News20 Jan 2022

Kenya athletics stalwart Velzian dies


John Velzian (© Getty Images)

World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that John Velzian, a former coach and administrator who dedicated his life to the sport, has died at the age of 93.

Velzian, who was British but made his life in Kenya, had a huge impact during his 60-year career in athletics, particularly in Africa.

His first big break as an athletics coach came when he was offered a position in Pakistan, an enriching experience which allowed him to travel widely throughout the region. Three years later, he was posted to Cyprus but the island was soon suffering a political crisis that would end in war. Offered alternatives elsewhere by the British Government, Velzian chose Kenya, where he arrived in 1958. When independence came in 1963, he was among the relatively few expatriates asked to stay on.

Velzian was tasked with developing the nation’s athletics talent, particularly in long distance running. It was around that period that he discovered and began working with athletes such as the great Kip Keino, who would go on to win Olympic titles at the 1968 and 1972 Games.

"I first met him in 1962 when he was coaching in Nyeri,” Keino told AFP. “He was very thorough in his coaching under the old British system and helped me to become the top athlete in the world.”

Back in the 1950s, Velzian was instrumental in initiating athletics training in Kenyan schools. He was also involved in getting the Kenyan army and police force to support athletes with competitions and jobs.

Velzian also played a pivotal role in Kenyan athletes focusing on the steeplechase. At a time when facilities in the country were extremely basic, Velzian built many 'one-lane' steeplechase barriers for athletes to use as a training aid. Within a matter of years, Kenyan athletes started to excel at the discipline and have remained a dominant force ever since.

Velzian was Kenya’s first national athletics team head coach and went on to become a long-time director of the global governing body’s Regional Development Centre in Kenya. He played a key role in the bid and organisation of the 2007 World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Mombasa and had been the race director for the Nairobi Marathon.

In addition to his expertise in coaching, Velzian was also an international technical official with experiences at the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cup. He was also a World Athletics lecturer in officiating and an AIMS road race course measurer.

Throughout his time in Kenya, Velzian used athletics to raise funds for worthy causes, especially those concerned with the health and welfare of children.

In 2011 he received the coaching lifetime achievement award from the world governing body in recognition of all he had done for the sport.

He remained active until he was well into his 90s and died in Nairobi just a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

World Athletics