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Legendary Kenyan Track and Field athlete Henry Rono dies at 72

Kenyan Henry Rono, who broke world records in four events in 81 days in 1978, has died at age 72, according to Kenya’s track and field federation and World Athletics. As part of his world record spree, Rono made history in the 3000m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m. His records in the 3000m and 3000m steeplechase stood for more than a decade.

Born on 12 February 1952, Rono hailed from Kiptaragon in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A bicycle accident left him unable to walk until he was six, and it was two-time Olympic champion Kip Keino who inspired Rono to take up running.

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Rono joined the Kenyan Army in 1973 and he continued to progress in athletics. He was selected for the 1976 Olympic Games in the 3000m steeplechase and 5000m but did not make it to Montreal because of the Kenyan boycott.

Rono never competed in the Olympics, as Kenya boycotted the Games in 1976 and 1980 when he was at his peak. In 1981, he lowered his 5,000-meter world record, running 13:06.20. His career also included notable victories over American champions Alberto Salazar in cross country and on the track and Bill Rodgers in the half marathon distance.

One memorable Rono-Salazar duel occurred in 1982. Salazar wanted to run a 10,000-meter track race as a tune-up for the Boston Marathon. He cajoled Rono into competing, even though Rono had told Salazar he wasn’t fit. Salazar, who had won his second New York City Marathon title the previous fall and was nine days away from his legendary “Duel in the Sun” with Dick Beardsley at Boston, was supremely fit.

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Yet Rono, visibly overweight, stuck with Salazar for the first 24 laps of the race and then outsprinted him to win in 27:29.90, one-tenth of a second ahead of Salazar. Some spectators joked that Rono’s paunch gave him the nod in a near-photo finish.

In later years, he moved around the U.S., living in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland and Eugene, Oregon; Boston and New York, among other places. He struggled with alcohol and was homeless for several months in the early 1990s, living on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Rono was trained as a teacher’s aide, and he coached a handful of athletes. From time to time, he tried to make a return to running as a master athlete. One such attempt at a return was chronicled in a Runner’s World in 2007. In 2021, he returned to Kenya and lived with his brother, who told The Nation that Rono had heart problems. His plight highlighted the lack of support for retired athletes. Rono is the second Kenyan legend to die this week. His countryman, Kelvin Kiptum, 24, who set the marathon world record of 2:00:35 last October in Chicago, died on February 11 in a car accident.

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Hi everyone, this is Soumyaroop Mukherjee. I am a student of journalism and a budding writer. The world of writing has always enthralled me beyond anything and I believe in the power of the pen which is always mightier than the sword. Talking about my interests, I like to write mostly in the sports genre which can include hardcore sports like cricket and football to adrenaline sports like F1 and NASCAR. Apart from this I also like poetry and web series in my off time.