The Kenyan athlete Naftali Temu (1945–2003) was his country's first Olympic gold medalist. A few Kenyan runners had achieved middle-level showings in races before Temu began his career, and others went on to longer-lasting careers and greater fame. However, it was Temu who, through his Olympic win, first demonstrated the dominance Kenyan runners would long enjoy in distance running.
Amember of the Kisii ethnic group, Nabiba Naftali Temu Kenya was born on April 20, 1945, in southwestern Kenya. While his place of birth has been variously given as Sotik, Kisumu, and the Nyamira district, the last of these seems mostly likely since, after his death, one of Temu's teammates pressured the district governor to erect a monument to Temu in that town. Temu grew up in a cattle-herding family in an area that, even by the time he won his Olympic gold medal, had no telephone or telegraph connections. What the area did offer Temu was valuable early training as a runner. Due to the location of his family's home, he reportedly ran 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) to school in the morning, putting on speed if he was late and faced beating with a cane as a result. There were few schools in the area and no transportation was provided to take children to the ones that did exist.
As was commonplace within his culture, Temu ran barefoot as a youth, and in 1962, when he was first given a pair of running shoes, he complained about them. Images of Temu in action during in the 1960s show that he accepted wearing shoes, unlike the barefoot Ethiopian runners who provided some of his toughest competition during the decade. His 12-mile run to school ended after elementary school when he left school, and for the next several years he helped with chores on his family's farm. As soon as he was old enough, he joined Kenya's army, which allowed him some access to athletic training. There Temu rose to the rank of corporal.
Temu's sports breakthrough came in the summer of 1964, when he was 19 years old. Recognizing that he had exceptional skill as a runner, he entered the East African Championships in Kisumu, Kenya, facing off against athletes from his own country as well as from Uganda and Tanzania. In a sign of things to come, he won a gold medal in the 10,000-meter race with a time of 28 minutes, 35.7 seconds. At another race in the same city, he won a sixmile race (not all races were yet held at metric distances at the time) in 28 minutes, 30.4 seconds. These times propelled Temu to second place in the world junior ranking at the distance—an important step in qualifying for Kenya's Olympic team. Temu would join the team that headed for Tokyo, Japan, for the 1964 games from October 10 to October 24.
The inexperienced teenager had a few predecessors among Kenyan Olympians. Maiyoro Nyantika had finished sixth in the 5,000-meter race at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and the barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila had inaugurated the era of East African distance-running prominence with a gold medal at the 1960 games in Rome, Italy. Temu reached the finals of the 10,000-meter race in Tokyo, becoming the second-youngest of the nine finalists. He failed to finish in the 10,000-meter event but rallied to finish the marathon in two hours, 40 minutes, 46.6 seconds, placing 49th.
In 1965 Temu began to hit his stride as a runner. He won the Kenyan national championship in the six-mile race held in the city of Mombasa in June, and then moved on to the first All-Africa games in Brazzaville, Congo, in July. There, he took the silver medal in the 5,000-meter race, losing the gold to fellow Kenyan Kipchoge “Kip” Keino, a major competitor to Temu in years to come. At Brazzaville he won his first gold medal, in the one-mile race.
Temu rose to international prominence in 1966 with a victory in the six-mile race over the world record holder, Australia's Ron Clarke, in the Commonwealth Games held in Kingston, Jamaica. He also finished fourth in the threemile race two days later, and placed eighth in an 880-yard race. The race with Clarke was a thriller as the pair quickly broke away from the pack and traded leads until Temu broke away at the end. The pair went on to develop a friendly rivalry, running several races against each other in Australia after Temu's Jamaican triumph. As Clarke later wrote in the Melbourne Age, Temu “was a shy, introverted little man, the complete antithesis to Keino, with a wonderful face-splitting smile, who was a delight to know and to race. I could not have hoped to be beaten by a nicer man.”
With the 1968 Mexico City Olympics approaching, Temu, Keino, Clarke, and other top distance runners jockeyed for position and favorable rankings in major races leading up to the Games. Temu scored an important victory at 10,000 meters in the 1967 East African championships held in Kisumu, Kenya. This event, like the Mexico City events to come, was held at a high altitude (Kisumu is 3,711 feet above sea level) and with their high-altitude training from birth, Kenyan athletes were expected to do well in 7,350-feet-high Mexico City. Meanwhile, Temu won another 10,000-meter event in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in early 1968, scoring his best-ever time of 28 minutes, 20 seconds. Clarke, however, ran the same distance and set a blistering world record of 27 minutes, 39.4 seconds at an event in Oslo, Norway the same year. Clarke's record would stand for an unusually long seven years.
The 1968 Olympics marked the high point of Temu's career. Although he went on to win the 10,000-meter race at the 1969 East and Central African Championships in Kampala, Uganda, he increasingly began to suffer from problems with his feet. At the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, he finished only 19th in the 10,000 meters. He recovered to set new personal records in 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races in 1971, and his performance in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, was a major disappointment: he was eliminated in a qualifying heat with a time of 30 minutes, 19.6 seconds. The following year, Temu retired from competitive racing.
Temu returned to southwestern Kenya, settling on farmland in the North Mugirango region with his family: wife Josephine, son Bernard, and a daughter born while he was away in Mexico. The farm was a gift bestowed by Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta, in recognition of his athletic accomplishments. Temu tried to give back to the athletic tradition that had nourished him, coaching young Kenyan runners for a time. Over the years, however, he drifted back into poverty.
Temu was hospitalized in the town of Kisii after suffering prostate and kidney difficulties. His condition was correctly diagnosed as cancer, but he had no money to pay for treatment. Press reports publicized his dire condition, and the neglect of a man many Kenyans considered a national hero caused outrage. In January of 2003 Temu was transferred to Kenyatta National Hospital in the capital of Nairobi, with all expenses paid. By that time, however, he was too weak to walk, and he died on March 10, 2003. The Naftali Temu Memorial Road Race in Nyamira is named in his honor; in 2015 it attracted more than 400 participants.
Africa News Service, March 11, 2003; January 3, 2005.
Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), April 1, 2003, p. 7.
Life, November 22, 1068, p. 36.
Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2003.