David Rudisha, Masai warrior, tamed the world and saved the lion

David Rudisha Rudisha is emblematic of the modern Masai. Photo: Matthew Thomas David Rudisha Rudisha is emblematic of the modern Masai. Photo: Matthew Thomas
Shanghai night field

David Rudisha Rudisha is emblematic of the modern Masai. Photo: Matthew Thomas

David Rudisha Rudisha is emblematic of the modern Masai. Photo: Matthew Thomas

In 2010 David Rudisha went to Berlin and broke the world record. A week later in the small Italian hilltop city of Rieti the tall angular 21-year-old from central Africa broke his own world 800 metres record.

At the same time in his Masai tribe in the Rift Valley of Kenya the boys of Rudisha’s generation were going through their rite of passage. The Masai boys went out to hunt and kill a lion and so become warriors. Were he not in Europe Rudisha would have been hunting with them.

To hunt the lion the Masai nominate one of their hunters as a sacrifice to lure out the lion. The hunter rings a bell loudly and constantly until an irritated lion attacks. The hunting party then moves in and kills the lion. If the bell-ringer survives he is venerated as a brave and lucky warrior.

“In 2010 it was almost the same time that I was breaking the world record that my age group were going through the rite of passage to become the morran [warrior],” Rudisha said.

“When I came back they said ‘I think you did something special, even more than killing a lion’. They made me a leader. I didn’t have to kill a lion. They say breaking two world records was more significant and was just like killing the lion. I think that is really cool because we are also trying nowadays to educate them to discourage the killing of wild animals because now in Kenya we have more statues of lions than lions themselves.”

In modern Kenya there is a grinding disconnect among the Masai between earnestly defending their culture and traditions and knowing that by doing so they are robbing their heritage. By killing so many lions and wild animals the Masai are killing an essential element of who they are.

“I am proud to be a Masai. We are one of the unique tribes who live alongside wild animals including the big five [the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard]. We are proud of the wild animals because this is part of our heritage and environment. Without the wild animal I think the Masai are different,” he said.

“We want to maintain and be ecosystem friendly. The Masai are known to be very courageous and that is why we live with the wild animals but sometimes people get attacked and this has been a big issue between the Masai and the wild animals. If they come and kill then we go and hunt for them. Now we educate them and say we don’t just go attack them unless they attack us.”

Rudisha is patron of the new “Masai Olympics” which was conceived as a means of challenging warriors and adapting Masai skills without killing wild animals.

“We do unique sports. We throw the spears and Masais are well known for jumping and dancing, so we also have high jump whereby you jump as high as you can to hit the rope with your head,” he said. “It’s a kind of unique high jump. We are trying to encourage them not to continue killing the wild animals.”

Rudisha is emblematic of the modern Masai. He grew up nomadically in the traditional way but now lives in an urban area to train and be able to travel the world as an elite athlete. He is modern yet traditional – when he married six years ago he paid his wife’s family in cows.

“Cows are the most valuable things to Masai, the number of cows you have signify how rich you are … we do all we can to protect them. We fight with other communities because of cows. Before you get married you have to give cows for the family of the bride. I paid 12 cows for my wife,” he said.

“I don’t keep a lot of cows now, just a few at home. Nowadays I live around town in the city and some places now are starting to change because of the modernisation.”

This pride of his heritage informs who Rudisha is as an athlete. The Masai reputation for courage made him change the way he ran in 2009 after failing to make the final of the world championships in Berlin.

“That was when I decided to change my tactics and run from the front which it took me a lot of courage to do,” he said. “I am a Masai and we are very courageous and brave people. Even if you watch most of my races I always run courageously, even sometimes when I am not at my top I always like to lead from the front and do my best. Many people like that.

“I have been pushing and training hard to be fit because running from the front you have to be in good form as well as you have to be smart because you’re calculating and doing out there without following somebody’s pace.”

There was no more courageous run than Rudisha at the London Olympics. Rudisha jockeyed to the front in the first 100, accelerated at the 200, and floated away from the pack by the 300. He was like the Masai bell-ringer the lions could not catch.

He ran the first lap in 49.28 and kept accelerating, confident that no one could touch him. He looked like a man racing himself as much as the field. He had not lost all year, he felt assured of winning, it was another record he was chasing.

While he likes to lead, ordinarily Rudisha uses his pacemaker, Sammy Tangui, to take him around the first lap. Tangui travels the world with him training and pacing him over the first lap. Tangui is not a Masai but he is a tall man with a long stride like Rudisha’s. He was a 400m runner who competed at the African championships and world youth games and now takes Rudisha around the track for the first lap in a predetermined time.

“Tangui is always I would say almost perfect. Most of the races and most of the pacing he gets there minus or plus 30 hundreds of a second,” Rudisha said.

Rudisha was world champion in 2011. In 2013 he missed the worlds through injury. He has broken the world record three times. He is the Olympic gold medallist. He is one of the greatest-ever middle-distance runners. But his name is not really Rudisha.

His name is only Rudisha because his dad’s name was Rudisha. But his dad’s name was not really Rudisha, that was just a nickname.

Rudisha is a Swahili word for return. When David’s father was born in 1945 German soldiers came into their village in Tanganyika, in what had been German East Africa, to take some of the Masai’s bulls.

The German commander kicked in the door of the hut and was startled to see David’s grandmother giving birth. He turned around called out to his men “Rudisha, Rudisha” telling them to return the bulls and leave the village.

And so the young boy, Daniel, was considered the harbinger of good fortune and forever known to the village as Rudisha. He later went on to win silver in the 400m relay for Kenya at the 1968 Olympics as Daniel Rudisha. When he had a son called him David Rudisha.

“Rudisha was just a nickname for my dad. People know my dad more by Rudisha than his official name. I kind of like the name. It’s a good luck name because the bulls got returned,” Rudisha said.

He acknowledges the name now fits. It is a name of luck, of cows, of the Masai and of winning.

Rudisha runs on Saturday night at the IAAF Melbourne World Challenge at Lakeside Stadium, Albert Park. Events begin 3pm. Rudisha runs at 6.50pm.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.