When Kip Keino — a policeman back in his native Kenya — defeated Jim Ryun in the 1,500-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, it spawned a revolution which is in evidence at every Olympics, World Championship or major marathon.
But Stephen Misati Machooka didn’t follow that revolution, he led it. The distance runners in the Ivy League had watched a graceful and effortless Kenyan runner — typically from far behind — long before Keino’s uprise.
Born in rural Kenya in 1936, Machooka was accepted to a government-sponsored secondary school in Kisii — about 25 miles from his home village — where his coach was Nyandika Maiyoro, who had taken seventh in the 5,000-meter run at the 1956 Olympics. Under Maiyoro’s watch, Machooka had run a 4:15.6 mile in 1959. He passed the Kenyan equivalency of the SAT, the Cambridge School Certificate Examination, and with the help of a graduate assistant at Cornell, Nicholas C. Otieno, wound up in Ithaca to study in the school’s agricultural program.
And so in the fall of 1960, Machooka became the first Kenyan distance runner to take on the United States. And he did so in dramatic style, winning the Heptagonal freshman cross country race — which included the eight Ivy schools as well as Army and Navy — by a wide margin.
Machooka continued to cause a stir in the spring of his freshman year by wiping out the 1914 Cornell mile record set by the legendary John Paul Jones. Machooka’s 4:10.8 on a rain-drenched track to beat Jones’ longstanding mark by nearly four seconds, was close to the Kenyan record. The first known Kenyan mile mark would not be recorded until 1962, when Keino ran 4:07.0 at the Commonwealth Games.
Machooka was even better the following fall as he won six straight races — including setting a Franklin Park record in Boston — heading into the Heptagonal Championships at Van Cortlandt Park in New York City. The windy, 50-degree weather did not affect Machooka at all, as he led all the way, finishing the hilly course in 25:38.3, about 100 yards ahead of the next runner.
With that performance he became the first black athlete to earn first-team All-Ivy status in cross country as the Big Red claimed a surprising team victory. Asked about his pre-race plan, Machooka replied, “I just run.”
That strategy worked again at the IC4A Championships a few weeks later, when Machooka won by about 60 yards in what remain the worst conditions in meet history. Despite the freezing sleet and snow, Machooka won while wearing a blue woolen hat with ear flaps and socks on his hands.
At one point in the race, Vic Zwolak of Villanova made a move and passed Machooka. Afterward the 5-foot-11, 128-pound Machooka said, “I wanted to see how fast Zwolak could run.”
Within a few hundred yards, Machooka reeled in the future NCAA Champion and 1964 Olympian, reclaiming the lead. He later said, “It was fun passing him, the whole race was a lot of fun.”
When asked about the socks on his hands, he told reporters, “I didn’t have any gloves.”
Zwolak, who still runs competively, remembers the race quite well. “I was running well my sophomore year,” he recalled. “I was one of the favorites in the race, but the ground was a sea of slush and mud. I was a power runner and I didn’t run very well in that slush and snow, but my friend described Machooka the best. He said, ‘He floated on top of everything.’ It was like he had snowshoes. I remember that he was very cordial in victory.”
The story of Machooka was now getting a lot of attention, although his modesty would have made him the last person to tell of his exploits. His appearance alone caused heads to turn, but he also possessed rare ability. He appeared on the cover of Track & Field News and was detailed and pictured in several stories in the New York Times.
His coach at Cornell, Lou Montgomery told the Times that he had never seen Machooka breathe hard following a race and called Steve “one of the potentially great distance runners in the world, and a certain prospect to make the Kenya Olympic Team.”
But circumstances combined to change those expectations. He needed to work to pay his expenses and, struggling somewhat in his studies, was urged by an academic advisor to spend less time running and more time with his courses. He would still run, but he took several long layoffs, and in 1962 contracted mumps and went several months without running. He returned for the 1963 Outdoor Heps and nearly claimed the title, running a 4:10.5 mile along the way.
The summer brought a final flash of success, as Machooka joined the Penn-Cornell team in England to face Oxford-Cambridge and won both the 880-yard (1:51.1) and mile runs (4:16.6).
More important than his victories, Machooka shattered some age-old myths. “Back in the early 1960s, the great distance runners were the Eastern Europeans, but that was switching to the Australians and the New Zealanders,” said Zwolak. “The thought back then was that black people couldn’t run distance. But not only was he good, this guy was great.”
Machooka gave up competitive running before his senior year, and then graduated on time in 1964. He was married soon after graduation and returned to Kenya, where he grew corn and kept cattle in Kitale.
His son Musa, who now lives in Nairobi, recalls playing soccer with his father, who, though not particularly skilled at the sport, maintained an advantage because of his athleticism. Musa also remembers a father who loved Handel and Mozart, weekend games of chess and spending time with immediate and extended family.
He would also give his country a legacy even more lasting than his running. Stephen became a lecturer of agricultural economics at two Kenyan universities — Edgerton and Siriba. He became Field Controller in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, a position designed to help local communities develop land utilizing current agricultural methods, a vital change as Kenya emerged into independence. He returned to school in Britain in the early 1970s, earning a masters degree in Production Management Economics at the University of Wales.
“Thereafter he returned to Edgerton until 1981 when he left to work at the Pan African Institute of Development in Zambia as a consultant and senior researcher in rural development,” said Musa. “This work saw him provide untiring services in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Swaziland, Malawi, Lesotho and Botswana.”
In 1986, Stephen joined the Lake Basin Development Authority in Kenya, ultimately becoming the non-profit organization’s managing director. He retired in 1999 to management consultancy and his passion, farming. He passed away following a heart attack at his farm in Kitale in Western Kenya in 2002.
“Throughout his career, my dad had two stated professional objectives,” said Musa. “One, to be of service to mankind and to serve in those areas where his professional competence could be exploited and two, to support, promote the development of Africa. So committed was he to these ideals that he long ago gave up the luxury of city life to work among the people in the rural areas.”
“His death affected a lot of people,” said his nephew Denis, who became an All-America collegiate runner before becoming a businessman in Iowa. “He helped communities all over the region become water independent, built agricultural farms and donated to schools.
“He helped me train to come (to the United States). He was my role model. I really miss him. He is one person who really helped me become what I am today.”
This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.