William "Bill" Koskei – Uganda and Kenya’s 400 Meter-Hurdles’ Champion

One of Africa’s finest track competitors at the short (400-meter) hurdles, first ran nationally and internationally for neighboring Uganda before migrating eastward back home to his native Kenya. He would thereafter continue competing in the 400m hurdles as well as be part of Kenya’s 4 x 400 meters’ relay team during the 1970’s.

Born on December 28 in 1947, in western Kenya, William “Bill” Koskei, is still remembered as one of the greatest of Uganda’s, Kenya’s, and altogether Africa’s 400-meters hurdlers. Slender Koskei stood at a relatively tall 6’0″.

It was at the East and Central African Championships (an annual event primarily involving track and field stars from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia) that William Koskei first displayed international prominence. In 1969, these regional championships were held in the Uganda capital Kampala. Uganda runner Koskei won the 400 meter-hurdles gold with a time of 51.4 seconds. In 1972, the same Championships held in the Tanzania capital Dar-es-Salaam, Koskei this time running for his native Kenya, again won in the 400 meter-hurdles with a time of 50.7 seconds. By this time, Somalia and Ethiopia had enlisted their athletes in the championships. In 1977, the same championships held in Somalia capital Mogadishu, William Koskei now nearly 30 years of age, again won the gold in the 400m hurdles, after hitting the tape in 50.6 seconds. Koskei proved that he had maintained stability in his career as an athlete.

Charles Kipkemboi Yego had won in the same event in the East and Central African Championships in the venue of the Kenya capital Nairobi in 1970, winning in a time of 50 seconds. John Akii-Bua of Uganda had won in the 110 meter-hurdles finals at the same Championships held in Kampala in 1969. With the influence of the Uganda national track coach Malcolm Arnold from the United Kingdom, Akii-Bua became convinced that he would reap more rewards as a 400-meter hurdler.

It is in his formerly adopted country of Uganda, that William Koskei is remembered for his most prestigious individual international stint: the silver medal he won in the 400m hurdles at the British Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland from July 16 to 25 in 1970. Running for Uganda, Koskei won in the third heat of the first round, in a time of 51.37 seconds. Next came the semi-finals. Koskei comfortably won in 51.39 seconds, Kenya’s Charles Kipkemboi Yego coming in second in this semi-final in 51.73 seconds. In the finals, John Sherwood of England won in 50.03 seconds, Koskei came in second in 50.15 seconds, Kenyan Charles Kipkemboi Yego came in third in 50.19. Upcoming Ugandan superstar and future golden Olympian John Akii-Bua struggled with a back strain and hernia injury, was trailing last at the final 100 meters, but still raced in fast to come in fourth in 51.14 seconds.

In 1970, Bill Koskei of Uganda became ranked 7th among men 400-meter hurdles runners in the All-Time World Rankings behind hurdlers from rank 1-7 respectively: Jean-Claude Nallet (France), Ralph Mann (USA), Wayne Collett (USA), Ari Salin (Finland), John Sherwood (Great Britain), and Charles Kipkemboi Yego (Kenya). 1970 would be the only year that Koskei would be ranked among the top ten in the world among the All-Time World Rankings. However, “Track and Field New” ranked Kenya’s Koskei as 10th in the world in 1973, and 9th in 1974.

The performance of Commonwealth Games’ silver medalist William Koskei, at the summer Olympics held in Munich in West Germany from August 26, 1972 to September 11, 1972, was very much looked forward to. Although not ranked among the World’s top ten 400m hurdlers in 1972 or even 1972, Koskei was still regarded as an Olympic medal hope. Koskei, together with John Akii-Bua of Uganda reigned as Africa’s top hurdlers. The August 28, 1972 issue of “Sports Illustrated” predictably listed that American Ralph Mann would win Olympic gold, that Bill Koskei would come in second, and that John Akii-Bua of Uganda would win the bronze medal.

The Australian Open Track & Field Championships of 1971-72 took place from March 22-26 in 1972 in Perry Lakes Stadium, Perth, Western Australia. In the second round of the 400m hurdles, on March 25, Bill Koskei took a photo-finishing second place behind Gary Knoke of New South Wales, Australia, in a relatively slow 52.2 seconds. The finals involved much more speed. Gary Knoke won in 49.3 seconds, Bill Koskei came in second in 49.4 seconds, and Bruce Fields of the Victoria territory of Australia run in third in a time of 49.9 seconds.

In July 1971 in Durham in North Carolina, Akii-Bua had won in the hurdles at the Africa vs.USA meet. Akii-Bua proved he was not a fluke by clearly beating African rival Koskei, alongside the rest of the contingent of Africans and Americans, and winning in an impressive personal best of 49.05 seconds. American and number 1 ranked champion Ralph Mann did not show up. He was competing in Europe.

At the Olympic Games in 1972, William Koskei, though running in the favorable lane 4, was disappointingly eliminated in the first round. His fourth place finish in Heat 2, in a time of 50.58 seconds would not carry him onto the next round. It was virtually Koskei’s last chance at the Olympics, given that the next two Olympics, held in Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980) were boycotted by Kenya and many other nations. It was in 1972 that Koskei was at his peak, the year he ran a personal best of 49 seconds. At the Olympics in 1972, Uganda’s John Akii-Bua would win in a world record of 47.82 seconds, becoming the first man ever to officially run the 400m hurdles in less than 48 seconds. Ralph Mann won silver by several yards away, and former Olympic champion David Hemery of Great Britain racing in a very close third.

The second All-Africa Games were held in January 7-18, 1973 in the Nigeria capital city of Lagos. Bill Koskei made it to the finals of the men’s 400m hurdles. Also in the final line-up was recently crowned Olympic gold medalist and world record holder and nemesis of Koskei, John Akii-Bua of Uganda who was expected to win. Akii-Bua won easily, but what is astonishing is that Akii-Bua won in a very fast time of 48.54s–at that time among the fastest time ever run in the hurdles’ race, and certainly the best time ever on African soil. Koskei grabbed the silver, running nearly a full two seconds (50.22s) behind Akii-Bua, and a photo finish ahead of bronze medalist Silver Ayoo (50.25s) of Uganda. Akii-Bua would soon remark that although he was comfortably far ahead of the pack, as he approached the final bend of the race, a glimpse of the conspicuously military-adorned and revered Nigerian president General Yakubu Gowon high in the stands and watching and cheering, boosted him on to speed up.

The next big international challenge would involve Koskei of Kenya at the British Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand from January 24 to February 2, 1974. In the end William Koskei won a medal at these Commonwealth Games, just as he had done four years earlier. Alan Pascoe of England won in 48.83 seconds, Bruce Field of Australia came in second in 49.32 seconds, and Koskei won the bronze as he came in a photo finishing third in 49.34 seconds.

At these 1974 Commonwealth Games, the finals of the 4x400m relay had legendary Olympic gold medalist Charles Asati start off for Kenya, hand the baton to Francis Musyoki who would in turn hand it to Bill Koskei. Koskei passed the baton on to legendary relay Olympic medalist Julius Sang who bagged in the gold for the Kenya relay team with an overall finishing of 3 minutes 4.43 seconds.

At the Victorian Championships held in 1975 in Olympic Park, in the 400m hurdles, Koskei lost to third place (50.8 seconds) in the Finals to Alan Pascoe (50.4 seconds) of England, Bruce Field (50.6 seconds) of Australia. Koskei’s performance in the 400m hurdles was declining. A few more international performances by Koskei, at the 400m hurdles, were internationally mediocre.

The next British Commonwealth Games were held in 1978, Canada in the territory of Alberta, in the city Edmonton from August 3-12, 1978. Again Bill Koskei participated in Kenya’s gold medal win, and his co-relay Kenyan victors included Washington Njiri, Daniel Kimaiyo, and Joel Ngetich. The winning time in Edmonton was 3.03.54. Kenya had notable consecutively won in the 4x400m men’s relays over the 12 years, in three consecutive Commonwealth Games. It is notable that Africa’s most populous nation and home to many international-standard athletes boycotted the Games for political grievances over affiliated participants with affiliation to apartheid south Africa. Aging Koskei, this time in 1978, did not win any medal in the 400m hurdles, but his countryman Daniel Kimaiyo won gold for Kenya, the first gold for Kenya in the event. William Koskei would soon retire his spikes with some degree of satisfaction. He had dedicatedly ran for two nations and he would retire from competing with two British Commonwealth gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. William “Bill” Koskei will forever be stamped in history as a dedicated national champion who not only commendably represented two African nations, but one who triumphantly bagged gold, silver, and bronze medals at the British Commonwealth and also African Games, but one who was in the 1970’s ranked as one of the best 400m hurdlers in the world.

Source by Jonathan Musere

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