This is why the end of men steeplechase dynasty looms large

By Kimathi Kamau: Sunday, July 28th 2019 at 00:00 GMT +3 | Athletics
August 30, 2018, Conseslus Kipruto of Kenya wins the Men's 3000m Steeplechase. [Reuters]

In the 16 times the men 3000m steeplechase has been competed at the biannual IAAF World Championships in Athletics since 1983, the gold medal has been won by a Kenyan on a staggering 12 occasions.

Two of the men steeplechase titles that slipped from Kenya at the Worlds were won by the man formerly known as Stephen Cherono- now Saif Saeed Shaheen of Qatar - who remains the record holder over the water and barriers race.

Shaheen stopped his former countrymen from occupying the middle step of the podium at the Paris 2003 and Helsinki 2005 editions and you have to go way back to the first two championships when the steeple was run, Helsinki 1983 and Rome 1987 to find the other runners who struck gold with no Kenyan blood.

Patriz Ilg (Germany) and Francesco Panetta (Italy) won in 1983 and 1987 in that order.

Three-time world champion Moses Kiptanui won the subsequent finals in a row at Tokyo 1991, Stuttgart 1993 and Gothenburg 1995 before Wilson Boit Kipketer won in Athens in 1997.

Christopher Kosgei then relegated Boit Kipketer to silver at Seville 1999 and the steeplechase title remained in Kenya two years later in Edmonton 2001 when namesake Reuben Kosgei won.

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After Shaheen did his double-winning act, Kenya reclaimed her title through Brimin Kipruto in Osaka 2007, and a year later, the world champion emulated Kosgei when he won gold at Beijing 2008 Olympics.

That ushered the era of another steeplechase legend, the flamboyant Ezekiel Kemboi who made history as the first four-time world steeplechase champion.

The superstar, who is famously known as ‘Baba Yao’ (their father) brought home the top medal from Berlin 2009, Daegu 2011, Moscow 2013 and Beijing 2005 editions in his uninterrupted reign.

At London 2017, his heir apparent, Conseslus Kipruto deposed the king to add to his Olympics 2016 crown before he claimed the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games gold to complete his unique treble.

With the Doha 2019 edition in the horizon, fears that Kenya will let go of her cherished steeplechase title and break the established tradition are rife if this year’s IAAF Diamond League is anything to go by.

A week ago, Julius Kirwa, a concerned Kenya head coach was reported to be considering recalling Kemboi and Brimin, who quit the steeple after the Rio 2016 Olympics to focus on the roads, out of track retirement to salvage the situation.

“Something has to be done soon, it is worrying to watch the lack of competitiveness in the steeplechase race from Kenyan runners,” Jackson Tuwei, AK President told Xinhua.

The worries are fuelled by the devastating news of a recurrence of the foot injury that has dogged Conseslus. He pegged for a return at the forthcoming All Africa Games in Morocco.

Speaking to Standard Sports, former Commonwealth champion and worlds silver medallist, Richard Mateelong, who was part of the golden steeplechase trio alongside Kemboi and Brimin shared his fears that the dynasty they jealously protected could be coming to an end.

“It is not business as usual in an event that was known to be a Kenyan affair. Remember Kipruto won by a thin margin at the last championship and now, El Bakkali has sent a tough signal he is the man to watch this season,” the Beijing 2008 Olympics bronze winner charged.

While no one doubts his enduring mastery of the distance since inheriting the crown from Kemboi, lack of high quality competition in the run-up to Doha could curtail Conseslus’ bid to retain the title.

He however, retains the indefatigable fighting spirit best exemplified at the 2018 Diamond League (DL) final where the IAAF labelled him the ‘shoeless wonder’.

Conseslus lost his shoe a minute and a half into the race but that did not stop him from battling to beat Moroccan Sofiane El Bakalli, 23, widely tipped as the man who could end Kenya’s steeplechase dominance in Qatar at the death.

In the nine DL meetings ran so far, the steeplechase has been competed in Doha (May 3), Rome (June 6), Morocco (June 16) and Monaco (July 12).

Benjamin Kigen, the 2017 national champion, who is ranked number 2 in the world behind El Bakkali is the only Kenyan to have won a DL leg this season when he beat Ethiopia’s Getnet Wale to the honours in Rome, the clocks returning 8:06.13 against 8:06.83 in a flying finish.

He also remains the only Kenyan steeplechaser to run to the podium in the DL thus far.

Hillary Bor (8:08.41) who finished second in Doha to El Bekkali now competes in the colours of the USA and is a podium threat to his former compatriots.

That tells it’s own story as far as Kenya’s men 3000m steeplechase hopes in Doha are concerned.

Of the previous world champions, Kiptanui (7:56.16), Kemboi (7:55.76), Brimin (7:53.64/one hundredth of a second off the world record), Reuben Kosgei (7:57.29) and Boit Kipketer (7:59.52) have all dipped under the magical 8:00 barrier.

Conseslus (8:00.12) was knocking on that door before injury limited his charge and considering El Bakkali joined the distinguished sub 8:00 club when he blasted to 7:58.15 in Monaco last year, the signs are ominous.

“There is a lot to be done. First, we need to review the training programme, how we approach the race and to differentiate between championships and other competitions.

“On the same note, in our times you would get a good number of sub 8:10 runners. Nowadays, you find one or two. Team work is very important in steeplechase and now, we only have Benjamin and no one to give support,” Mateelong, an instructor at Kenya Police College who struck gold at Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games and IAAF Continental Cup in the same year, said.

“The event needs a lot of technical training and one has to go an extra mile than those training for other events. It’s been a long while since we had anyone do a sub 8:00 and this is a pointer there is a problem somewhere as far as training is concerned.

“We have young talented potential steeplechasers but they are easily lured to road races by managers,” Mateelong said.

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