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May the best ‘Kenyans’ win: Kenyan team faces stiff competition from brothers in diaspora at World Cross meet

ATHLETICS By Kimathi Kamau | March 4th 2017
Leonard Barsoton and Geoffrey Kamworor leads in senior men 10km race during the National Cross Country Championship at Uhuru Gardens on Feb 18, 2017.[PHOTO/DENNIS OKEYO/STANDARD]

The Team Kenya team captain for this year’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Leonard Patrick Komon, is a seasoned runner.

He is a former senior men 12km silver medallist at the event besides holding the world 10K and 15K road running records.

Across the Atlantic, Leonard Essau Korir, 30, will lead a full United States of America squad to the March 26 event at the Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala.

The oldest of the IAAF World Athletics Series competitions, this year’s event will mark the 42nd staging of the global cross country championships.

It will also be the fifth time the championships will be hosted in Africa after Rabat in 1975, Stellenbosch in 1996, Marrakech in 1998 and Mombasa in 2007.

Both Leonards were born in Kenya but while Komon has continued to represent his nation of birth with distinction since making his debut at the 2007 World Cross in Mombasa where he finished fourth in the junior race, Korir gained citizenship to wear Stars and Stripes on the tracks last year.

As the countdown to Kampala continues, all competing nations are eyeing the scalp of Kenya that has topped the medal tables at four of the past five editions. Also, its rivalry with Ethiopia is expected to remain fierce.

The two nations split the four individual titles in 2015 at two apiece, while Ethiopia captured 11 medals in all to Kenya’s nine but the team training at their traditional St Mark’s Teachers College, Kigari in Embu has to contend with the ‘enemy within’ besides their arch-rivals from the north.

Korir is not the only Kenya-born athlete who is expected to face the starting gun in Kampala under the US banner.

Olympics men 5000m silver winner, Paul Chelimo is the star of their 4x2000m mixed relay team having been led to the altar in Rio by double champion Mo Farah of Britain at an event where Kenya’s pick for the distance failed to qualify from the heats.

In the senior men 10km, Korir will run alongside multiple National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) star, Samuel Chelanga, the younger brother of 2002 Commonwealth and 2007 Rotterdam marathon winner, Joshua Chelanga.

While the elder Chelanga ran for Kenya at the 1997 and 1999 editions of the World Cross in Turin, Italy and Belfast, Ireland winning the senior men long race (12km) team title besides finishing fourth in the latter, Samuel, 32, born in Baringo opted to declare for the US.

Stanley Kebenei and Shadrack Kipchirchir are the other Kenyan-born runners in the US senior men meaning five of the 28 runners who will run for the Donald Trump nation hail from one East African state.

Kebenei won nine NCAA junior national championship titles at Iowa Central Community College before joining the University of Arkansas and has now signed a professional contract with Nike.

Kipchirchir, born in Eldoret qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics in 10,000m and not only does he run for the US but when called upon, he can fight for his adopted nation as a member of the US Army. In 2015, he finished 16th at the 2015 World Championships in Athletics in the 25 lap-race.

It is little wonder then that ideally, Kenya also gave the US their 44th President, Barack Obama!

Outside the US, Turkey is another country that is expected to be a strong contender for the medals in Kampala with Aras Kaya, who led the nation to the European Cross Country Championships glory expected to lead their onslaught.

And you guessed it, Kaya was born Amos Kibitok in April 1994 and at last year’s European Championships in Amsterdam, he won silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase. Before representing Turkey, Kaya competed for Kenya, and surprisingly, Russia.

“I felt very well in my training, so I decided to compete here and it was worth it. I thought it was going to be windy but after two or three laps I was okay,” Kaya told the IAAF after winning the European Cross title for Turkey.

Behind him across the line for the Turkish 1-2 is the curiously named Polat Kemboi Arikan (born Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi in Cheptiret in 1990). Kemboi switched allegiance to Turkey on June 8, 2011 and changed his name to Polat. Normally he would have to wait for two years following his naturalisation to be able to represent his adoptive country.

However, it was announced in February 2012 that he had received permission from the IAAF to run for Turkey starting with the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul.

At the 2013 Mediterranean Games in Mersin, Turkey, Polat won gold in the men 10000m and together with Kaya, they are quietly confident of scaling podium heights in Kampala.

Their women senior 10km team is led by European Cross winner, Yasemin Can -- born Vivian Jemutai -- in, you guessed it, Kenya.

Jemutai, born December 11, 1996 never competed for Kenya in professional races and on March 13, 2016, she officially became eligible to represent Turkey. At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, she was a finalist in the fastest 10,000m race in the history. She was seventh while recording a Personal Best time of 30:26:41.

If Can would have been three weeks younger at the time, her time would have been a Juniors (U20) World Record. She took gold in the women’s 10,000m at the 2016 European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam.

Finishing at 31:12.86, she improved her own European under-23 record by 18 seconds; she had set at the Turkish Championships in Mersin on May 1, 2016 before she sealed the distance double at the same championships after scooping the 5000m title.

“Victory is a nice birthday present. The only complication was a slight wind. The race was important for me but I will focus more on the track events,” Can who turned 20 when she won the European Cross title told the IAAF.

And just like in the men’s long race, Can led her compatriot, Meryem Akda across the line for the Turkish 1-2 at the European Cross and there are no prizes for identifying where Akda was born!

Formerly Mirriam Jepchirchir Maiyo (born August 5, 1992) Akda is a Turkish female middle-distance and long-distance runner of Kenyan origin. She competes in the 3000 m steeplechase and 5000 m events.

She competed for Kenya until May 21, 2015 before being allowed to compete as a Turk on March 13, 2016.

Last month, reports indicated Bahrain was training 15 Kenya-born runners in Kapsabet to represent them in Kampala. Qatar is also expected to field their naturalised athletes from these shores.

Team Kenya head coach, James Ndiwa who will lead the team to the World Cross remains optimistic his cast of champions and seasoned runners have enough quality to crush even competition from within.

“The team I have is a clean team. They are ready since we are going to war. When you go to war, the mission is to win and that is our prayer,” Ndiwa said from Embu earlier in the week.

Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor, who led Bedan Karoki to the Kenyan 1-2 in the senior men (12km) showdown at the 2015 World Cross in Guiyang, China shares the belief they will prevail against any challenge to retain their overall crown.

“The team we have is largely the same we had in 2015. We have strong athletes and we are working together as a team. If we work together as we have started this week, I foresee us retaining the title,” the 2011 World Cross junior and two-time World Half marathon winner added.

Hosts Uganda are also expected to wage war for both individual and team crowns, with Eritrea and Bahrain also likely to play key roles in several of the medal fights. Others expected in the mix for team medals include Turkey, the United States, Japan, and Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

All said and done, may the best Kenyan win.

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