Kenyans seek to break European curse as they head to Budapest

Simon Koech (left) and Ishmael Kipkurui training at Moi International stadium ahead of the 19th edition of the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Aug 14, 2023. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

History, threat and uncertainty define Kenya’s medal prospects at the 19th World Athletics Championships that gets underway inside the National Athletics Centre in Budapest, Hungary, on Saturday.

There is a history of poor Kenyan performances at the World Athletics Championships and the Olympic Games held in western Europe and the US. But they stage good shows while competing in Asia.

Questions now abound on whether the 57-member squad to Budapest, Hungary, will change Kenya’s athletics terrain in Central Europe and prove critics wrong.

It has been heart-breaking watching Kenyan athletes fail to impress whenever the biennial contests are staged either in western Europe or the USA –since its inception in Helsinki, Finland, in 1983.

It’s now a riddle on whether Kenya’s athletics machines will defy the rulebook in Budapest and produce impressive shows from Saturday.

Kenya has competed in every edition of the World Championships since its inception in 1983 and won the second highest number of gold medals at the biennial showpiece after the USA.  

It has won 161 medals (62 gold, 55 silver and 44 bronze), with men winning 102 medals (42 gold, 34 silver and 26 bronze) while women bask in 59 medals (20 gold, 21 silver and 18 bronze) – it ranks fourth on all-time placing tables at the competition. Sadly, a sizable number of these jewels were won in events held in Asia.

Kenya could not win any medal at the inaugural event in Helsinki in 1983 but managed three gold medals Rome, Italy (1987) and Stuttgart, Germany (1993) before settling for two gold medals in Gothenburg, Sweden (1995), Athens, Greece (1997), Paris, France (2003) and London (2017) as well as last year in Eugene, USA.

In the same vein, the nation managed only one gold medal in two editions –Seville, Spain (1999) and Helsinki, Finland in 2005.

But the team to Budapest would summon high hopes if the four gold medals Kenya won at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Germany –situated in Central Europe –is anything to go by. On the flipside, Kenya won five gold medals at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Russia, which is situated in eastern Europe.

Strangely, the nation has staged brilliant shows while competing in Asia –right from nine medals (five gold, two silver and two bronze) at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea; 1991 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo, Japan, 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China; 2011 World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea; 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing, China and 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. Kenya topped the medal standings at the Beijing worlds in 2015.

Dr Kipchumba Byron, a Kinesiology and sports science expert from University of Georgia, said the challenge is in the USA and western Europe. Kenya won five gold medals at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Russia, which is in eastern Europe.

“It is something that has been our subject of discussion. If you look at it, it is not just the USA but also western Europe. Look at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, where we managed one gold through Benjamin Limo in 5,000m. In the 2012 London Olympic Games we had two gold medals, and in the 2017 World Championships we had two gold medals.

“One reason is altitude and environment. For reasons unknown geographically, the western hemisphere does not favour the Kenyans. If you look at Ethiopia, they are better in Europe and USA than in Asia. There is a factor of climate.

“Summer in Europe is very hostile. But Asia and Australia is favourable as it is similar to the African climate. That could be one logical explanation that can link the two regions in terms of performance,” said Kipchumba, who taught and coached athletes at the athletics-rich Singore Girls High School in Elgeyo Marakwet.

“The other issue is psychological. The coaches contained that they were okay instead of thinking otherwise. What kind of knowledge did they have prior to going to the World Championships? There is also consistency on the part of coaches. Are they the same coaches who are handling the national team year in, year out? Do they have anything new in terms of understanding the race dynamics? The local dynamics? Technically, such disappointing performances will be witnessed for a long time to come.

“We have been surviving on winning one or two gold medals because of the dominance of men’s 3,000m steeplechase, which has come to an end. In my hypothesis, the expectation is that we will experience the same results this time. We will still have the same conversation,” said Kipchumba.

Boniface Tiren, a famous steeplechase coach in Elgeyo Marakwet, differs with Kipchumba.

“I don’t think such a concept determines our performances. If indeed it does, how come we have never managed to win gold in men’s 5,000m since 2005 and 10000m since 2001.

“It all boils down to the level of our preparedness, level of training, planning and athletics grassroots. That’s from schools. We won the men’s 10,000m gold medal in 1987 in Rome, 1991 in Tokyo and 2001 in Edmonton, Canada. Why not in Daegu, South Korea in 2011, which is in Asia? No. No. We need to invest and have a long term programme. It also depends on the strength of the team,” said Tiren.

Kenyan team heading to the World Championships are longing to reclaim men’s 3,000m steeplechase, which the nation had dominated in since 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when Amos Biwott won it.

The nation has won 13 gold medals in the water and barriers race at the worlds.

The team also long to reclaim men’s 5000m and 10,000m titles. Benjamin Limo won Kenya’s last 5000m title in Helsinki, Finland, in 2005 while Charles Kamathi won the last 10,000m gold in Moncton, Canada, in 2001. 

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