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RONO RERUN? Kenyan out to show he's no golden fluke

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Emmitsburg -- The Olympic gold medal lies in a bank vault near his home in Kenya. The red and white running uniform he wore on that day four years ago hangs in a display case at Mount St. Mary's College.

In 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, Peter Rono had a moment to last a lifetime. He came out of a pack of middle-distance runners and then dared them all to pass. And when they didn't, when the running entrepreneurs armed with their endorsement contracts and five-figure appearance fees couldn't accelerate by him, he crossed the finish line first in the men's 1,500-meter Olympic final.

In one moment, he was transformed from a shy college sophomore into a national treasure. Officials mobbed him. Thousands cheered him. And, days later, when he arrived at an airport in Nairobi, his countrymen swarmed him.

Now, Rono is rebuilding his career. Since finishing first in Seoul, he has won only three races, survived a truck accident, coped with the demands of national fame, and, perhaps most importantly, worked his way toward a degree in economics at Mount St. Mary's.

Yet he faces a summer-long trial to prove that his gold medal wasn't a historical fluke. Next month, he must go home, run and win a place to represent a country that threatens to fracture in an ethnic civil war. And, then, he again could face the world at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

The world has all but forgotten him now. He runs alone in the fields that spread from the Mount St. Mary's campus like emerald squares, passing cows and barns, winding his way silently and swiftly through the countryside that reminds him of home.

He plots. And trains.

"People say that I am a guy who won only one race," he said. "But I will prove them wrong."

He is 5 feet 8 and weighs 120 pounds, and he rarely speaks above a whisper. From a distance, he appears all limbs. But, up close, this 25-year-old wisp of a man turns running into a ballet, creating an elegant stride of economy and power.

When he was younger, growing up in Kabsabet in Kenya's Rift Valley, running was a means of daily transportation in a 12-mile round trip from home to a missionary school. Soon, it became a sport bounded by the lines of a dirt track. And then a ticket to America to study and compete for Mount St. Mary's, where he joined his boyhood friends and running mates, Kip and Charles Cheruiyot.

He followed a well-worn path from the valley to stardom, putting his name on Kenya's family tree of middle-distance runners, which took root with 1968 Olympic 1,500-meter champion Kip Keino.

"Life there forces you to run," Rono said. "You can't complain about it. It's the environment."

Years of running in a lush, high-altitude playground gave Rono the aerobic capacity to endure the 1,500, a race that can turn in an instant from a tactical chess match into an all-out sprint.

At Seoul, he became a chess master who won through chance and circumstance. Before the Olympics, the 1,500 favorites were world record-holder Said Aouita of Morocco, Steve Cram of Great Britain and 1987 world champion Abdi Bile of Somalia. But Aouita and Bile dropped out with injuries, and Cram appeared unfit.

After running with the pack for nearly two sluggish laps in the final, Rono took off in the final 800. He was fast. And scared. Forty-two times he turned his head, watching and waiting for the pack to catch him. But the pack never came, and Rono won in 3:35.96, with Great Britain's Peter Elliot finishing second and East Germany's Jens-Peter Herold third.

When he crossed the finish line, Rono thrust his right fist in the air, and a smile spread across his face.

"It was the happiest moment in my life," he said.

After winning the Olympic gold, he literally could have taken the money and run, becoming a full-time professional on the world circuit. There was a $25,000 offer to appear in the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York, a series of $4,000 appearance fees to attend meets in Europe. But Rono turned them aside, returning to his home for six months.

He met Kenya's president, Daniel T.Arap Moi. He gave speeches. He helped set up a farm for his family.

But he longed to return to Mount St. Mary's, where he could train and study free from the demands of family and country.

"Here, Peter's life hasn't changed," said Mount St. Mary's track coach Jim Deegan. "When he got back, he said, 'Thank God. no one bothers me. I'm just like a regular person here.' Back at home, in Kenya, it was a little bit different."

But, in the past few years, Rono has sustained a series of setbacks. In January 1990, he broke his left shoulder in a truck accident near his family farm. He was hospitalized for three weeks, and his training was set back six months.

Even when healthy, Rono couldn't win against college competition. Bad luck dogged him in back-to-back NCAA Division I championship meets. Once, he got himself boxed in. Another time, he lost his shoe 200 meters into the race.

Overseas, it was no different. He couldn't even make it out of the semifinals of the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.

"Peter is a non-professional," Deegan said. "He's just training like a normal person. I just think he's still having fun. He hasn't had to treat his career like, 'I have to go to work today. I have to run my butt off.' "

Throughout his college career, Rono maintained he had come to America not to win medals, but to gain an education. Five years after his arrival, Rono will receive his undergraduate degree today.

"I won't run the rest of my life," he said. "I'll need my education. I want to return home and help my country. We need businesses."

Kenya, once one of Africa's most stable and prosperous countries, is embroiled in ethnic fighting that already might have claimed hundreds of lives since the outbursts began in October.

The rift is tribal, the stakes enormous.

Rono says he worries about the future of his country. He also fears that Kenya might not attend the Olympics.

"When I call home, to my family, I am told that everything is fine," he said. "I feel bad that this problem is arising now, because all lived together for a long time. If these problems continue, I wonder what the government will do. Will we boycott the Olympics? The people who have worked so hard are the athletes, and they will be hurt. I think we'll go. But when problems like these arise, that is what runs through your mind."

His goal is to go to Barcelona. He wants to take part in these Olympics, potentially the most historic in a generation. He yearns to welcome South African athletes who will participate in the Olympics for the first time since 1960. And he longs to defend his 1,500 title.

The world has forgotten him. But, four years ago, a pack of runners could not catch him. This summer, a new pack will be assembled, and Rono plans to lead the way.

"Some people have said, 'You don't have to worry about Peter Rono,' " he said. "But I know what has prevented me from winning. I'm not old yet. I still have a career ahead of me. And I can win at the Olympics."

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