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Commonwealth Games 2022: Joseph Okal to continue legacy of Kip Keino in Birmingham

When Joseph Okal lines up for the men’s triathlon at the Commonwealth Games, he will not only be carrying Kenya’s hopes but also continuing an impressive family legacy.

The 20-year-old is the grandson of double Olympic gold medallist Kipchoge Keino, a running – and sporting – legend in the east African country.

“He inspires me to do great things,” Okal told BBC Sport Africa ahead of his competition in Birmingham, which takes place on Friday.

Keino won 1500m gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and followed that up with a gold in the 3000m steeplechase four years later in Munich.

Throw in the 3000m and 5000m world records he set in 1965, along with two silver medals from the Olympics and three Commonwealth golds, and the 82-year-old casts a long shadow over Kenyan athletics.

Okal is 479th in the World Triathlon rankings and at the beginning of his own journey, but he has been able to pick up a few tips from his grandfather.

“The biggest lesson is thinking no matter where you come from, no matter how people may look down upon you, just focus on yourself.” Okal said.

“He gave me advice to just give my best no matter what. No matter what happens during the race – just push and push.”

Taking on the Commonwealth’s best

Kenya's Kip Keino (right) celebrates after winning the 1500 meters final at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
Kip Keino (right) won his first Olympic gold in the 1500m in Mexico in 1968

Keino is the former chairman of the Kenyan Olympic Committee and an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee – as well as the first ever recipient of its Olympic Laurel, an honour given to an “outstanding individual for their achievements in education, culture, development and peace through sport”.

He serves as a major inspiration to many within his home country and beyond, and was proud to hear his grandson had been selected to compete in England.

“He was so happy,” Okal said. “I hear he was calling his neighbours telling them ‘My grandson qualified for Commonwealth’.”

Keino is expected to be in Birmingham to watch Okal compete in what he believes will be a “tough race”.

“I know there’s pressure, but I know it’s going to be amazing,” he added.

“For the last two Commonwealth Games there is no Kenyan who has finished a (triathlon) race. Hopefully I’ll be the first one to finish a race in the Commonwealth Games.

“I have raced in Zimbabwe and Egypt before but this is my first big elite race. It’s going to be an eye-opener and I’m going to experience a lot.”

Kenyans are a global force in distance running events, but Okal is determined to make the country known in triathlon.

“I want to go and show the world that this side of Africa can also swim, cycle and run,” he said.

“I know I have potential in me. I have what it takes to become the greatest.”

Brotherly competition and boosting participation

Joseph Okal, Kipchoge Keino, Joshua Okal and Jesse Okal
Joseph and his brothers Joshua (second right) and Jesse (far right) can call on their famous grandfather for advice – and selfies

Okal is the middle of three brothers, who all compete in triathlons.

His eldest brother Jesse, 23, is 36 places behind him in the world rankings while younger sibling Joshua, 18, is poised to join the senior ranks.

Joseph admits the trio owe their success to their parents because of the “big role” they played in kick-starting their careers.

“The sacrifices they’ve made in terms of finance, in terms of everything, it’s so amazing,” he said.

“Sometimes they may be like, ‘Why are we doing this?’, but it’s the faith that our parents have in us.”

Okal now hopes his achievements will lead to improved funding and investment in triathlon infrastructure in Kenya so the sport can change the lives of others.

“I think now the government are going to believe in us more and give us more and just empower us,” he said.

“They’ll give us training facilities – all these things that we’re lacking right now. I think they’ll see that this sport can do wonders.”

Okal’s team manager Rommel Lukila believes triathlon is growing in Kenya, and Team Kenya Triathlon are aiming to boost participation further.

“We’ve come a long way in the last two or three years,” Lukila told BBC Sport Africa.

“Now there’s a lot of awareness about the sport, and the National Olympic Committee and government is recognising it. It’s developed quite significantly compared to previous years.

“As a federation, we’ve introduced county associations at the regional level. They are working side by side with the county governments to introduce the sport to schools, so that we start tapping on talent at a very, very early age.”

Not all will have the benefit of bloodline that Okal has, but perhaps Kenya can begin to challenge the rest of the triathlon world one day.

Kipchoge Keino pictured in 1965
Keino pictured at the White City Stadium in London in 1965, the year he broke the 3000m and 5000m world records

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