Faith Kipyegon is Kenya’s greatest athlete of all time

Faith Kipyegon

World 1500m record holder Faith Kipyegon reacts after competing in the Olympics trials on June 15, 2024 at Nyayo National Stadium.

Photo credit: Reuters

What you need to know:

  • The debate of who is the greatest male athlete in Kenya has never been conclusively decided.
  • When it comes to Kenyan female runners, there has never been a clear favourite until recently.

Electing who is the greatest human being in whatever field is invariably subjective. It is particularly so in sports.

For instance, in football, half the world that was born before 1980 considers Brazilian Pele the best player of all time while the other half gives that honour to Argentine Maradona.

One half born after 1980 will swear that Argentine Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer of all time while the other half settles for Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

The debate of who is the greatest male athlete in Kenya has never been conclusively decided, but two names consistently crop up – Kipchoge Keino and Henry Rono.

There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when athletics in Kenya was synonymous with Keino and Rono and every child dreamt of being one or the other.

The "Cheza Kenya Factbook 1988" described Keino as follows: “Some sportsmen leave a permanent mark on the event they dominate. Years pass, but their impact remains. One such sports hero is Kipchoege Keino. Undoubtedly Kenya’s best sportstar. Keino has brought glory and gold for his country. From the simple herdsman Keino has moulded into an international star who effortlessly broke records and astounded the world’s best athletes with his uncharacteristic style of running.”

A true legend, Kipchoge burst into the limelight in 1962 when he broke the national record of pre-independence star Nyandika Maiyoro in the three mile. He then ran the three mile under 14 minutes at the East African Championship.

Kip Keino's multiple world records

A star had been truly born. He went on to win 1,500m gold and 5,000m silver at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics Games, and 3,000m steeplechase gold and 1,500m silver at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Kipchoge also scorched the international running track breaking multiple world records in the 3,000m and 5,000m.

Rono’s golden year was 1978 when, in an astonishing span of 81 days, he broke four world records: 10,000m (27:22.5), 5,000m (13:08.4), 3,000m steeplechase (8:05.4), and the 3,000 m (7:32.1).

No man or woman has ever matched or surpassed this feat to date. In that year, Rono also won 10,000m and 3,000m steeplechase golds at the Algiers All Africa Games and 5,000m and 3,000m steeplechase golds at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games.

Unfortunately, at the height of his power, he was unable to compete at the Olympics Games of 1976 and 1980 as prevailing geopolitics forced Kenya to boycott the two events. 

Cross country king Paul Tergat, marathon G.O.A.T Eliud Kipchoge, serial world record break Daniel Komen, greatest 800m runner ever David Rudisha could be considered, but, in my opinion, at a lower rung.

When it comes to Kenyan female runners, there has never been a clear favourite until recently. Understandably.

Kienyeji barefooted teenager

Women’s athletics, particularly middle and long distance running only came of age recently. The women’s 10,000m was first raced at the Olympic Games in 1988, women's marathon in 1984 and women's 3,000m steeplechase in 2008.

However, several Kenyans come to mind for their fame and achievements; Sabina Chebichi, the first woman from East Africa to win a Commonwealth Games medal (800m bronze in Christchurch 19740); Pauline Konga the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic medal -- silver in 5,000 metres at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; Rose Tata Muya a household name that represented the country in 800m and 400m hurdler.

I can also call to mind two-lap queen and first Kenyan woman to win Olympic gold Pamela Jelimo, who is the third fastest woman ever over the distance with a time of 1:54.01.

"Pocket Rocket" Vivian Cheruiyot, who dominated women’s 5,000m and 10,000m this past decade, winning nine Olympics and World Athletics Championships medals (5 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze) between 2007 and 2016 is a genuine candidate.

Faith Kipyegon

Kenya's Faith Kipyegon reacts as she breaks the world record in the women's 5000m during the IAAF Diamond League in Paris on June 9, 2023.

Photo credit: File | AFP

But their achievements pale in comparison to those of Kenya’s truly golden girl of track running, Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon.

From a kienyeji looking 14-year-old teenager running barefooted at the 2010 Bydgoszcz World Cross Country Championships where she finished fourth in women’s junior, the supremely talented Kipyegon raced again without shoes a year later at Punta Umbria, emphatically winning the individual gold medal.

She went on to win the World Cross Country Championships individual senior women’s gold in Kampala in 2017.

Smooth running and stunningly looking

The smooth running, beautifully balanced and stunningly looking Kipyegon, in between taking maternity break has dominated women’s middle distance running for a decade now.

She has clinched four of the last six World Athletics Championships 1,500m gold medals including the last three, and back-to-back Olympic Games (2016, 2020) gold medals over the distance.

Perhaps her best year, for now, was last year when she set three astonishing world records – the one mile (4:07.64), and the 1,500m (3:49.11) and 5,000m (14:05.20) in the space of seven days.

She became the first woman in history to run 1,500m under 3 minutes 50 seconds and the first woman since Italian Paola Pigni in 1969 to hold both records (1,500 and 5,000m) at the same time.

Faith Kipyegon

Faith Kipyegon after setting a new world record in the women's 1500m at Paris Diamond League on July 7, 2024.

Photo credit: Reuters

Ethiopian Gudaf Tsegay however took away Kipyegon’s 5,000m record three months later with a time of 14:00.21.

The phenomenal Kipyegon, who turned 30 on January 10, was at it again in Paris last Sunday chipping away her formidable 1,500m time with a new record of 3:49.04 

She is well on track to becoming the first Kenyan to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals.

Now, if she is not the greatest Kenyan woman athlete, perhaps even the greatest Kenyan athlete of all, then I am at a loss as to who is.