Pioneer in Kenya's athletics Seraphino Antao, a champion

Saturday September 06 2008
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Seraphino Antao, who won Kenya’s first gold medals at a major championship. Photo/FILE

Kenya's first athletics champion was a sprinter, a marked contrast with the country’s current middle and long-distance running fame.

Between 1960 and 1964 Seraphino Antao was one of the world’s greatest sprinters. Describing Antao’s performance in the 1961 Welsh Games, a Sunday Times reporter wrote: “British sprint star David Jones, who last week beat America’s Frank Budd, the fastest man on earth, was defeated in a 100-yard dash by Seraphino Antao, the Kenyan sprint champion.”

If Antao beat the man who beat the fastest man on earth, then he was now the fastest man on earth, no?

Seraphino Antao’s greatest moment came with a double gold win in the 100 and 200 yard events at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia; these were Kenya’s first gold medals at a major championship.

The Perth games also saw the debut of Kipchoge Keino in the thre-mile event, though he did not make it past the heats.

Antao was the flag-bearer of the Kenyan team that competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a task usually given to the top athlete in the team, and a medal favourite.


He fell sick just before the games and had a dismal performance. Antao retired immediately after and emigrated to England.

Fast forward more than four decades later and I am on an overland train headed for southeast London, where Seraphino Antao lives.

He has given me precise directions, which I do not write down with the same precision, and after an underground train, an overland train, two station changes and numerous questions to all kinds of transport attendants, I see why I should have paid attention. Anyway…I get out of the station and reach for my phone when a tall elegant, silver-haired man comes toward me.

After more than 40 years living in England, his Swahili is still good.

A short bus ride and we are at his house. The thing that strikes me about the house is the large Kenyan flag dominating the sitting-room wall. It has the patina of age and after I inquire he tells me it is the flag he was given by Jomo Kenyatta in a send-off ceremony for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Photocopied and framed on the wall is the newspaper clipping with a fuzzy old photograph of Antao receiving the flag from Kenyatta. It is only one of many articles in a collage on the wall.

There is the famous photo of Antao racing against a cheetah (40 years before cheetah race re-created with Bryan Habana – see in a stunt setup by photographer Akhtar Hussein. The cheetah won.

THERE IS ALSO A photograph of Antao with Jesse Owens at the 1960 Rome Olympics. I ask what Owens was like. “He was a gentleman,” says Antao.

“Did you talk about the 1936 Olympics?” I ask. “Not really… But he must have been an incredibly strong man. Competition is already bad enough. Then there was Hitler… I competed in that stadium three times. The long jump pitch was still there.”

We talk about his early days. His father came over from Goa sometime in the early 1920s and settled in Mombasa. He met Antao’s mother, whose family had also come from Goa, they married and had five children.

Seraphino Antao was born in 1937, and grew up playing football. He got into athletics almost by accident. In 1956, while working for the East African Railways, specifically the Landing & Shipping Company, he entered the company athletics competition and won the sprint events.

Within six months he was competing in national events and was the Kenya and East African champion in several short races. He was part of the team that represented Kenya in the Cardiff Commonwealth Games in 1958 and the Rome Olympics in 1960. He then went on to be a world-class sprinter before retiring in 1964.

Antao brings out his scrapbook so I can have a better idea his career chronology. It is about two feet by three feet and six inches thick. Inside are hundreds of articles cut from newspapers and magazines pasted on stiff board paper. It is a meticulous record of his career.

He has a strong sense of history, or is aware of the temporal nature of high-level sports, where an athlete can only be at the peak for a few years, and it is likely that no other time in their lives will compare to when they made their mark on the world.

It is from this extensive scrapbook that the framed stories on the wall are taken. There are clippings from every major East African newspaper and magazine of the time, plus quite a few European papers. He tells me family members tracking started putting it together and he continued once he travelled abroad and there was an article about him.

“I haven’t taken this thing out in two years,” Antao says. “It is all out of order.” There are pictures of every major Kenyan athlete from the 1960s — Nyandike Maiyoro, Joseph Lerasai, Naftali Temu, Maboria Tesut, Justice Maritim, Lentubei Lesentinyo — some of these names are long forgotten.

“They used to come stay at my house when they came to Mombasa,” he says. “They didn’t like to stay in hotels. They stayed at my house and my mother made them chapatis.”

WERE YOU AND THE OT- her Kenyan athletes ever discriminated against because of your race?” I ask.

“Of course there was colour bar at that time,” he says. “We mostly competed overseas and they were generally good.” He pauses and laughs, “Maybe they spoke about us behind our backs, but I never experienced it at the competitions.”

“Why did you leave?” I ask. “You were only 28 and you could have had a few more years running.”

“I had enough of it, you know. In Tokyo I fell ill on the eve of the opening ceremony. That was it. All my hard work had gone. I wanted to win some sort of Olympic medal, and I was favoured to win something,” says Antao. “ I was fed up of training six days a week. Eight years. Top class at four or five events. It is not easy. You get fed up.”

As with many athletes I speak to, I hear frustration at the tedium of training, the monotony of waking up every day to do the same thing, over and over again. After a couple of years it gets to you. Plus in the 1960s, athletes were amateurs and most held down regular jobs.

“When I came back from Europe my boss said go and take two days rest, then it was back to work,” he says.

Antao worked from 6:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon and trained in the afternoons, six days a week, Monday to Saturday.

There are photos of him training on the beach with Ray Batchelor, the Coast sports officer. Antao met American sprinters in the 1958 Cardiff games and from discussions with them he created a training regimen.

“I was always the last one to leave the blocks then I would catch up after 10 yards. That day [1962 Perth Games] I got a very good start off the blocks. The American sprinters were 180 or 190 pounds. I was 140 pounds… like a bloody ostrich,” says Antao.

After he moved to England, he took a coaching course at Loughborough College, then opened a clothing boutique in Kensington that sold, among other things, hotpants. He then worked Thorn EMI, a major electronics and defence company, now defunct, in the accounts department till he retired.

“Do you like it here?” I ask.

“Yeah…It is nice and cold,” Antao says. We all burst out laughing. “You get used to the British way of life. It could have worked out in Kenya, but people were moving to try new things.”

He makes a great chicken curry, though he asks me not to mention it in case journalists start expecting him to cook when they come to interview him.

A telegram on Seraphino Antao’s wall reads: