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This year’s Summer Games changed Kenya’s Olympic terrain

ATHLETICS By Jonathan Komen | August 9th 2021
July 30, 2021. Abraham Kibiwott of Kenya reacts after competing REUTERS

Three adjectives –history, threat and reprieve –clearly describe Kenya’s performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games that ended yesterday.

The 89-member squad, comprising seven sports disciplines, an average performance and some exciting talking points that would shape the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. The athletics team struggled to break the duck and Ethiopian as well as Ugandan and Moroccan aggression in Kenya’s dormant races at the Olympics.

Kenyan women hoped to make history in 10,000m and 3,000m steeplechase, where the nation has not won gold medals at the Olympic Games since her debut in 1960 in Rome, Italy. The huge dreams crash-landed.

And the six women –3,000m steeplechase and 10,000m – had a mountain to climb as they struggled to break into the virgin grounds.

Olympic 5000m silver medallist Hellen Obiri, 2017 world cross country champion Irene Jebet Cheptai and Sheila Chelang’at marshalled forces in 10,000m. And all they could earn was a fourth-place finish for Obiri.

Obiri, who won silver in 5,000m, also bowed to Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan. It still a tall order for Kenya to win her maiden women’s 10,000m Olympic gold.

World 3,000m steeplechase record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, Olympic 3,000m steeplechase silver medallist Hyvin Kiyeng and 2014 Commonwealth Games 3,000m steeplechase champion Purity Cherotich Kirui found the going tough in their chase for Kenya’s first Olympic women’s gold medal in the water and barriers race. Kiyeng, a silver medallist in 2016 Rio Games, settled for bronze.

But it was reprieve as Olympic champions Faith Chepng’etich (1500m) and Eliud Kipchoge (marathon) emerged as Kenya’s two-time Olympic champions. They joined the elite club of David Rudisha and Ezekiel Kemboi. [Jonathan Komen]

It was heartbreak in men’s 5,000m and 10,000m races as Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda and Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega struck gold medals. Commonwealth Games 10,000m bronze medallist Rodgers Kwemoi, world 10km record holder Rhonex Kipruto and road racer Weldon Kirui were too slow for their challengers.

Kenya has not won women’s 10,000m gold medal at the Olympic Games. The late Naftali Temu won Kenya’s men last 10,000m gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. It is another huge task in men’s 5000m race where John Ngugi was the last Kenyan to win gold at the 1988 showpiece in Seoul, Korea.

But the men’s 3,000m steeplechase dominance for 53 years –between 1968 and 2016 Olympic outings –was under threat from the onset. There has been a steady invasion from Americans, French and the Ethiopians in the race.

In 2019, Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto won by the thickness of his vest against Ethiopian Lamecha Girma. It was the closest ever finish in 3000m steeplechase at the World Championships.

Olympic champion Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco and reigning Diamond League trophy winner Getnet Wale of Ethiopia have been posing serious threats.

Kenya has been dominant in the race over the years and that dominance could be seen when four-time world champion Ezekiel Kemboi always strolled to victory in the last lane of the track as his compatriots followed by closing the podium places. That’s a mirage. Benjamin Kigen saved Kenyan blushes as he won bronze.

World under-20 silver medallist Leonard Bett and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Abraham Kibiwott failed to impress.

Against all odds, US-based Emmanuel Korir and Ferguson Rotich led 1-2 to retain David Rudisha’s title but it was a long for 2013 world 800m champion Eunice Sum to reclaim the title Pamela Jelimo won at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. 

 Timothy Cheruiyot’s bid to join the club of Olympic champions in Kipchoge Keino (1968), Peter Rono (1988), Noah Ng’eny (2000) and Asbel Kiprop (2008) went up in smoke. He settled for silver.

But Ferdinand Omanyala’s feat to reach semi finals in 100m forms a chapter of Kenya’s Olympic history. Eliud Kipchoge became the third man in history to win Olympic marathon twice after Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila (1960 and 1964) East  Germany’s Waldemar Clerpinski (1976 and 1980).

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