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Kip Keino's Belfast golden mile made sporting history

By Frank Brownlow

Published 09/05/2015

Leading man: Kip Keino on his way to Olympic gold in the 3000m Steeplechase in Munich in 1972
Leading man: Kip Keino on his way to Olympic gold in the 3000m Steeplechase in Munich in 1972

It's like Usain Bolt setting a new 100m world record right here in Belfast. But even more remarkable. The sub four-minute mile used to be THE benchmark in athletics, Roger Bannister in 1954 finally breaking what was once considered an impossible goal.

Paisley Park on Belfast's West Circular Road is the home ground of Amateur League football club Albert Foundry but back in the day regularly hosted athletics meets.

And the humble setting was the scene of the first sub four-minute mile in Northern Ireland, set by one of the sport's biggest stars of the time.

Kip Keino was a late addition to a mile contest at Paisley Park where top athletes like future Olympic gold medallist Mary Peters and Mike Bull trained and competed.

And the Kenyan didn't disappoint, racing to victory in under four minutes - followed home in second by Ulsterman Derek Graham, who also managed to get inside the magic mark.

Keino, now chairman of the Kenyan Olympic Committee, has gone down in history as one of the greats of the sport, with two Olympic golds and two silvers underlining his dominance.

But his feat in Belfast was one of the greatest athletics performances ever seen in Ulster, although it has been largely forgotten - until now.

Local man Colin Beattie has been intrigued by the achievement ever since he was told about it by athletics coach Eddie Johnston.

"I am from the area and have known Eddie for years. I thought it was a great story when Eddie told me about it," said Beattie.

"George Best, Barry McGuigan, Gerry Armstrong's goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup, Ulster Rugby's 1999 European Cup triumph and Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell winning Majors all make up Northern Ireland's rich sporting history.

"But Kip Keino's sub four-minute mile at Paisley Park is every bit as much part of the country's sporting history. But it is a feat that seems to have been forgotten and that's an awful shame.

"Derek Graham finished second in the same race, becoming the first Northern Ireland runner to run a sub four-minute mile in his own country."

The race was run on a wet and windy Wednesday night - August 16, 1967 - with a crowd of over 2,000 cramming in to see the athletics superstar, who had been competing in London on the previous Saturday and made the short hop to Belfast for his midweek engagement.

Beattie added: "I actually met Keino in Dublin a few years ago and he said he remembered the occasion well.

"He mentioned the terrible weather but said he will always remember the warm welcome he received and the hospitality of the Ulster people.

"He was very gracious and said that he hoped to return to Belfast some time in the future."

Coach Johnston has great memories of the night in question - and was every bit as impressed with Ulsterman Graham's display as that produced by the great Keino.

"Derek Graham turned up at Paisley Park after a day's work and ran a sub four-minute mile, finishing just behind a sporting superstar. That took some doing," said octogenarian Johnston.

"It was a cracking race and the crowd really got behind the runners, creating a great atmosphere in terrible weather.

"Keino was an absolute gentleman, a really nice guy. As one of the organisers of the event, I spent a fair bit of time with him. He was an athletics superstar, a very special talent," added Johnston, who also met the legendary Jesse Owens in the course of his coaching career.

The Belfast race - in which Keino clocked 3.57.2 to Graham's 3.59.4 - was reported with great fanfare at the time.

The Belfast Telegraph report stated: "Kip Keino was king in the Albert Foundry international track and field meeting at Paisley Park.

"As (he) promised, Keino raced his way to a 3.57.2 mile, the fastest ever recorded on an Ulster track.

"More than 2,000 drenched fans stood around in a rain-soaked arena to pay homage to the man acclaimed throughout the world as the magnificent miler.

"For Keino had just romped his way to a new Northern Ireland all-comers record, improving the old figure by nearly eight seconds.

"What a night it turned out to be. The crowd, huddled beneath umbrellas and mackintoshes, gave Keino a great reception as he came to the line.

"Billy Bryans went away like a whippet, taking them to a 57-second quarter and to the half in 1.58.

"Keino lay back. So too did Derek Graham and Scotsman Ian McCafferty, watching for the master.

"It was at the bell that he really made his move. They were there in 2.58 and the trio shot off together.

"On the second-last lap, Keino checked up on the field with a turn of the head just when Graham was making some in-roads. But Keino need not have worried. He hit the tape eight yards to the good, with Graham tying up slightly and McCafferty working his heart out but still another 50 yards behind.

"The crowd went wild with the excitement of it all."

Keino was interviewed immediately afterwards and talked about what everyone in this country talks about - the weather.

He said: "Boy it was wet. I wasn't really worried at any stage and I just kept going."

Graham was a happy man in his post-race interview.

He said: "I did what I set out to do - stay as close as possible to one of the world's greatest. I felt like I was catching the maestro on the back straight. It might have been a faster time had I been able to stick to the inside lane but it was too rough.

"I tied up a little coming home but it was a good run."

Graham's sub four-minute mile at Paisley Park was actually the third time he had achieved the magic mark.

He was the first Ulsterman to break the barrier when he ran 3.59.40 to finish fifth at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica on August 13, 1966.

Remarkably, within a week Graham (pictured) had run even faster, clocking 3.59.26.

Keino went on to achieve great things off the track too.

He is renowned in Kenya for his charity work, building schools, hospitals and orphanages, while his role with the Kenyan Olympic Committee has also kept him in the spotlight.

Just like he was all those years ago in Paisley Park.

Belfast Telegraph

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