Opinions & Features

How one word denied this Kenyan athlete $1 million 

Looking at all marathons and long-distance running competitions, most of the winners are Kenyans from the Kalenjin community, which forms the ethnic majority in Western Kenya near the Rift Valley where Iten is located.

These Kenyans have not only won but have broken records over and over again. In 1999, Kenyan runner Bernard Barmasai would have won the $1 million Zurich Golden League event had he not whispered to his teammate. Barmasai was looking to win a 3,000m steeplechase at the Golden League event in August of that year. Per regulations by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) at the time, any athlete who registered five wins out of the seven Golden League meetings was to be awarded about $1 million.

25-year-old Barmasai had won four of the Golden League meetings and was hoping to grab the fifth when he made a controversial plea to his teammate and friend Christopher Koskei. Reports said Barmasai was leading the Zurich race in the early stages but ran out of gas when it was nearing the end. 20-year-old Koskei was right after Barmasai and about to overtake him when Barmasai reportedly whispered a Kalenjin word “Metowo” which means “leave it to me” in English.

The two athletes spoke briefly before Koskei slowed down to enable Barmasai to win the race in 8:05.16. Koskei came second in 8:05.43. The IAAF realized something wasn’t right about the victory so it started an investigation into the matter. At the end of the day, Barmasai was disqualified from winning the $1 million prize money after the IAAF found him guilty of race fixing.

“We can’t let him carry on after that,” said a source within the IAAF. “Barmasai will be disqualified from the Zurich race, and from the Golden League jackpot.”

Koskei at the time denied trying to fix the race but Barmasai insisted that he spoke with him and asked him to slow down. “I saw he was trying to pass me,” Barmasai told reporters after the race. “I said `leave it for me,’ and that’s why he slowed down,” said the Kenyan athlete who said he was ready to share the winnings with Koskei.

After all the hard work, Barmasai came home from the event with nothing. The incident ended up ruining his performance at the World Championships, where he came fifth and Koskei won. Despite the 1999 issue, Barmasai and Koskei remained friends even after retiring, with the two getting into farming.

A world record holder in the 3,000 meters steeplechase and winner of the 1999 IAAF Grand Prix men’s title, Barmasai is a Keiyo South-born athlete. He earned fame when he won the African championship in 1995 and further won the 1998 African athletics championships in South Africa. That same year, he won silver in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor is a writer and content creator. She loves writing about health and women's issues in Africa and the African diaspora.

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