History, threat and redemption clearly define Kenya’s quest to reclaim men’s and women’s 3,000m steeplechase titles at the 18th World Athletics Championships that start at Hayward Field inside University of Oregon in Eugene, USA, on Friday.
And the eight men and women – four each – have a mountain to climb as they seek to reclaim the Kenyan traditional races.
It’s a tough duel in the men’s race given there has been a steady invasion from Americans, French, Ethiopians and Moroccans in the event often billed as a race ‘Made in Kenya for Kenyans.’
Kenyan men squad in defending champion Conseslus Kipruto, Commonwealth Games silver medalist Abraham Kibiwott, Olympic bronze medalist Benjamin Kigen and Olympian Leornard Bett will be seeking to dethrone Morocco’s Olympic champion Soufiane El Bakkali and Ethiopia’s silver medalist Lamecha Girma, who ended Kenya’s 52 years of dominance in the race at the Tokyo Olympic Games. There is also America’s 2016 Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager.
But a closer look at the 2022 best times gives El Bakkali, Girma and Hailemariyam Tegegn, another Ethiopian, a leg up in the quest for glory.
Bakkali basks in an impressive 7:58.28 best mark set at the Diamond League meeting Rabat, where he beat Girma (7:58.68). Tegegn boasts of 8:06.29 while Kibiwott has 8:06.73.
Kipruto and Jager are on the comeback trail and there would be a nerve wrecking battle similar to the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where Kipruto beat Girma by the thickness of vest.
Bakkali and Girma announced their bid for honours this season as they led 1-2 respectively at the Diamond League meetings in Doha and Rabat.
But Kenyans have vowed to upset the form book. Kipruto said: “We have a strong team. We will beat Bakkali and I am sure of that. Kenyans should not worry at all. I am prepared to represent the nation and bring back our 3,000m steeplechase glory. It is great to be back to form.
“I have competed against these and know them better. I have enough experience in this race. I will not disappoint my fans.”
Kibiwott said: “I started my preparation in January. I have recovered well from the back injury I sustained before the Africa Championships. We are certain to win medals in Oregon.”
Kipruto ran 8:32 to finish fifth at the national championships but he has made impressive strides so far, having posted 8:12 in Rabat and 8:08 in Rome Diamond League meetings. He finished third at the national trials last month.
Jager has spoiled the Kenyan party in the Olympics and the World Championships. He won silver at the Rio Olympics and two bronze medals at the worlds in 2011 and 2013.
Kenyan men have won 12 world titles, only missing out in four editions. That was in 1983 Helsinki, 1987 Rome, 2003 Saint-Denis and 2005 Helsinki, where Kenyan-born Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar won. He holds the men’s world record in the event.
Ezekiel Kemboi won four world titles (2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015) while Moses Kiptanui wore three crowns in 1991, 1993 and 1995. Kemboi has two Olympic titles while Kiptanui basks in a silver medal from the 1996 Olympics.
Kenya recorded three podium sweeps in 1997, 2007 and 2015 as well as striking the 12th gold medal in 2019 in the history of the World Athletics Championships.
London (2017) and Doha (2019) worlds provided a perfect indicator that Kenya’s performance in the race is waning steadily after losing silver and bronze medals.
Despite having failed to win titles, Frenchman Mahiedine Mekhisi-Benabbad and Jager have spoiled the Kenyan party in Olympics and the World Championships.
World 3,000m steeplechase champion Beatrice Chepkoech will anchor Kenya’s title defence bid against stiff opposition.
She will team up with two-time world Under-20 champion Celliphine Chespol, reigning world Under-20 champion Jackline Chepkoech and Purity Kurui. The four, who are young but experienced, must be at their best to counter the opposition.
Beatrice Chepkoech’s season best of 928.34 is more than 30 seconds the world lead set by Kenyan-turned-Bahraini Winfred Yavi.
Kenyan-turned-Kazakh Norah Jeruto, the 2016 Africa champion, has also dipped under nine minutes in the water and barriers race this season.
Uganda’s Olympic champion Peruth Chemutai and America’s 2017 world champion Emma Coburn, silver medalist Courtney Frerichs, Courtney Wayment would also pose a threat on their home soil.
But Beatrice will bank on experience in her title defence bid. Not bad for a woman who took up athletics at a very young age.
“I started running while a Standard Three pupil. I suffered chest problems and my parents could not allow me to get exposed to the cold. I used to put on so many clothes and when I sat in a classroom, I looked heavy bodied.
“One day, I spotted some athletes for an evening run. I gathered courage, removed the heavy attire and trailed them. And since I suffered chest problems, I arrived home coughing. My parents beat me up but I never lost hope. The following day, I was up again trailing them.
“They alerted teachers in school not to allow me to join athletes for training. I sneaked away and followed them. By and by, the chest pains subsided and they gave up on me. They said maybe athletics could be my God-given talent.
“That year, while in Standard Three I represented my school in four events up to provincial level. That’s in 100m hurdles, 200m, 400m hurdles and 1500m. And the rest is history,” she said.
From the seven editions of the women’s race that was introduced in 2005 Helsinki worlds, Kenya has won three gold medals in Milcah Chemos at 2013 Moscow, Hyvin Kiyeng at 2015 Beijing and Beatrice Chepkoech at the 2019 Doha worlds.
It remains to be seen if Kenyan women would continue making impressive strides.