Once again, the moment for athletics enthusiasts in Kenya to remain in entertainment joints until late in the night as they follow the World Championships action is drawing closer.
In just four days, global stars will be assembling in Budapest for the 2023 World Championships, with thrillers, adrenaline and renewal of rivalry expected to play out.
Last year in Eugene, Oregon, the country’s enthusiastic athletics fans almost lost steam after the country failed to dominate the podium in its traditional races such as the men’s 3000m steeplechase, 1500m, and marathon.
Athletes, who represented Kenya in the 1990s, attributed last year’s poor show to coaches' failure to adopt modern training techniques.
Steeplechasers such as Ezekiel Kemboi, who has four World titles to his name after back-to-back top spots from 2009 Berlin to 2015 Beijing, Moses Kiptanui (1991, 1993 and 1995) and Conseslus Kipruto (2017 and 2019) are examples of athletes who dominated the water and barrier race in their prime.
Commonwealth silver medallist Abraham Kibiwott, 2018 World Under-20 silver winner Leonard Bett and rising star Simon Koech; the men charged with reclaiming Kenya’s lost glory in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase have an enormous assignment in Budapest, Hungary.
Koech, who is transiting to the seniors, is heading to the global championship with high hopes of reclaiming the lost glory in the race.
He stunned his seniors at the national trials earlier in July and exuded confidence in writing history in Budapest. He went ahead to win the 3000m steeplechase at the Monaco Diamond League on July 21.
The 20-year-old athlete also promised to team up with Kibiwott and Bett in a plot to restore Kenya's lost glory.
“Making the team to Budapest was a source of confidence. I know the expectations of Kenyans who are eager to see us recapture the world title in the 3000m steeplechase,” Koech said in a recent interview.
“The win at the Monaco Diamond League has given me more confidence. I will try my best to bring the gold medal back to Kenya because it has always been my dream to make my country proud as I transition from the junior level to the senior ranks.”
Defending champion Soufianne El Bakkali of Morocco and 2022 runner-up, World Record holder Lamecha Girma from Ethiopia are expected to lead their countries’ 3000m steeplechase charges in the global showpiece.
Last year, former World Champion Conseslus Kipruto came home with bronze after El Bakkali and Girma took the top two slots respectively.
Kipruto was the last Kenyan man to bag gold in the race having clinched the title at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
In the women’s 3000m steeplechase, World Record holder in the water and barriers race Beatrice Chepkoech, who is returning to form after a nagging injury, will be leading the country’s top women steeplechasers such as Commonwealth champion Jackline Chepkoech and World Under-20 gold medallist Faith Cherotich in what is likely to be a blistering contest for medals in Budapest.
No Kenyan woman made the steeplechase podium last year in Oregon, and like their men counterparts, the Beatrice Chepkoech-led squad has another daunting task.
Norah Cheruto, a Kenyan-born Kazakhstani took the women’s crown in Oregon and Ethiopians Werkuha Getachew and Mekides Abebe placed second and third in last year’s World Championships.
"We lost to Soufiane El Bakkali (of Morocco) and Lamecha Girma (Ethiopia) in the men's 3000m steeplechase because we blundered in our tactics. The rest of the world has known our secret. They know that we win in fast-paced races and they decided to be tactical by maintaining a slow pace and finishing fast," Birir said in a telephone interview with Standard Sport last year.
Just days before the international athletics contest in Budapest, steeplechase legends and experts are hoping that Kenyans learnt from the 2022 Eugene World Championships and the 2020 Olympic Games where the athletes failed to win gold and silver, save for Kipruto’s bronze.
According to Birir, who claimed steeplechase gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, there is a need to correct the tactical blunders that cost the national team its traditional race (3000m steeplechase) in Oregon.
Among tactical goofs that cost Kenya the steeplechase gold was a failure to sacrifice one athlete for the ‘rabbit’ role.
"Team Kenya has to sacrifice one athlete who will play the rabbit, and will have a better chance of bagging medals this time,” said Birir.
Kiptanui, one of Kenya’s most successful steeplechasers in history, said fans will celebrate medals in the race when the coaching style is changed.
He says 1990s coaching styles should be phased out to pave the way for modern tactics.
"It is not just about going to the roads and tracks to build body strength. Building our mental strength and teamwork is the key. Last year, athletes from other countries were winning without much struggle." he said.
“That tells you that our coaching style is not producing the best talents because times are changing and we are not focusing on mental strength and building team spirit because we think other countries are not aiming at dethroning us," Kiptanui, who coached steeplechase big shots such as Ezekiel Kemboi after retirement, added.
Sports scientist Dr. Byron Kipchumba said steeplechasers will need a ‘tougher’ understanding of the race ahead of next week's contest.
Kipchumba advised team coaches to build excellent chemistry with the athletes and scientifically study all the athletes in the 3000m steeplechase and prepare athletes to understand how to respond to actions without burnout.
“Team mechanics will be extremely important. The coach will require to work around the schedule and allow the athletes to conservatively qualify without the expenditure of excess energy. This means that they have to read their opponents without displaying their strengths," he said.