by Eric Englund
8, 1974, Henry (Hank) Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home
run record. For a twelve-year-old baseball junkie, watching
this event on television was the highlight of a lifetime –
even bigger than watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon
– after all, I was just a kid. Exactly four years later, another
athlete named Henry entered my consciousness. On April 8,
1978, while running for Washington State University’s men’s
track team, Henry Rono broke the world record in the 5,000
meters. In my hometown of Spokane, WA, which is 80 miles from
WSU’s Pullman campus, this was exciting news. Henry Rono had
become a local hero. And then, sadly, in a few short years
he had completely fallen from grace. Yet, some 29 years after
setting the aforementioned world record, personal redemption
and triumph are at hand for Henry Rono.
fair to mention Henry Rono in the same breath as Hank Aaron?
In many respects, the answer is "yes." Both competed
before steroids, human growth hormone, blood doping, and other
unethical practices infected their respective sports. Hence,
both Henrys took their natural talents to the
outer limits of athletic excellence.
it is difficult to compare a distance runner to the man who
hit 755 home runs (the ethical way), Henry Rono’s list of
athletic accomplishments is nothing short of astonishing:
Rono is one of three men in history to win the NCAA Men's
Cross Country Championship three times; doing so in 1976,
1977, and 1979.
NCAA indoor champion in the 3,000 meters
NCAA steeplechase champion
winner of gold medals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and
the 5,000 meters at the Commonwealth Games
winner of gold medals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and
the 10,000 meters at the All-Africa Games
a span of 81 days, in 1978, Henry Rono set an astounding
four world records:
8, 1978: In Berkeley, CA, Rono runs the 5,000 meters
in 13:08.4. This shaves fully 4.5 seconds off of the previous
13, 1978: In Seattle, WA, Rono runs the 3,000-meter
steeplechase in 8:05.4 beating the world record by 2.6
11, 1978: In Vienna, Austria, Rono shatters the 10,000
meters world record by 8.1 seconds. His time was 27:22.5.
27, 1978: In Oslo, Norway, Rono breaks the 3,000 meters
world record by a full three seconds. His time was 7:32.1.
NCAA steeplechase champion
13, 1981: In Oslo, Norway, Henry Rono breaks the world
record again in the 5,000 meters. His time was 13:06.2.
He beats his own world record by 2.2 seconds.
Malley, a former American record holder in the steeplechase,
stated: "Over the years we've all heard many athletes
declare themselves to be ‘artists.’ Rono never claimed anything;
he just ran. But if ever there was a ‘performance artist’
in our sport, it was Rono." Additionally, as Mark Zeigler
of the San Diego Union Tribune put it: "Rono did it running
alone out front, without challengers to push him, without
gaudy résumé took just a few years to build, Hank Aaron’s
impressive résumé was built over 23 baseball seasons which
includes most lifetime runs batted in (2297), most years with
30 or more home runs (15), 1477 extra-base hits, 6856 total
bases, and most career home runs (755). Hank Aaron’s high
level of consistency and durability is unparalleled.
Rono’s final world record most certainly came the hard way.
This world-class athlete had become an alcoholic as he struggled
to handle his fame. In his own words: "I did well. I
just didn't know how to manage it. Maybe it was an African
guy coming to the Western world for the first time – it's
hard to handle that life." In 1981, while spending time
in Europe, Rono had difficulty entering races. Track officials
saw an out-of-shape athlete and Henry had to plead his way
into the competitions. Gradually, Rono raced himself back
into shape. On September 12, 1981, he went on an all-night
bender in Oslo, Norway. When he woke up on the morning of
September 13th, Henry ran for an hour to sweat
out the alcohol. He went back to the hotel, ate lunch and
took a nap. That evening, he ran the 5,000 meters and broke
the world record – the one he had set in 1978. No human growth
hormone, no steroids, no blood doping; just pure talent, guts,
determination, and some residual alcohol.
Henry Rono was in a tailspin. Any opportunities to participate
in the Olympics had come and gone. Kenya, regrettably, had
boycotted the 1976 and the 1980 Olympics. Accordingly, while
Henry was in his prime, he was denied the world-stage he so
richly deserved. Yet none of this mattered much as compared
to getting that next drink. And then, for the better part
of two decades, Henry Rono – the Nandi tribesman from Kiptaragon
village in Kenya’s Rift Valley – had become a lost soul in
the mighty had fallen. Rono had gone from the world’s highest-paid
track athlete to little more than a drifter. From 1986 to
1996 Henry moved from city to city. He had been in and out
of a dozen rehab centers. He lived in homeless shelters in
Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City. Odd jobs were the order
of the day – such as parking cars in Portland, OR and working
as a skycap at the Albuquerque airport. Heck, he even pleaded
for a job as a janitor at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton,
OR. His former sponsor turned him away. Talk about adding
insult to injury.
contrast, after retiring
as a baseball player, Hank Aaron moved into the Atlanta Braves’
front office as an executive vice-president. There he became
an advocate for minority hiring in baseball. He was elected
to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1982. His autobiography, I
Had a Hammer, was published in 1990. In 1999, to celebrate
the 25th anniversary of breaking Ruth's record, Major League
Baseball announced the Hank Aaron Award – given annually to
the best overall hitter in each league. He was honored with
the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. To be sure, Henry
Aaron is a role model.
years ago, in 1996, Henry Rono did settle in Albuquerque,
NM. Better yet, for the past five years, he has been sober.
This man, who did earn his bachelor’s degree from Washington
State University, is now a teacher in Albuquerque’s Truman
Middle School. Not surprisingly, he is also coaching track.
55, Henry Rono is running competitively once again. One of
his objectives is to break the world record, in the mile,
for the 5559 age group. The current record stands at
4:40.4. Another objective is to compete in the World Masters’
Championships, in Italy, this coming September. Rono’s sixth-place
finish (for his age group), in Spokane’s 12k Lilac
Bloomsday Run, shows that Rono is making great progress
toward competing at the upper echelon of his age category.
Notably, Bloomsday draws world-class runners from around the
globe while also serving as a fun-run for the less serious
– 50,000 participated in the 2007 race.
just as Hank Aaron does, Henry Rono stands before the world
as a role model. As Rono stated in a recent interview:
"I want to teach the people that you can come back from
the streets, and being homeless, and recover your life."
Henry Rono does not duck from the tough questions reporters
ask about his lost years…nor does he run from his past. Instead,
he is running towards his future and setting a fine example
not only for aspiring distance runners, but for anyone struggling
with chemical dependency.
Hank Aaron is being hounded by the question
as to whether or not he will attend the game in which Barry
Bonds breaks his all-time home run record. Aaron has no intention
of attending that game. Instead, Aaron implied that he’d rather
go golfing than watch Bonds hit that 756th home
run. Some accuse Hammerin’ Hank of running away from the issues
surrounding Bonds. To the contrary, attending the game would
be tantamount to giving a personal stamp of approval regarding
Bonds’ unethical and dishonest approach to baseball. Aaron
has taken a position of great principle and sends a strong
message to all athletes and sports fans alike – the ends do
not justify the means.
Barry Bonds surpasses Hank Aaron’s home run record, I will
harken back to the magical dates of April 8, 1974 and April
8, 1978. In my mind’s eye I will first see Henry Aaron’s home
run trot, around the base paths, as he breaks Babe Ruth’s
most famous record…and then I will see Henry Rono, running
ferociously, as he begins his assault on track & field’s
record books. Two men, of great natural ability and character,
who took very different paths to becoming role models. When
Bonds hits number 756, my response will simply be: "Go,