KIP KEINO, the Kenyan athletics legend, was orphaned and raised by an aunt.

He has never forgotten. Athletics prowess defined his youth: world records, two golds and two silvers in successive Olympics, three Commonwealth golds and a bronze back-to-back, but at 74 he can reflect on a life even more richly etched, by a profound humanity almost beyond belief.

It began in the Nandi Hills, where he ran barefoot to and from school from the age of five: 16 miles a day. It was the epitome of the Third World subsistence culture of Western Kenya. He knows, first-hand, how fragile life can be. At 12, he had to climb into a tree and tie himself on overnight to escape a cheetah. If Oxfam had not installed a borehole and windmill in Cheplaskei, helping contain endemic illness, he says he might not have been well enough to become an athlete.

He has run for numerous conflict-resolution, water and children's causes, but his contribution to society runs far deeper. He and his wife, Phyllis, have fostered almost 600 children on his 500-acre farm near Eldoret, in the Rift Valley. There are currently 284 pupils in the high school he founded, and 316 in the primary which bears his name. The Kip Keino Foundation pays the fees and helps send the brightest to college and university. "It helps the less fortunate in our society with education," he told me this week.

Some years ago I planted an Elgon teak with Keino on land adjacent to his home. It marks the site of his next project. "We hope to start work on a technology university there next year."

I was privileged to stay at his home where he runs a training camp for endurance athletes. He has a favourite aphorism: "We come into this word with nothing. We leave this world with nothing. So we must share with others who are not able to take care of themselves."

There are currently 107 children in the orphanage at his home. "The youngest is a girl of three months. Her mother passed away and nobody came for the child," he says. "We have a few children orphaned by war, by conflict . . . some Sudanese; Somalis; we'd some from Rwanda before, and from Liberia, but they are mostly Kenyan . . . You have to remember where you came from and how far you have gone. You need to do something for others."

He described children being thrown into dustbins or worse, Aids orphans, street children concealing a birth, prostitutes abandoning kids, some rescued from public toilets and thickets. "Many would have died because of bad health and disease."

In his home (it is called Kasi Mingi which translates from Swahili as "a lot of work") is a main room containing hundreds of photographs, mainly weddings of the children fostered by Kip and his wife, helped by some 20 care workers. They have become doctors, university lecturers, teachers, computer programmers, farmers, nurses, policemen, businessmen.

"They all started at the Kip Keino Childrens' Home as orphans. Phyllis was prepared to take care of them. Now she is the mother of the children; over the years that's nearly 600."

It all started when Kip was just 23 and working as a police officer at Isiolo in eastern Kenya. "Night was falling and I stumbled upon two emaciated children," he said. "They had been abandoned. Their hunger was so great that they were eating earth by the road side. I was given permission by the local authorities to care for them and took them home."

He explained how Phyllis, a nurse, had asked him: "What is going to happen to these children. They don't have anything to eat, they don't have any clothes . . . and so she got them something to eat. Then she put them in the shower and cleaned them up. They were miserable. Then she got them something to wear. Later on there was worming, hair cut, all these other things. She did a good job . . . "

The boy (five when he was abandoned) is now a police officer. The girl (just three on arrival) is now a farmer's wife and mother of several children.

It is almost 52 years since Keino's major championship debut, at the 1962 Empire Games in Perth, and he will be in Glasgow as head of the Kenyan team this year. He is also president of the Kenyan Olympic Committee.

He won the mile and three miles at the 1966 Empire Games, and was entered for the 10k, 5k and 1500m at the Mexico Olympics two years later. He had an acute gallbladder infection and the German team doctor advised him not to run. Keino ignored him, and was leading the 10k with 1100m remaining when he dropped out before returning to the track. He finished, despite having been disqualified, and went on to take 5000m silver four days later. The 1500m final was his sixth race in a week, but he could hardly get out of bed. En route to the track, he got caught in a traffic jam. He ran the last mile, just in time to race. He beat the world record holder Jim Ryun (unbeaten in 47 races) and lowered the fastest time at altitude by five seconds.

At the 1970 Games in Edinburgh he won the 1500m, but finished third in the 5000 behind Scotland's Ian Stewart and Ian McCafferty. Keino was the victim of death threats beforehand but insisted this week they had had no impact.

Police listened in to the threats at Edinburgh University's Pollock Halls. "He was well taken care of . . . The man was caught. I knew by the time I ran the 5000m. Let me tell you, they were good athletes: very good. I believe the time is still the Scottish record. The threats were no excuse. I was there to run. I came from Kenya to run, and if anything happened, it happened."

Keino won the 1972 Olympic steeplechase (he had barely tried the event and entered as "a challenge") and silver in the 1500m, before retiring the following year.

As the first Kenyan to make a major sporting impact, Keino is often hailed as father of their athletics heritage, but he is father of his nation in a much more meaningful context. He remains my most admired sportsman: not for his prodigious track career, but for what he did off it.