The Olympic Games are arguably the most competitive Games across various sports as athletes from over 200 countries around the world compete in the quadrennial event. More than 100 countries’ athletes went back home without a single medal. With sparse funding for niche sports in most developing countries, there is no question that the heavily funded athletic programmes in countries like the USA, China and Great Britain help them win medals.
Yet, Julius Yego of Kenya has defied the norm and the dark horse delivered on the big stage in Rio with a sensational performance in the men’s javelin throw event. The African country is known for developing athletes who literally leave the competition behind on the track in the long-distance races. From the marathon to the 10,000m to the steeplechase, there is no surprise when a Kenyan finishes on the podium.
However, Yego‘s story is one of inspiration and a lesson to all who complain of their athletic federation’s apathy and injustice meted out to athletes who lack the necessary funding to train and compete.
For Yego did not have a professional coach. He did not even have a real javelin that is used in international events when he started training. All he had was access to an internet cafe and YouTube!
“My coach is me,” Yego says with a smile. “And the YouTube videos!”
Yego only had one throw that counted in Rio where he threw a distance of 88.24m – in his very first attempt. To put that in perspective, the gold medal winning throw at the 2012 Olympic Games in London was 88.24m.
On his second throw, Yego injured his ankle and was heartbroken to realise that his participation in the event was over. But he still had the best throw after three rounds. That was when Germany's Thomas Rohler threw the javelin 90.30m to take home the gold.
Normally, the first throw is only a warm-up effort as athletes loosen up and get into their stride – as proved by Rohler who threw 90.30m only on his fifth attempt. Bronze medallist Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago only threw 85.38m to take home the bronze medal.
With a single throw on the biggest stage, Yego had come home with a silver medal around his neck and Kenya’s first ever medal in a field event.
From throwing sticks to winning medals
“The first time I threw a javelin, we were just using a stick,” Yego explains. But he would go on to train and be the best in his age group as he went on to break the junior record. But without a coach to guide him, training was not exactly easy for Yego. Even his own father urged him to give up his dream.
“Everybody here in Kenya is a runner. I took it as a challenge to find another way to succeed.”
That was when he decided to watch tutorials on YouTube and watch how professional athletes trained and threw the javelin. He first nailed down the specifics of how to throw a javelin before changing his training regime to include gym exercises and flexibility exercises. “I could see that training like these people can improve me.”
And the results were there for all to see as Yego continued to increase his distance with each attempt. 60 metres became 70 metres. 70 quickly became 80 metres. And then he broke the African record and set the Commonwealth record with a personal best of 92.72 metres – making him the first Kenyan to win a field event gold medal in the World Championships.
With his Olympic participation confirmed, Kenya had a new hero to look up to as he flew to Rio. Although the injury ruled out any chance of a gold medal, the silver medal has only made him a bigger national hero and a YouTube sensation.
“Here in Kenya, I have a nickname – Mr YouTube Man!
“As the world progresses, everything changes. So maybe one day, many people will be learning through videos. The answers are there.”
In a world with so many Do-It-Yourself (DIY) videos doing the rounds on the internet, Yego did not find one on how to win an Olympic medal. But he did know where to look and find the right ingredients to chase his dream.