Africa crashed the Olympics party during the Mexico City 1968 Summer Games.
It had been a long time coming, considering that the first modern Olympic Games were held in April 1896, in Athens, Greece, and it was at the 1904 Chicago Games that the first black Africans took part.
They were two marathon runners from South Africa. And although Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila had won the gold at the 1960 and 1964 Games in Rome and Tokyo respectively, it was not until 1968 that the black African presence was really felt.
East Africa played no small role in making those Games unforgettable. The region was ably represented by Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Held in the high altitude Mexico City, when the curtains finally fell on the Games, between them, East Africa’s quartet had won a commendable 13 medals.
From boxing and athletics. Africans had proved that the 1960 and 1964 performance was not a flash in the pan.
The Mexico Games laid the foundation of what is today considered a preserve of East Africans: Middle and long distance running. The performance produced legends who, to date, are revered Olympians.
The country was represented by a team of 18 sportsmen, made up of nine runners, four boxers and five cyclists. Ethiopia had two stand out stars on their contingent in the persons of Mamo Wolde, 36, and the irrepressible Abebe Bikila, also aged 36.
Bikila was in 1968, the world and Ethiopia’s first double Olympic champion. He put his country and by extension East Africa on the global sporting map by winning the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and repeated this feat at the following Olympics in Tokyo in 1964.
Kenya too had already bagged its first Olympics medal, a bronze, in the Tokyo Games through Wilson Kiprugut in the men’s 800m.
Back to Mexico. The very high altitude meant thin air (low in oxygen) which in turn meant slower times for runners.
The marathon began at 3pm, on October 20, 1968, with 75 athletes in contention for the gold medal.
Seeking a third straight title for Ethiopia, Bikila lined up alongside countryman Wolde. There were however grave concerns leading up to this race over Bikila’s health.
Six weeks prior to landing in Mexico City, he had undergone an appendectomy and then while seeking to make up for lost training time back home in Addis Ababa, had sustained a stress fracture.
Two hours and 20 minutes later, new world and African Olympic history was made when Wolde entered the Olympic stadium, leading the pack.
He finished the race at 2:20.26.4 hours, with Ethiopia becoming the first and till now only country to win three consecutive Olympic men’s marathon titles.
Bikila’s title defence was likewise an individual first at the Olympics. He dropped out of the race at the 16km mark.
Japan’s Kenji Kimihara took silver, an astonishing three minutes (2:23.31.0) behind Wolde, with New Zealand’s Mike Ryan taking bronze in a time of 2:23.45 hours. Kenya’s Naftali Temu finished 19th.
Wolde’s amazing running prowess was clear. He had, a week earlier, won the silver medal in the 10,000m race.
Both army officers in the Imperial Guard of Emperor Haile Sellasie, Bikila and Wolde’s lives ended tragically. Born on August 7, 1932, Bikila died on October 25, 1973 aged only 41. He lived his last decade as a paraplegic, following a road accident.
Wolde, born on June 12, 1932, died on May 26, 2002, a month shy of his 70th birthday. He had spent seven years in prison following the military putsch that overthrew Mengistu Haile Mariam. Both were army captains at the time of their deaths.
Team Uganda was represented at the Mexico Games by 11 competitors: three athletes and eight boxers.
Come the close of the games, the country had two medals, both in boxing. The country’s first Olympic medal was a silver medal in the bantamweight class won by Eridadi Mukwanga, 25, after losing to Russia’s Valerian Sokolov in the final match.
Leo Rwabwogo, 19, won a bronze in flyweight. The performance in Mexico City was clearly what Uganda needed to prepare for the next Olympics.
They had an unforgettable Olympics in Munich in 1972, where John Akii-Bua was crowned Olympic champion in the 400 metres hurdles. (But that is a story for another day.) And Uganda has been building on these achievements ever since.
Kenya had the largest contingent of the East African quartet, with a delegation of 39 competitors. The team comprised four boxers, three shooters, 18 athletes and a men’s hockey team of 14.
The men’s hockey team had an interesting composition as it did not have a single black African player.
Six players were of Sikh descent and a similar number were of Goan ancestry. Of the latter, three were brothers: Leo, Hilary and Egbert Fernandes. To complete the team were two white Kenyans — John Simonian and Mohamed Malik.
Sixteen nations competed in the men’s hockey tournament. Kenya’s performances remain indelibly imprinted on the minds of those who were privileged to watch them play.
Pooled in Group B alongside Pakistan, Australia, Netherlands, France, Argentina, Great Britain and Malaysia, Kenya came agonisingly close to making the semi-finals.
The team won four, drew one and lost two of the seven group stage matches. Tied with Australia on points at the end of the preliminary matches, Kenya then played Australia in a second semi-final spot decider. They lost 1-0, and finished a commendable eighth position behind Pakistan who won the gold, with Australia taking silver and India bronze.
The athletics programme began on October 13, 1968, and by the time it concluded on October 20, Kenya had well and truly arrived on the global athletics scene, coming away with eight medals, three of them gold.
Naftali Temu, 23, a soldier in the Kenya Army, gained sporting immortality when he won Kenya’s first ever Olympic title on the first day of the athletics events, taking gold in the 10,000m in a time of 29:27.40.
Temu led home a clean sweep by African runners. Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia took silver (29:27.75) and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia took bronze (29:34.2).
Kenya’s next medal came 48 hours later, on October 15. In an astonishing and simply unforgettable race in the men’s 800 metres, Wilson Kiprugut arap Chumo broke the world record, but amazingly, still had to settle for silver as Australia’s Ralph Doubell also running inside the world record finished ahead of him in 1:44.40 with Kiprugut timed at 1:44.57.
Kiprugut became the first Kenyan athlete to win two Olympic medals, having won the first ever Olympic medal for the country, a bronze, at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
However, his record of being the country’s first double Olympic medallist did not last long.
On the following day, October 16, Amos Biwott clocked 8:51.02, to lead home Ben Kogo (8:51.56) to a one-two Kenya finish in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase.
It is noteworthy that in every subsequent Olympics where Kenya has participated to date, the country has retained Biwott’s steeplechase title.
On October 17, another African medal sweep took place in the men’s 5,000m race. Gammoudi of Tunisia took gold (14:05.01), Kipchoge Keino silver (14:05.16) and Temu the bronze (14:06.51).
Temu therefore joined Kiprugut in being a double Olympian, having won the gold in the 10,000m. But Kenya’s good run was not over.
On the closing day of the men’s track and field programme, Kipchoge Keino, still fresh from winning the 5,000m three days earlier, entered the men’s 1,500m race. He was recovering from a bout of malaria and no one gave him a chance.
Only one man was expected to win this race: The world record holder, American Jim Ryun. However, Keino, then 28-years-old and an inspector with the Kenya Police, had his own ideas. He set a searing pace that effectively made the race a no contest. He cruised past the 1,200m mark in a world record time of 2:53.4 minutes.
Keino set a new Olympic record of 3:34.91. Ryun was an astonishing three seconds behind in 3:37.89, the biggest win margin, in the Olympics history of the race.
Globally revered since, Kipchoge went on to set several world records and remains Kenya’s and East Africa’s foremost Olympian with four medals to his name. He won two more at the Munich Games of 1972.
But the Kenyan track team in Mexico was not done yet. The last track medal, again involved a world record run and again, Kenya had to settle for silver. The team of Daniel Rudisha 23, Hezekiah Nyamau 26, Naftali Bon, 23, and Charles Asati, 22, ran a blistering race in the 4x400m relay.
But the US team always seemed to have one extra gear on the Kenyans and won in a new world record of 2:56.16, with Kenya taking the silver in 2:59.64. Four years later, Kenya went one better, winning the Olympic title at the Munich Games.
Boxer Philip “Nakayama” Waruinge was Kenya’s ninth medallist in Mexico, winning the bronze medal in the featherweight division.
And so ended Kenya’s finest Olympics outing, a performance that stood for 20 years. The team collected nine medals, three gold, four silver and two bronze.
It had the smallest representation of the East Africa quartet, with only four athletes. However, for years after, the story of one of those athletes is still spoken of globally.
John Stephen Akhwari was 30 years old when he ran the marathon on October 20. Wearing vest number 36, he suffered a very bad fall during the race.
Bloodied and in pain, Akhwari was treated, requiring heavy bandaging on his right leg.
He could barely stand, let alone run, the medical team brought a stretcher to put him in an ambulance. Akhwari declined, got back on the road and for the next hour walked, limped and hobbled to the finishing line.
With Mexico’s Olympic stadium emptying, Akhwari hobbled in and then limped round the track to rapturous applause from the small crowd of spectators. His finishing time of 3:25.17.0 hours was exactly 55mins behind the gold medal winning time of 2:20.26.4 set by fellow East African Ethiopian Mamo Wolde.
Akhwari finished 57th, while 18 runners, including the defending champion, Bikila, did not finish the race.
Asked by the throng of journalists why he persisted through the seemingly excruciating pain, the reply by the man from Mbulu, Tanzania, immortalised in sporting history; “My country sent me here, not just to compete, but to finish the race.”
And with this outstanding feat, the curtains befittingly came down on East Africa’s earliest and most memorable Olympics outing.