Why Kenya's First Olympic Gold Medalist Retired at Age 28

  • A file image of Naftali Temu
    A file image of Naftali Temu
  • Naftali Nabiba Temu has a special place in Kenya's sports history. He is the country's first Olympic Gold medalist after he won the 10,000 meters race in Mexico in 1968. 

    At the age of 23 years old, Naftali inscribed his name in the history books and placed Kenya on the global map in regard to the Olympics. 

    However, the glory was short-lived, seeing as he retired five years later only aged 28 years old; way before his prime in the sport. 

    Kenyan athlete Naftali Temu (right) during a past event
    Kenyan athlete Naftali Temu (right) during a past event
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    Early Life

    His journey dates back to the 1950s when Naftali began competing as a teenager. Growing up in North Kisii District, Nyamira County in the then Nyanza Province, Naftali would often cover long distances as he went to and from school and when running errands. Before pursuing athletics, he had a short stint in Kenya Army.

    Athletics Career

    His rise to stardom came during the 1964 East African Championships held in Kisumu, where he scooped gold in the 10,000 meters final at the tender age of 19.

    This propelled him to the second position on the world-junior rankings and also booked him a slot at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

    At the Olympics, Naftali was one of the youngest athletes. Needless to mention, it was his first time to represent Kenya at an international event, where he participated in the 10,000 meters final and marathon race.  

    The 10,000-meter race proved to be such a herculean task for the young Naftali, so much so that he didn't finish the race. 

    He, however, emerged 49th in the marathon; a big feat for a young athlete. Naftali would go on to rack up wins in various competitions in the years that followed, scooping medals in events such as the 5000-meter race in the 1965 All-Africa Games, the 1966 British Commonwealth Games, and the 10,000-meter race in the 1967 East African Championships.

    All these events seemed a major warm-up for the grand spectacle that was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, where his exploits catapulted him to world fame. During the 10,000 meter race, Naftali set his personal best at 28 minutes and 20 seconds, beating his counterpart Kipchoge Keino and legends such as Ron Clarke.

    Doubting Thomases had argued that Kenyans would not fare well due to the high altitude of the South American city, only for Naftali to proved them wrong.

    The following year, he successfully defended his 10,000-meter title in the East and Central African Championships held in Uganda, winning in a time of 28 minutes 54 seconds, and 8 microseconds. 

    Downward spiral

    In 1970, Naftali began wearing out. His once athletic physique narrowed to a lean and diminutive stature. He also developed complications with his feet. In the British Commonwealth Games held later that year, he emerged 19th in the 10,000-meter race. 

    Two years later, he was set to defend his 10,000 meters title in Germany. However, in a shocking turn of events, he finished 12th in heat one with a time of 30 minutes, 19 seconds, and 6 microseconds. 


    Naftali retired from competitive athletics in 1973, only aged 28. Due to his prior accomplishments, he was feted and awarded a farm in Nyamira District by the Late President Jomo Kenyatta. 

    Years later, the legend developed prostate cancer and kidney problems, which forced him to shuttle between hospitals. 

    His condition worsened as he could not walk or talk. Further, due to accruing medical bills, he could not get the necessary treatment as required. In March 2003, Naftali passed away days before his 58th birthday.

    An athlete celebrates with a Kenyan flag after winning a race
    An athlete celebrates with a Kenyan flag after winning a race.