By Mike Rowbottom in Bristol

Mike Rowbottom(1)There are several hundred people milling about at Filton College's newly laid running track. Teams of children from local Bristol schools chatter in their groups under floodlights, awaiting occasional calls to action. The section of enclosed seating near the finishing line is full up with spectators and VIPs, all sheltering from an evening wind that whips the banners set out along the infield into ceaseless activity.

TV camera crews from ITV and BBC are on the prowl, their lights shining into the gloom of the stands to pick out relevant visiting parties. Photographers gather the yellow, white, green and red-shirted youngsters into groups, getting them to cheer and wave the mini-flags they have been given for the occasion – Kenyan flags.

And at the centre of each picture, at the end of each microphone, is a man in a bulky Kenyan track suit and yellow baseball cap – a man whose exploits as an athlete have ensured him a place in sporting history, but whose exploits since retiring have earned him an even more fabled place. Kip Keino.

What brings this 70-year-old double Olympic champion here, to a windy field in north Bristol, in company with a Kenyan delegation which numbers the Kenyan Deputy High Commissioner Dr Joe Sang, his wife Betty, the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, the Hon Dr Otuoma P Nyongesa and three colleagues from his ministry?

Keino is here in an official capacity as chairman of Kenya's national Olympic committee and an International Olympic Committee member. His purpose is to open a £1 million ($1.6 million) track which will be known as the Kip Keino Athletics Stadium, and to confirm the agreement that Kenyan competitors will use Filton College's brand new facilities as their official training base before the London 2012 Games.

But, further back than that, what brings Keino here is his friendship with the man sitting proudly in the stands alongside him, Bob Reeves, who has worked for 30 years organising sporting activity at the University of Bristol.

For many years, Reeves took out university rugby sides to play in the Safari Sevens in Nairobi, and there he got to know Keino, a rugby enthusiast – and former rugby winger.

The sporting link has grown stronger, and broader. Groups from Ashton Park School in Bower Ashton became regular visitors to Kenyan schools from 2003, and this year Kingsfield School, in Kingswood, embarked on a two-week expedition to east Africa.

Even before London won the right to host the 2012 Games, at the 2005 IOC meeting in Singapore, the rapidly expanding Filton College had been literally laying the ground for its sporting breakthrough as Reeves, then a college governor, suggested to the college principal Kevin Hamblin that it would be worth spending £250,000 ($406,000) on a new six-lane training track.

Then, as plans were laid to host visiting Olympic sports teams in more than 600 locations all across Britain, Reeves began thinking...

"I remembered the words Seb Coe used in Singapore when he asked for the Games to be given to London," Reeves recalls. "He said 'Give the Games to London, and we will engage the youth of the world'.

"I thought about that for a while, and when I next went over to meet Kip, I said to him, 'Wouldn't it be brilliant if we used the Olympic Games as a catalyst for setting up a pre-Games camp, but also doing a host of other things – school exchanges, sporting visits, cultural events, commercial partnerships?'

"Kip shook hands with me, and looked me in the eye, and said 'Bob – we will do it. No one ever approached us with anything as good as this'."

In September 2007 an agreement was signed between Keino and Peter Abraham, Lord Mayor of Bristol, confirming that the city would act as hosts for the Kenyan Olympic team before the 2012 Games. The University of the West of England, a near neighbour of Filton College, is due to provide accommodation.

The Bristol-Kenya Partnership, named Umoja after the Swahili word for 'togetherness', was subsequently set up as a charity to foster sporting, educational, cultural and commercial links.

In the wake of the agreement, a further £750,000 ($1.2 million)was raised by Filton College and Bristol City Council - with deputy leader Simon Cook playing a key part - to upgrade the athletics facility from a training track to an eight-lane stadium with floodlighting and stands.

Those lights now shine brightly on the senior athletes and wheelchair athletes who have followed the children on to the track. Keino, constantly bobbing out of his seat into the tumultuous infield to high-five victorious children, present prizes, pose for pictures, clambers back into the refuge of the seat next to me at the back of the stand.

He offers me his hand. "Feel that," he says. It is freezing. He grins broadly...

As Reeves likes to point out, had Keino been born 20 years later, he would be a multimillionaire, like Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele. He missed the open professional era, although when he retired from athletics in 1973 he did so with the not inconsiderable sum of $20,000 (£12,000).

With that, this former policeman and his wife Phyllis built a new house with a large extension which he turned into an orphanage – a calling which may have had something to do with the fact that both his parents died when he was young and he was brought up by an aunt.

Many hundreds of children have since passed through the orphanage – which currently houses more than 100 residents – and many of them have progressed to the junior and senior schools Keino has subsequently built.

When Kip Keino Secondary School opened last year, the IOC president Jacques Rogge was present at the ceremony – a measure of the international respect in which Keino is held.

But as the delegation and a bulk of the competitors and spectators move into the welcome warmth of the college lecture theatre for official speeches, those youngsters to whom this honoured visitor is just a jovial figure in a red sweater have the opportunity of understanding how special he was as they are shown an excerpt from a film about Keino's exploits at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – where he effectively transformed himself from a talented runner into a legendary one.

As he swivels in his chair to gain a good view of the screen on the wall, Keino stares at 42-year-old footage of himself writhing in agony, crawling on the track.

Like that other running legend, Ron Clarke, Keino ran into grief during the 10,000 metres final. But while the great Australian struggled in the thin air to the point where he needed oxygen, Keino was stricken with excruciating stomach pains and was told by doctors he must pull out of the Games for his health. One doctor told him that if he continued running he risked killing himself. Keino's response was this: "I came here to run. If I die, at least I do not have to go home knowing I have not done my best."

The commentary goes on to relate how he missed the official bus to the 1500 metres final, and had to get on another which got stuck in Mexico City traffic, obliging him to run to the stadium.

Having got there just in time to register, he went on to defeat a field which included the US world record holder Jim Ryun by 20 metres, the greatest margin in which an Olympic 1500m has ever been won.

Keino added silver in the 5000m, and four years later in Munich he won 3000m steeplechase gold and 1500m silver.

As he stares up at the slow motion image of himself passing through the Mexico 1500m finish line, Keino's face is impassive. But it breaks into familiar animation as he stands to speak.

"Our visit has made a great impression on us, in particular the friendship shown to us," he says.

"After the Beijing Games, we were thinking, as Kenyans, what we could do to improve the standard of some other sports in our country? And I see that this is a place where we are able to establish friendship in sport, and to improve our Kenyan sport.

"As Kenyans, we can't rely only on track events and the marathon. We need to diversify our sports. In rugby sevens we are eighth in the world, and although it will not be in the next Games, it will be there in 2016.

"There are tremendous facilities here which I have seen – for squash, badminton, hockey, swimming, rowing, canoeing. And you have the coaches in these sports too.

"Our women are doing really well in volleyball and field hockey. But only in our continent. When they go out into the wider world, then we are far behind. When we cannot expose our teams to other parts of the world, we are not doing the right thing.

"But here you see how seriously we take this link with you. We have with us senior figures from the Kenyan government and establishment. We will be here before the Olympics, we will be training with your athletes, and your coaches. Feel free to train with us. Feel free to share with us.

"In the world together we can all learn to improve if we share responsibilities. I believe that we learn by imitating others, by talking to others. You improve by talking, sharing, working together. But there are no short cuts. It is hard work. If you work hard you will get the result."

Keino then reveals the imitation which inspired him to become the athlete who was the first African to break the four-minute mile, and who set the template for successive generations of African athletes.

"In 1954 I was running without shoes, and I saw something in 1954 at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, I saw Roger Bannister winning the mile race," he recalls, pausing at the memory. "And I said to myself then 'I want to run like Roger Bannister. I want to run the mile'. I was a good footballer, but I gave that sport up then and went to running."

The memory of London's successful bid for the 2012 Games also remains vividly with him.

"When Lord Coe was at the IOC meeting in Singapore leading the bid, we talked. And Lord Coe told me the 2012 London Games would be for the youth of the country, and the youth of the world.

"There were a lot of athletes and former athletes there for London at the presentation, and there wasn't such a need for politicians. I was very proud of the presentation of the British team and their promise to the youth of the world."

It is not hard to see how such a commitment would resonate with a man so genuinely inspired to dedicate his life and efforts to younger generations. Reeves talks of Keino as being "the Mandela of east Africa." It is not a notion Keino would entertain himself – but that doesn't make it any less true.

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Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames