By the time Wilson Kipketer toed the line for Denmark at the 2002 European Athletics Championships in Munich’s Olympic Stadium his place in athletics history was already assured as a world record-holder and three-time world champion in the 800 metres.
But he still had a score to settle with Nils Schumann from Germany as well as with the European Athletics Championships, a stage which had not served Kipketer well over the years.
The Kenyan-born runner, talent-spotted by double Olympic champion Kip Keino and directed to the coaching of Father Colm O’Connell – who would later coach the Kenyan who currently holds the world 800m record David Rudisha – had achieved all his main career goals in the colours of Denmark.
The link occurred when Kipketer travelled to this Scandinavian country in 1990 as a foreign exchange student, studying electronic engineering, and liked it so much that he applied for Danish citizenship. However, his transfer was not in time for Kipketer to compete at the Helsinki 1994 European Athletics Championships where he would have been a significant favourite.
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Kipketer seizes his chance in Gothenburg
In 1995, wearing Danish colours, he won the first of his three world titles in Gothenburg. But he was not yet a full Danish citizen and was thus unable to compete in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He remained unbeaten throughout that year, setting a personal best in Rieti of 1:41.83 – just a tenth of a second off Sebastian Coe’s 1981 world and European record – and beating all three Olympic medallists from Atlanta in the process.
In 1997 Kipketer’s graceful running reached sublime heights as he floated to consecutive world indoor records at the World Indoor Championships in Paris, smashing Paul Ereng’s mark of 1:44:84 with a time of 1:43.96 in the heats, and then taking more than a second off that mark as he ran 1:42.67. That mark still stands – and looks set to stand for the foreseeable – some 25 years later.
On 7 July Kipketer equalled Coe’s world record in Stockholm, and a month later successfully defended his world title, leading from start to finish in Athens. On 13 August, in Zurich, he claimed the world record for himself, running 1:41.24, and 11 days later he lowered that mark to 1:41.11 in Cologne.
In 1998 Kipketer contracted malaria and initially planned to miss the season, but he recovered sufficiently to contest the European title in Budapest. He reached the final but three races in quick succession proved too much at this point of his recovery and he faded out of the medal positions after Schumann, en route to victory, had bustled past him in the home straight.
“My defeat in Budapest at the European Championships was a shock. I came eighth in 1:51 and I couldn’t understand. Had I just run badly or were my opponents better or was I ill? Again I had to start again from zero. Everyone was running away from me, and I had to rebuild again.
“But it was by coming back a second time that I found my new inner strength and motivation, and my World Championships win in 1999 was the result,” reflected Kipketer in the ensuing years.
The opportunity to run at the Olympics, so tantalisingly close in 1996, arrived in 2000 as he contested the Sydney Games. But once again he met Schumann in inspired form. The German won his semifinal in a personal best of 1:44.22 and prevailed in the final as the fast-finishing Kipketer ran out of track at the end to earn silver, 0.06 adrift of the title.
One last hurrah in Munich
If Olympic gold was to prove beyond him, then the Munich 2002 European Athletics Championships offered him the chance of claiming the title he had missed out on in Budapest four years earlier. His chances were also heightened in the absence of Russia’s soon-to-be Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy, almost one decade the Dane’s junior, who surprisingly opted to contest the 400m instead.
And Kipketer, 29, made it clear he meant business as he qualified fastest for the final in 1:46.56, with Schumann winning the other semifinal in 1:48.01.
The final was slow and tactical. But on this occasion Kipketer, whose calculations had gone astray at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, got it right and came home in 1:47.25 courtesy of a last 200 metres of 25.38.
In second place was Switzerland’s reigning world champion Andre Bucher, who clocked 1:47.43, with his long-time nemesis Schumann having to settle for bronze on this occasion with 1:47.60.
Munich had offered Kipketer the opportunity to win what proved to be the last gold medal of his career although he did go on to win a bronze at the 2004 Olympics before announcing his retirement the following season, thus allowing a new 800m champion to be anointed the following year in Gothenburg.
“I am so happy to come back in winning-mode after so many problems. This first European gold medal is for me a great satisfaction. The first lap was very slow as I expected so I kicked 200 metres before the line and controlled it,” said Kipketer.
Kipketer became only the second Dane to win a European title on the track, following in the footsteps of Niels Holst Sørensen who won 400m gold and 800m silver at the 1946 European Athletics Championships.
Following in Kipketer’s footsteps
A third Danish gold medal came on the track at the 2016 European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam where the now-retired Sara Slott Pedersen became the first Danish woman to win a European title with gold in the 400m hurdles.
And while Denmark might not have too many surefire medal prospects in Munich two decades after Kipketer won 800m gold in the same stadium, it is not an exaggeration to say that athletics in Denmark has seldom been in better health.
Danish national records have tumbled on the track and on the in-field this summer. There will be particularly keen interest in their men’s and women’s 4x100m relay teams who both qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last summer (the Danish men even reached the Olympic final in the Japanese capital) and in the progress of Ida Karstoft in the 200m who has improved from 23.39 to 22.67 this year.
And the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships will also provide us with our first glimpse of 17-year-old Axel Vang Christensen on the senior stage. The reigning European U20 cross country champion broke one of the longest-standing European U20 records on the books with 8:29.12 in the 3000m steeplechase in June.