The country watched as I was being destroyed, claims Ngugi
By John Kamau
When he rose, international athlete John Ngugi knocked his opponents flat like a matador. Like a phoenix the Nyahururu-born Ngugi rose but disappeared as fast.
So fast that when he walked into our offices recently the rather shy Ngugi was a far cry from the man who sprinted his way into stardom, becoming the first man to win five world cross country titles - almost in a row.
From obscurity he came and to obscurity he has returned.
"I was brought down by people who were simply malicious," says Ngugi, who displays little bitterness and selects his words calmly. But behind him is a veil of secrecy for Ngugi is still reluctant to tell his story and has to be coaxed to offer details often answering questions in short sentences.
Ngugi still fears speaking to strangers and does not want to open up and tell his story. The traumatic events of 1994 still haunt him. That year, and at the height of his career, Ngugi was banned from what he knew best ? running! And now he has been thrown out of the army, from where he made a mark as an elite runner.
"I am not happy because I have been treated very badly", he says.
The fall of Ngugi, most people agree, started when he "refused" to take an off season doping test from "some two strangers: a man and a woman" as he puts it ? which earned him the wrath of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
The "man and woman" whom he had dismissed with a wave of the hand turned out to be IAAF International Sampling Officers who wanted the elite Kenya athlete to submit to an out-of-competition testing.
"The Kenya Amateur Athletic Association (KAAA) knew they were coming but they did not inform me?how could total strangers come to my village and ask for my blood and urine sample," asks Ngugi naively. It is the high price that the former standard seven student continues to pay.
When he seized some courage to talk, he came with a confidante with whom he would cast an eye on as he answered questions.
With five world cross country titles, Ngugi will go down in the annals of Kenyan history ? and in the world ? as one man whose unassuming nature cost him dearly. But all in all he is best remembered as the man who during the 1988 Seoul Olympics won the 5000 metres gold in style racing ahead of everybody from start to finish and outsmarting his closest rival by close to 100 metres. International media had a name for him: John King the First for he triumphed in most of the lucrative races he took part earning a fortune and a name.
Ngugi was born to run and when he was a pupil at Munga Primary School in Nyandarua he used to run 20 kilometres daily. "That distance from home to school helped shape my future as a sportsman," says Ngugi.
Spotted by sports officers in Nyandarua as a budding athlete, Ngugi started participating in local community races organised by the Nyandarua Municipality and it was here that his relationship with the military started.
"I used to join the military during their training and that is where I nurtured my talent," he recalls. His contemporaries then were James Atuti, Samson Kitur and James Maina ?Boy?. But Ngugi had one dream: to become famous like the legendary Henry Rono- who ironically rose to fame like Ngugi and fell as fast.
"I used to admire Henry Rono" ? the Kenyan who broke world records at four distances in 81 days- says Ngugi about a man who later squandered a fortune and was at one time homeless in the US.
Rono was a legend and is remembered as the man who ran the greatest World Record streaks in history. Unlike Rono, who was studying at Washington State University, Ngugi?s dream came in 1983 when he was enlisted into the army as a civilian and he participated in that year?s inter-units competition. The then deputy army commander, James Lenges was impressed by Ngugi?s performance that he ordered Ngugi?s official inclusion into the army.
"He was a very good man," says Ngugi of the now retired General Lenges. The rest is history. After abandoning 1,500 metre races after the 1986 African championship in Cairo Ngugi decided to concentrate on 5,000m and Cross Country. It was that year he won the Cross Country title, which was then dominated by Ethiopian runners.
As the money started flowing Ngugi had an agent, an ex-British athlete John Bicourt. Ngugi believes that the battle between KAAA and Bicourt on one part and another agent Kim McDonald was the origin of his woes.
"Bicourt wanted us to be paid directly but McDonald and some KAAA officials still wanted runners money to be channelled through the organisation. As a result Bicourt was targeted together with the athletes he represented."
In 1987 Cross Country trials in Kabarak High School, Ngugi who was nursing an injury, was number 77. His inclusion into the Kenyan team saw his team mates threaten to boycott the event. "This was an attempt to destroy me and Bicourt. But I had to go and defend my title." He now says. Ngugi won the title
October 5, 1988 at the Seoul Olympics Ngugi?s blistering run on 5,000m was classic as he romped to victory from start to finish- he was given a standing ovation. He also won the World Cross Country title again and money continued flowing.
"I bought a shamba in Rumuruti and a car", he says. But this was the source of many other problems. After he won the 1992 World Cross Country title back a doping team was sent to Nyahururu.
"It was a Tuesday and it was raining heavily. I told them to wait for me to change since I was very tired and wet. I asked them who had sent them and they said KAAA. I also asked them why they wanted to get a sample from me?they only said you will regret", says Ngugi. The next day he heard on the radio that he has been banned from running for four years.
Ngugi recalls that somebody tried to call him but he did not understand what he was being told. "I did not know that I had given my detractors a chance to finish me", says a regretful Ngugi.
Ngugi is bitter that KAAA left him to argue his case and accuses them of failing to defend him.
"We went for an appeal in Monte Carlo (Spain) and I had to pay the air ticket for a lawyer. KAAA simply abandoned me and joined the other side (IAAF). There was no way I could win the case. It is only Bicourt (his agent), who was on my side."
Bicourt was later banned from representing Kenyan athletes.
"This country watched as I was being destroyed".
Ngugi had invested his money wisely and had built a four storey building in Nyahururu Town known as Boston House, named after "the town I won my last race".
Ngugi, who also operated a wholesale shop in Nyahururu, had his business targeted next. " NSSF were my tenants and one morning they just left to a building owned by a Laikipia politician," says Ngugi. "They then started terrorising my family and my son was once shot in a botched robbery".
Unlike in 1992 when in snowing conditions he reclaimed his world title at Carlos Lopes, Portugal Ngugi never recovered from this. After two years in the cold he got a reprieve but by this time he had grown from 60 kg to 100 kg . He was finished and concentrated on doing long-distance transport, which later became a soft target of highway robbers.
A man who used to earn approximately $100,000 each year from prize money and appearance fees Ngugi is now hiding away from creditors and says as much.
"I had taken loans hoping I could repay with the track money," he says. But all the fleet of lorries, the Nyahururu building and his farm and palatial home are all gone.
"One day someone just came and cut short my career, but I have to go on. I have accepted what has happened"
To cap it all Ngugi has been thrown out of the army with no pension and into oblivion. From obscurity he came, to obscurity he has gone.
Source: East African Standard.