Cross-country skier Philip Boit made history when he became the first Kenyan to compete at the Olympic Winter Games, racing in the 10km classic event at Nagano 1998. Despite coming last, he was enthusiastically embraced by the winner, Norwegian Bjorn Daehlie. It was a moment that marked the start of a lasting friendship.
The high-altitude city of Eldoret in western Kenya is known as a hotbed for champion middle- and long-distance runners – the most famous being Kipchoge Keino. Winner of two golds and two silvers at Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972, he went on to build a high-altitude training centre for elite Kenyan athletes and a new stadium in Eldoret which bears his name.
Swapping sneakers for skis
Like Keino, Philip Boit hails from Eldoret. Born into a farming family, he developed into a talented middle-distance runner, and harboured hopes of emulating the achievements of his uncle Mike Boit, a team-mate of Keino’s who won bronze in the 800m at Munich 1972.
“I started running in high school,” explains Philip. “I used to run 800m and 1,500m and then I discovered cross-country skiing. I did both until 2000, then I decided to quit running and do only skiing.”
In a country where there is no snow, Boit had certainly not chosen the easy route. His first taste of snow came on a trip to Finland in the winter of 1995/96, which he was able to take thanks to support from a leading global sportswear manufacturer.
“The cold weather was a real challenge because it was -17°C when I arrived in Helsinki,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get balanced putting on the skis. I kept falling down.”
However, the intrepid Kenyan soon got to grips with his equipment and developed a taste for cross-country skiing. He was joined in Finland by compatriot Henry Bitok, who became his training partner over the next two years as he prepared for Nagano 1998.
Boit secured the one and only place on the Kenyan cross-country skiing team for Nagano, qualifying for the 10km classic event. Although he was the first Kenyan to take part in the Winter Games, he was not the first African. That honour went to Senegal’s Alpine skier Lamine Gueye, who competed at Sarajevo 1984.
As the sole representative for his country at Nagano 1998, Boit carried the Kenyan flag at the Opening Ceremony. A few days later, he set off last in the 97-strong field in the 10km classic. Norway’s Bjorn Daehlie emerged as a comfortable winner to take his Winter Games medal collection to 12.
Even as he savoured his victory, however, Daehlie made a point of following the Kenyan’s progress round the course. “The Norwegian team had heard about this guy from Africa who was taking part,” he told the BBC. “We thought it was really interesting and we were eager to see if he would succeed.
“We heard on the PA system that he had nearly reached the stadium and I was impressed that he was able to finish the race in these conditions. I wanted to wait for him, to see this brave African athlete finish the race,” added the Norwegian.
With heavy rain rendering the snow slushy and slow, the conditions were certainly challenging for the Kenyan. Despite this, he battled on to the finish line, receiving rapturous support from the spectators, who urged him on as he entered the stadium.
Boit crossed the line in 92nd place, some 20 minutes after Daehlie, who delayed his appearance at the medal ceremony in order to head for the finish area to congratulate the Kenyan. Relayed around the world, the scene of the two embracing each other seemed to embody the spirit of the Olympic Games.
“My coach had told me about him and I’d seen him on TV. I couldn’t believe that the best cross-country skier in the world was here to congratulate me,” said Boit, recalling his first encounter with Daehlie.
For his part, the Norwegian recalled Boit’s words as they hugged: “He said ‘I’ll beat you in Salt Lake City’ and I was quite astonished. It was quite a funny answer.”
When he returned to Kenya, Boit was welcomed by a large crowd at Nairobi Airport and was treated like a hero on his arrival home to Eldoret. “I kept telling them I came last!” recalled Boit. “But they were so proud and told me, ‘You should say you are the champion, because there were no other Kenyans there, so you won for the Kenyans!’”
A few weeks later, he became a father to his first son, whom he named Daehlie in honour of his Norwegian friend.
Daehlie meets Daehlie
Nagano was not the final chapter of Boit’s Olympic story. Having sold his cows to finance his career, he continued to train all year round on roller skis in his home city.
He made two further appearances at the Winter Games, carrying his country’s flag on both occasions. At Salt Lake City 2002 – by which point Daehlie had retired – the Kenyan finished a career-best 64th out of 71 entrants in the sprint, while also competing in the 2x10km pursuit. And four years later he took part in the 15km classic at Turin 2006.
Boit also competed in four FIS Nordic World Ski Championships and in a number of other international events around the world. On making his final world championship appearance in Oslo in 2011, the Kenyan introduced the Norwegian Daehlie to his four children, including the now teenage son who had been named after him.
Ever since their first encounter, the two Olympians have kept in touch and now go running and skiing together and take part in charity events in Norway and elsewhere.
Boit, meanwhile, became something of a trailblazer for other Africans seeking a path to the Winter Games, with athletes from Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Togo all going on to compete at subsequent editions for the first time.
“They all say they ventured into winter sports because they [saw me] in 1998,” says Boit. “They tell me: ‘You are a pioneer. You made us think that if Kenya can do it, we can do it too.’”