Meet the man whose steeplechase record was unbroken for 28 years

Julius Kariuki
  • Kariuki is the only Olympian outside the Rift Valley ever to have won a gold medal in the 3,000m steeplechase
  • Kariuki, a former soldier set a time of 8:05:51 during the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games in South Korea 
  • It stood for 28 years before it was broken by Conseslus Kipruto during the 2016 Rio Olympics

When Kenyan boys showed the Ethiopians dust in the 2,000m steeplechase during the IAAF Under-18 World Championships at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, it was Olympic legend Julius Kariuki who was granted the honour of bestowing Leonard Bett and Kandie Meyan their gold and silver medals, respectively.  

Kariuki, the former soldier, is the only Olympian ever to have ever won Kenya Olympic gold in the energy-sapping 3,000m steeplechase outside the Rift Valley.

The record he set of 8:05:51 during the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games in South Korea stood for 28 years. It was only broken by fellow Kenyan Conseslus Kipruto during the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil where he ran a blistering 8:03:28.

Kariuki was not even a favourite in the field of 13 at the Seoul Olympics. There was the world champion, Alessandro Lambruschini of Italy, the Commonwealth champion, Graeme Fell of Canada’s and the European champion, Hagen Melzer of (West) Germany.

Indeed, Kariuki, the athlete from Nyahururu, then 27, was considered the third-string Kenyan behind the more experienced Patrick Sang and Peter Koech.

Never mind, Kariuki was the fastest finisher going to the Games. But at the end of it Kariuki, broke away from the pack at the bell and flew to clinch gold, a fraction of a second outside Henry Rono’s world record of 8:05:41.

Koech took silver, Britain’s Mark Rowland took bronze and Patrick had to contend with singing a dirge at seventh place.

Unlike other athletes, Kariuki’s career started slowly with his international debut being during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He finished seventh. But he won the 1985 African Championships and the IAAF World Cup. 

Kariuki at one point switched to the 5,000m at the athletic meet in Villeneure-d’Ascq, France in July 1994 and10,000m during the 1989 ‘Universiade’ Games (a combination of University and Olympiad), the year he also won the 1989 IAAF World Cup and the Commonwealth Games the following year.

In awarding the winners their medals for the 2,000m steeplechase at Kasarani, Kariuki might have remembered with nostalgia setting his own personal best over the distance at Stadio Quercia in Italy in August 1990.

But it is his exploits at the 1988 Olympic Games for which he will be most remembered, even though he shortly faded away towards the end of the 1990s as other talents emerged.