Saturday, August 10, 2019

Stars Next Door... Seraphino Antao

At school, he mainly played soccer like everyone else. Then one day his cousin Effie Antao asked him to come and take part in the annual East African Railways and Harbours athletics carnival. Seraphino ran barefoot and easily won the 100 yards and the 200 yards. A future star was unearthed that day.

 That was in 1956 and within a few months, he had equalled the Kenya records for both sprints, a modest 10 seconds for the 100 yards. Much later he actually broke the world record for the 200 yards but that was ruled out because of wind assistance.

Later, in 1957, be broke the Kenya records for the sprints and continued to improve upon them in the ensuing years. He improved in the 100 yards to 9.7 and improved even more after first tasting international competition in the 1958 Empire Games (a precursor to the modern Commonwealth Games).

At the Rome Olympics in 1960, he reached the semi-finals of the 100 metres and the second round of the 200 metres. In the first heats of the 100 metres he had easily beaten Armin Harry clocking 10.5. However, Harry went on to win the semi-final and the Gold Medal. Seraphino finished sixth in his semi-final but he was delighted with his performances in both sprints.

 The American Jet Magazine, July 12, 1962, edition reported: “African runner ties 100-yard dash record: During an international track and field meeting in Dublin, Ireland, Seraphino Antao of Kenya, East Africa, clocked a new world record, tying for the 100-yard dash time of 9.2 seconds to win the event by more than eight yards over his nearest competitor. However, the time will not be sanctioned because the nine-mile per hour trailing wind rule.”

 Over the next two years he was winning races wherever he ran and there was the promise of a medal, if not a gold medal, at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Everyone who mentioned around the world spoke of him as a future Olympic champion.

In June 1964, Seraphino’s  preparation  for  Tokyo  1964  was  going  well  and  as he headed for Europe he was confident of great things. During the Kenya trials    at Lower Kabete, just outside of Nairobi, he had clocked a wind-assisted 9.5 seconds for the 100 yards and 21.1 for the 220 yards. He maintained the mark for the 100 yards in Kenya championships in Kisumu but improved his time for the 220 yards setting a respectable 20.8 seconds.

In Europe, he had been in scintillating form winning at the White City in London, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden, and many other countries.

Before he left with the Kenya team for Tokyo, he had told me he was feeling really good about the challenges ahead. He felt, at 27 years of age, he was nearing the peak of his form. He was very confident.

 On the day before the flag-raising ceremony (two days before the heats of the 100 metres), we got the news that he had been struck down with mild influenza and the country held its breath which later turned to complete heartbreak because he never recovered enough to run at his best. While he was nothing but confident arriving in Tokyo, he had a worrying secret: He was also carrying a hamstring injury which he had suffered in training. He was confident it would heal by the time the heats for the sprints started. It was not to be. He put in a brave effort losing in the second round of the 200 metres heats and running fourth in the first round of the 100 metres heats.

He knew the day before the opening ceremony that all was not well with him. He feared he would not be able to run at all. Disappointed, he handed the Kenya flag, which he was due to carry at the lead of the Kenya team into the stadium to his friend, the great Kipchoge Keino.

A few days later he made his mind up to quit athletics altogether.  He was shattered, to say the least. Many months later when I spoke to him, there were tears in his eyes when he spoke of the disappointment of Tokyo.  “I just could not get myself go through it all again … sometimes training at daybreak and late into the night, no matter what the weather,   holding down a full-time job, and then to be knocked out by influenza when I was at the peak of my performance … “I was shattered. I just could not go on,” he told me.

I tried to talk him out of it, saying that at 27 he was pretty young. However, he was very angry that fate and illness had denied him his moment in destiny.  He was convinced that he had nothing left to give. In Tokyo, it was a now or never moment for him. He knew he did nothing wrong. He blamed his bad luck in falling ill. He felt abandoned by the gods. He was so very angry about it especially since he wanted to win an Olympic medal for the people of Kenya and his own family.

He knew he had an Olympic medal within his grasp and it had been cruelly snatched away.

This is what he told any other reporter who asked him the same question: “I had had enough of it. In Tokyo, I fell ill on the eve of the opening ceremony. That was it. All my hard had gone. I wanted to win some sort of Olympic medal and I was favoured to win something. I was fed up of training for six days a week. Eight years. Top class at four or five events. It is not easy. You get fed up.”

In 1965 decided to migrate to England. He had given a lot of thought to moving to Melbourne, Australia. He had been there a couple of times and loved the lifestyle and the people. However, most of his friends were in London so he decided to move there.

He told an Australian newspaper: “I had a great time in Melbourne,” he said. “I stayed at the Parkville Motel (in Royal Parade). Judy Patching (the Melbourne Olympic starter) was our manager for the trip. I met John Landy, Ron Clarke, Herb Elliott — all the Australians. I went down to Percy Cerutty’s camp at Portsea.”

Antao even dropped in to an interclub meeting at Dolomore Reserve in Mentone. It was a typical summer day a hot northerly, followed by a southerly change and downpour. Peter Fortune, Cathy Freeman’s coach and then an interclub sprinter for Brighton, recalls how the Brighton boys were amazed and delighted to find the fastest man in the Commonwealth seeking shelter in their tent.

In London, he took a coaching course, had a clothes stall in a busy marketing but returned to clerical work before being struck down with cancer. He left this earth without any fanfare and there was some criticism of the family that they could have done more to honour his memory at the funeral. However, it was clearly Seraphino’s wish that he wanted to leave this world with the least amount of fuss.

At a glance …

October 30, 1937: Born in Makadara, Mombasa. First of six siblings born to Diogo Manuel and Anna Maria Antao who hailed from Chandor in Goa.

Studied at the Goan High School (now Mombasa High School) where he discovered his athletic prowess, participated in several sprint events and was a  member of the of the Achilles Athletic Club.

1956: Participated in the East African Railways and Harbours annual athletics carnival and easily won the sprint double.

1957: Competed at the National Competitions in Nairobi and broke the national records in the 100 and 220 yards

1958: International debut when he participated in the Commonwealth (Empire) Games in Cardiff, Wales, reaching the quarterfinals in 100 yards

1960: Participated in the Rome Olympics, and reached the semi-finals of 100m and quarter-finals of the 200m.
1961: East and Central Africa championships winner in 100m and 200m

1962: Double gold winner at the 1962 commonwealth games in Perth Australia, clocking 9.5 seconds in the 100 yards and 21.1 seconds in the 220 yards, and becoming Kenya’s first gold medalist. With Wilson Kiprugut arap Chuma, Kimaru Songok and Peter Francis, attempted the 4x400 yards relay but finished fifth. In the same year, he won the sprint double at the British AAA Championships.

1963: Won his second set of double gold medals at the East and Central Africa championships in the 100m and 200m and in the same year, ran in the internationally renowned meet in Zurich and clocked 10.5 sec on the 100m, and won the  double gold in the Czechoslovakia Championships in Prague

1964: The first flag-bearer for the newly independent nation of Kenya at the Tokyo Olympics, a task usually given to the top athlete in the team and a medal favourite. Unfortunately, he fell ill and was not able to run and handed over the flag-bear duties to his friend Kipchoge Keino who went on to become a legend.

1964: Formally retired from athletics.

1965: Migrated to the UK

September 6, 2011: Passed away after a battle with cancer.



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