A Mysterious Warrior Elusive Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan-born Dane, is a wonder at 800 meters

August 22, 1999

Wilson Kipketer was five answers into his press conference on
the night of Aug. 11 in Zurich, minutes after running the 800
meters at the Weltklasse meet, when he posed his own query. "No
more questions?" he asked. Then Kipketer smiled, shook hands
with a reporter and left, never betraying his reputation for
politeness or his fondness for privacy. Maybe there were more
questions for the Kenyan-born Danish citizen, but the fastest
half-miler of all time recalls his races just as he runs them,
swiftly and with no wasted energy. When Kipketer competes at the
world championships in Seville, Spain, next week, he will enter
as the two-time defending champion, the world-record holder and
perhaps the finest active athlete the Olympics have never seen.

Kipketer left his homeland's runner-friendly altitude for the
low-lying Danish flatlands in 1990 to study electrical
engineering in Copenhagen. Five years later he applied for
citizenship despite Denmark's seven-year residency requirement,
which would ultimately cause him to miss the 1996 Olympics. While
visiting his native village of Kapchemoiwa in December 1997,
Kipketer contracted a severe strain of malaria. He spent 10 days
in a Portuguese hospital, didn't train seriously until late the
following May and in August suffered his first loss in 29 races
over 35 months. Two weeks later he struggled in last in the final
of the European championships in Budapest. Then he shut down his
season.

In Zurich last week, Kipketer gave his most dominating
performance since his illness. "I can't say the king is back
fully," he said. "I still have a long way to go. I've just been
trying to get back in the rhythm." At its best Kipketer's rhythm
is gorgeous. He has won races by taking the early pace, but at
heart he is a kicker. Often dawdling in mid-pack for 400 meters
then accelerating with subtle changes in form, he is a lethal
strategist. "Just whooshes by you," said Rich Kenah of the U.S.
after taking a bronze behind Kipketer at the '97 worlds. "So
quiet and effortless, you don't realize it."

During his victory streak Kipketer took aim at Sebastian Coe's
1981 world record of 1:41.73, going under 1:43 in five straight
races in 1996. He tied the mark in July '97 and a month later in
Zurich ran 1:41.24, breaking the standard that had become more
majestic with each failed run at it. It took him another 11 days
to set the existing mark of 1:41.11 in Cologne, Germany.

Kipketer gave no hints of sporting genius in 1986, when he first
trained and studied in the village of Iten under Colm O'Connell,
a member of the Patricians, the Irish teaching brotherhood that
has nurtured many Kenyan champions. O'Connell became Kipketer's
headmaster and confidant and had bigger hopes for him as a pupil
than as an athlete. "Wilson didn't seem like anything
extraordinary," O'Connell says, "but I'm often attracted to
athletes by a faithful commitment they make to what sport will
help them become. Wilson was a profound learner. At 5:30 each
morning, never 5:35, it was 'What can you teach me today?' He
did have a joyful side to him but showed it only if it was
appropriate."

O'Connell wasn't sure how old his pupil was because Kipketer has
always been coy about his age. The latest International Track &
Field Annual, which lists his birth year as 1970, notes that
Kipketer has competed at international competitions at which he
has given his birth year as 1968 or 1972.

Kipketer's decision to run for Denmark was a matter of duty and
gratitude, believes John Manners, a devotee of Kenyan track
whose book The Running Tribe is due out next year. "Kipketer was
imbued by values and standards of his tribe," Manners says.
"When you are from the Kalenjin, which produces three quarters
of the country's runners, to go back on your word is to behave
like a ngetet, a boy, rather than a muren, a warrior. He felt
that the Danes had welcomed him and that he had an obligation to
repay them." Manners recalls seeing Kipketer run for the first
time at the 1994 New York Games, where he won the 800 in
1:45.06. "I knew he was in Denmark, and I assumed he was one of
these runners who had left Kenya so he'd have an easier time
getting into the Olympics," Manners says. "When I saw him run, I
was blown away."

There are few other windows into Kipketer's life. Since this
past spring he has limited his business relationship with his
manager, Andrei Kulikowski, choosing to handle all travel
arrangements and appearance-fee negotiations on his own.
Kulikowski still acts as an intermediary between Kipketer and
his chief sponsor, Puma, yet his most common answer when asked
about any aspect of Kipketer's life off the track is, "We never
spoke about it."

Kipketer's one trusted ally is his girlfriend of four years,
Pernille Falck-Hansen, a Danish club runner whom he met in
Copenhagen. Together they seem an outgoing, unguarded couple.
"When Wilson was world athlete of the year in '97, he had to
wear a tux for the reception," Kulikowski says. "He could not
stop laughing because he hadn't worn one and he thought it was
the funniest looking thing. Pernille jokes that she must buy him
many tuxedos."

Kipketer doesn't even have a Web page. Click on a site that has
links to sites on 17 half-milers, and you still won't find
Kipketer. When he's feeling good, his playful side emerges after
races, the only time he speaks to the press. A compilation of
his nonanswers reads like a Yogi Berra anthology:

"Wilson, what can you tell us about your secret training
program?"

"I can tell you if I told you, it wouldn't be a secret."

"Are you a practical man or a theoretical man?"

"I like practical theory."

"Do you prefer a warm climate or a cool climate?"

"Depends on the weather."

"Wilson, what do you find interesting about yourself?"

"Nothing I don't already know."

Look closely and you'll see him sip from an empty water bottle
to conceal a smirk, one that reveals that he is playing with you
and you won't be able to catch him.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER With his win last week in Zurich, Kipketer is on track for his third world title.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)