Henry Rono: How Kenyan Record-Breaker Lost Fortune to Alcoholism in US

Kenyan Athlete Henry Ronoh at 70 years old (left) and the athlete participating in a past championship.
Kenyan Athlete Henry Ronoh at 70 years old (left) and the athlete participating in a past championship.
New York Times

At the age of 70 years, former Kenyan athlete and record-breaker Henry Rono is finally at peace with himself - but that has not always been the case.

The athlete first grabbed public limelight in the 1970s, while in his 20s as an athlete.  He went on to hold records in four categories over a span of 81 days. They included 3,000 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and 3,000-meter steeplechase.

His career first kicked off in 1976 after he got shortlisted in the Montreal Olympics to participate in the 5,000 meters race.

His plans were, however, cut short when the Kenyan government boycotted the event for allowing New Zealand to participate yet its rugby team was, at the time, on a tour in apartheid South Africa.

Former Kenyan athlete Henry Rono participates in a steeplechase.
Former Kenyan athlete Henry Rono participates in a steeplechase.

According to a report by the New York Times, Rono found himself with a new training coach in Pullman, Washington. At the time, he trained under John Chaplin and successfully surpassed the four world records he did in 1978.

After his victories, he slid into alcoholism, in part due to his friction with Kenyan athletics officials, and lost control of his financial footing.

According to the NYT publication, the athlete had lost track of his bank accounts, lost some cash on airplanes and repeatedly invested in doomed projects, mostly made up by conmen.

So drastic was the downward spiral that he started living in guest rooms of his friends in between attending rehabilitation centers.

At some point, he parked cars in Oregon County, assisted people in wheelchairs at the Albuquerque airport, or rang church bells for a living.

After the stint, he landed a coaching job in Mexico and used the opportunity to pursue education, specialising in poetry and writing, a skill that would come in handy when he self-published his memoir in 2010.

In 2008, he was honoured with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Inspirational Award at the World Athletics Gala, where he acknowledged his alcoholism problem.

"I'm a recovering alcoholic but I've been sober for the last seven years. I believe I've recovered my dignity and my place in society.

"I've been to the top of the highest mountain and then down to the bottom of the world.  Looking back now, I can remember what happened in 1978 (when he set world records over 3000m, 5000m, 10,000m and the 3000m steeplechase) but then the next eight years are more-or-less a blank," he stated at the time.

His situation had worsened in 1984 after he suffered homelessness, arrests for drunk driving and had worked menial jobs to survive - a combination that made him unsuitable to compete on an international stage.

"What I am doing in my life right now is like a gold medal to me. The issue of not going to the 1980 Olympics is now behind me and so too are the problems I had for 21 years from 1978," he added at the time.

He is now back into the country and hopes to revive his career as a coach.

Former Kenyan athlete Henry Rono
Former Kenyan athlete Henry Rono.
The Standard
  • . . .