Stadium to Kiprugut Chumo in honour of our respected athlete who opened the medal winning streak for Kenyan athletes in the Olympics,” said Governor Chepkwony as he received Rotich.

Many held the position that Chumo should have been invited to the ceremony for a symbolic handover of a baton, but it was not done.

But the promise by Chepkwony to rename the Kericho Green Stadium after Chumo became just that – a promise. No action at all was taken by the county government to actualise the plan, and it became a predictable promise whenever a major sports event was hosted in the county and attended by the police class.

A Bill was never tabled at the County Assembly seeking legal apparatus for the renaming of the stadium and the MCAs in the first two terms of devolution did not follow it up.

While Chepkwony exited the political stage after the August 9 elections without fulfilling the pledge after being in power for 10 years, Chumo passed on before witnessing what would have been an historical fete.

Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei, while on a tour of Kericho in 2019, called on the county government to upgrade the stadium in honour of the sports legend (Chumo) to a level it could be used for “regional, national and international competitions in the new future.”

Tuwei said renaming of the stadium in honour of Chumo would be welcomed by the sports fraternity.

In an interview ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Chumo was grateful that an effort was made to fly him out to Japan to watch the competition.

“The National Olympic Committee of Kenya members, and the Japanese government were keen on having me travel to Tokyo for the Olympics, but it was not possible,” Chumo told this writer, two days before the competition kicked off.

He was not bitter at all that he had not been feted for his achievements saying he flew Kenya’s flag high in athletics as a result of his patriotism along with those of his generation.

“The fact that some of us were not feted for our contribution to sports development in the country is not because the people in charge do not appreciate what we did, but that they do not understand it all,” he stated.

His generation of athletes competed not for the money but for the love of sports as competitions had not been commercialised then.

Run clean, avoid drugs

“At the time, we undertook sports as a hobby, it had not been commercialised as is happening now the world over,” said Mzee Chumo who was feted as the Kenya Sports Personality of the Year in 2010.

Right to the time he breathed his last, he was disappointed by the current crop of athletes whom he said lacked patriotism and had tainted Kenya’s image by indulging in drugs to cheat their way to stardom due to greed for money.

“I wish to advise Kenyan athletes to run clean, avoid drugs by all means and win fair and square. It is possible. We did it in our time, it has been done by great athletes and it is still doable,” Chumo said.

The fact that he did not let stardom and power get into his head, did not demand for recognition, carrying himself with the simplicity of any next door villager was evident in his lifetime.

He lived a generally quiet life.

“I did not give it much thought when I won a bronze in the 1964 Olympics. It dawned on me far much later that it was a major win,” Chumo stated. 

“I remember I was paid 20 dollars which converted to Sh7 per dollar (translating to Sh140) and it was so much money at the time,” said Mzee Chumo who was born in 1938 at Kinamget village in Kericho.

The highest amount he remembers being paid in his athletics career was 300 dollars which when converted was Sh2,100 at the time.

Chumo revealed that he used his earnings to buy land, construct a house and also for family upkeep.

“I built my family home with savings from my days in the army (King’s African Rifles), from where I retired in 1974 with the rank of a sergeant, and the pocketed money we got for participating in sports outside the country,” said Mzee Chumo.

Chumo will forever remain an inspiration for the current and future generations.