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Why Kenyan steeplechasers face huge barriers in Tokyo contest

OLYMPICS By Jonathan Komen | July 23rd 2021
Kenya's Conseslus Kipruto (L) and Benjamin Kigen compete in the Men's 3000m steeplechase race heats at the 2019 IAAF Athletics World Championships at the Khalifa International stadium in Doha on October 1, 2019. [Photo by Jewel Samad AFP)

The writing is on the wall. From today, Kenya's men and women's 3000m steeplechase team face an uphill task at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

For the men's team, it remains a riddle as to whether they will stretch Kenya's dominance in the race that started in 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City where Amos Biwott wore the crown and sie then it is a record 11 titles so far for Kenya.

Kipchoge Keino became the second Kenyan to win gold in the race at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

The nation basks in the glory of wins in nine editions including 1-2-3 sweeps in 1992 Barcelona and 2004 Athens Olympics.

Ezekiel Kemboi and Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland are the only two-time Olympic champions. Kemboi won in Athens (2004) and London (2012) while Iso-Hollo won back-to-back titles in Los Angeles (1932) and Berlin in 1936.

But there has been an invasion from Ethiopia, France and USA in the last few years.

In 2019, Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto won by the thickness of his vest against then Ethiopian teenager Lamecha Girma.

Former world silver medalist Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco and reigning Diamond League trophy winner Getnet Wale of Ethiopia have also posed serious threats.

Kenya's winning margin has been narrowed over the years and Kenyans no longer breath with ease.

Kenyan men have dominated the race between 1968 and 2016 Olympic outings, but it is now under threat.

It now remains to be seen if the three athletes selected will respond when called upon in Tokyo early next month.

Kenya recorded three podium sweeps in 1997, 2007 and 2015 as well as striking the 12th gold medal last year in the history of the World Athletics Championships.

London (2017) and Doha (2019) worlds provided a perfect indicator that Kenya’s performance in the race is waning steadily after losing silver and bronze medals.

Despite having failed to win titles, Frenchman Mahiedine Mekhisi-Benabbad and America’s Evan Jager have spoiled the Kenyan party in Olympics and the World Championships.

Jager won silver at the Rio Olympics and two bronze medals at the worlds in 2011 and 2013.

Even before the dust settled on the duo, Ethiopians and Moroccans mounted a wave of attacks at the World Athletics Championships and the Diamond League series.

World under-20 silver medallist Leonard Bett, Commonwealth Games silver medallist Abraham Kibiwott and Africa champion Benjamin Kigen must be at their best to protect Kenyan turf. Kibiwott said: “There is no cause for alarm. We will deliver it.”

Kigen, who finished sixth at the 2019 Doha worlds in 3000m steeplechase, ruled out Ethiopian threat in the water and barriers race.

Kigen, who is the reigning African Games champion, said: “Kenyans should not worry at all. Indoor and outdoor events are quite different. But let me assure you that we will beat them. We have studied their tactics well.”

Since the women’s 3,000m steeplechase was introduced at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, no Kenyan has won gold save for Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet, who ran away with the title at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But Beatrice Chepkoech, the world 3000m steeplechase champion and record holder over the distance, has vowed to kill two birds with one stone this season: win an Olympic gold and lower her all-time mark.

But she has a mountain to climb against America’s 2017 world champion Emma Coburn and silver medallist Courtney Frerichs at the Olympic Games.

“I know they are still in good shape but I am also ready for them. I know Americans in Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs will be in the start line," she said.

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