Kenya: Female Icon Who Represented Kenya in Olympics for the First Time


As the Olympic Games started in México City on October 12, 1968, with hundreds of participants from across the world, Kenya was making history of its own.

For the first time, the country would have a female representatives participating at the world's biggest sporting event. Tecla Chemabwai Sang was among the three women, including Lydia Stevens and Elizabeth Chesire, and the youngest of the athletes.

"The truth is that we lied. Back then, you couldn't get a passport unless you were 18 years old and above. They had to make us 18 in order for me to get a passport. That's why the date of birth given, and which remains online, is July 3, 1950. The Kenyan officials had to cheat and make me 18," says Tecla, who was, in fact, born on February 3, 1954 in Chepkunyuk.

Born in a family of seven children, Tecla was raised by her grandmother. Alongside her elder brother -- because her mother was an only child and her granny wanted to look after the children. Due to her close ties to her brother, she would go hunting with the boys and also play the games they were interested in as children.

"We would hunt birds and I became very good at it. I learnt a lot from being around boys. I had always been a sporty person but athletics wasn't my first love. I used to play football in my early school days, with the boys. The only requirement for you to play was that you be three feet (around 91.4 cm) tall. As I grew, I then became interested in volleyball," says Tecla.

What made her become a natural athlete, however, was the fact that her school in Kilibwoni was 11 kilometres away from her village. She would leave the house at 5am and run to school. She covered the same distance from school in the afternoon.

"There was a time there was a full moon and it was so bright outside. When I woke up, I believed I was late for school. So, I got up fast and prepared myself and left for school. I was surprised to not come across anyone as I ran along the bushy trail. When I got to school, I found that I was the only one there. I went to the toilet to wait till everyone else came to school the following morning. I stood in that toilet for a very long time, maybe I arrived at the school at one in the morning; we didn't have watches at the time," she recalls.

As she went through all these adventures growing up, she was unwittingly preparing herself for an athletics career. When her athletics ability was discovered by her school, she was thrown into every event she could participate in, especially when the competitions involved other schools.

"I was an over-active youngster. I would run the 100 metre sprint, then go do the long jump, and then run 400 metres and so on," says Tecla.

As time progressed, she got the opportunity to go into divisional competitions running the 400 metres, then district and eventually landed in the national scene. She would compete against the likes of Jane Kenyatta and Lydia Stevens.

"My body was so tiny and this enabled me to run so fast. I used to run for fun and just to ensure I was defeating the other people in the race with me. Before I even knew what was going on, they told me that I had qualified for the 1968 Olympics. Lydia Stevens was in university at the time," says Tecla.

They flew out to Mexico City, the first time Tecla was getting on a plane. She was excited.

"I didn't care whether I was going to run or not, I was getting on a plane to visit a new place! Back then, unlike now, we weren't trained to run so winning or losing wasn't exactly a big deal. I was meeting new people and for the first time I was in close quarters with white people and even eating with them in the same dining hall; I wasn't used to these things. I didn't even know we were the first female contingent of Kenyans participating at the games," she told Lifestyle with a hearty laugh.

She admits that she had already lost the race before it even began because she kept telling herself she couldn't possibly beat white runners. Still, she ran the 12th fastest time in the heats even though she was eliminated in the first round after finishing fifth in her heat.

When she watched the other elite Kenyan athletes win in their events and hearing the national anthem played in their honour, that's when regret hit her and she wished that she had given her best in the race. Even then, she had made history.

"Training was not there. We did not have coaches. When I went to Kapsabet Girls'High School, we were being encouraged to do interval runs and sprints. By the time I was doing the 1972b Olympics, I had improved to progress to second round but still got eliminated. You have countries like the US, Jamaica and Cuba, so Kenya could not feature for sprint because I didn't have a coach. However, due to the experience I was getting, I managed to get gold at the All Africa Games in 1973," she says.

During an athletic meet in Australia in 1972, she bumped into Dr Dorothy Ridges, who asked her if she would consider a scholarship to the US. Tecla had just finished studying on a government scholarship and jumped on the opportunity.

While training for the Commonwealth Games that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974, she received a letter informing her that she had gotten a track scholarship to Chicago State University and had to report to campus that September.

After notifying her supervisors, she left the training camp in Kiganjo and headed off to pursue her degree in Physical Education and Psychology.

"Physical education is not as simple as people think it is. It has a lot of science courses in it, including anatomy, psychology and physiology. I like things that challenge me. I knew I wanted to also come back and help because it was rare to find teachers who taught these things," she says.

While in America, she realised that the 400 metre sprint was even more difficult than what she had been used to while in Kenya.

"My coach looked at my performance and told me I had to go to the middle distance races. There was no way I was going to retain my scholarship doing sprint in the US because they are very good at it. So I switched to 800 metres and excelled," says Tecla, who had to switch to another campus in New Mexico after the Chicago winters proved too cold.

The coaching she received was how she was able improve and perform well in the Commonwealth Games in 1978, winning silver medal. She would stay in the US for some time after completing her undergraduate studies before she finally moved back to Kenya in 1982.

She joined rift Valley Institute of Technology as a trainer. It was during her time here that she would meet and train long distance legend, Tegla Loroupe.

"I trained her for the two years she was there. I think she was pursuing accounting. Our institute did very well during colleges competition. She was also excellent among other athletes that I had coached," she remembers.

She then went to Mosoriot Teacher's Training College before joining Moi University in 1987 to teach sports and physical education.

Tecla had met her husband and Olympic 4X400m relay gold medallist at the Munich in 1972, the late Julius Sang, during school competitions. The two were neighbours in the same village and would go on to have an on-and-off relationship for years.

"I can't even tell you how we eventually came to get married. His parents and my parents were from the same place and I believe that played a part a big part in our being together. However, between the time we met and when we got to the world stage, we did go separate ways several times and even got involved with other people along the way," says Tecla.

"I retired from running as soon as I graduated from university in 1983 and came back to the country. We got married in 1986 and he had also retired by then, also having finished his further studies."

The two have five children together: Rosemary Bor, Christine Sang Chebet (Sports Management lecturer at Moi University), Collins Sang (Master's in International Business from Makerere University), Lee Sang Kipng'etich and Mrs Ieelyn Kipchirchir Sang. Both Christine and Collins are pursuing PhDs in their respective fields.

Julius Sang passed away on April 9 2004, while their children were still very young. This brought another challenge to Tecla, who had to take on the role of both parents.

"When one person has gone it becomes a little difficulty. The children were still in school and the boys were lacking the fatherly love and direction needed while coming into manhood. I was able to talk myself into taking the reins over time, however, because I was risking some of the children actually dropping out from school. I became really tough on them, telling them my house rules needed to be followed," she says about the fear of raising her children as a single mother. Her children also ran during their school or college days but then stopped.

"I realised that it's not easy to get athletes directly descended from professional athlete parents. I believe even where you have people like David Rudisha, he may have picked it from a previous generation; like a grandfather," she says.

Besides tutoring and lecturing, Tecla was able to do other courses in athletics through Athletics Kenya.

They sponsored her to pursue courses at IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) which included coaching and as a technical official. She is currently in Level II. She also trained as a lecture in IAAF, also getting to Level II before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. With her current qualification, she says she is able to lecture across Africa on matters IAAF.

However, she feels the last two administrations haven't done much to help athlete,s whom she says have been rotting in the rural areas.

"The late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta used to love athletics so much and many athletes used to get something out of his government. I can even say that I gained from the late President Daniel Moi. But right now, when you stop running you end up being depressed and hungry," she laments.

She also started Chemabwai-Sang Educational Centre in Eldoret ,which is a talent identification centre, in 2018. The students here don't necessarily have to be able to afford the fees as long they have athletic ability.

"We have more than 300 children from as young as two years old. We provide reading materials but the parents also chip in a little to help with the day-to-day running of the institution. We don't provide boarding facilities but we make arrangements for the children without homes or families to be housed at different locations and provide transport for them. When we had athletic events coming up, before the pandemic, I would train them to get ready," says Tecla.

The school was closed but there are 15 children that the school looks fully after. She is looking for sponsors to help cater for their upkeep.

However, Tecla moved from Eldoret to her 30-acre farm in Moi's Bridge, Kitale after the coronavirus pandemic led to lockdowns last year in March.

She keeps nine dairy cows, has a small forest which houses 32 hives for her honey bees, and plants maize. She gets 400 to 600 bags of maize a season. Her sons help her manage the farm.

Recently, she was featured in LeadHers, a book published by Facebook to celebrate 60 female pacesetters across Sub-Sahara Africa. She also has a Head of State Commendation and was feted at AK's 70th anniversary.

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