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Why we have 'owned' the steeplechase for years

Jackline Chepkoech of Team Kenya celebrates winning the gold medal in the Women's 3000m Steeplechase Final on day eight of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at Alexander Stadium on August 05, 2022 on the Birmingham, England. (Kelly Ayodi, Standard)

Ezekiel Kemboi became the first athlete to win the energy-draining 3000m steeplechase four times when he clinched gold at the World Athletic Championship in Beijing, China on Monday, August 24.

The two-time Olympian clocked 8m.11.28s ahead of Conseslus Kipruto, Brimin Kiprop, and Jairus Birech in the 1-2-3-4 finish that left Americans Daniel Huling and Evan Jager for dead.

How is it that one country has dominated the 3000m steeplechase ­— with different athletes — for 47 straight years against countries with superior sporting facilities?

Since Amos Biwott claimed gold (with Benjamin Kogo taking silver) in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Kenya has won all Olympic gold medals except in 1976 Montreal and 1980 Moscow Olympics which we boycotted for political reasons.

Did you know the first runner to run the steeplechase — in which women were forbidden until the 2008 Beijing Olympics — in under eight minutes was Kenya’s Moses Kiptanui?

He clocked 7:59:18 on August 16, 1995 in Zurich Switzerland, a record that was broken by another Kenyan, Stephen Cherono (now Qatari Saaif Saeed Shaheen), who slashed five seconds off it in Brussels, Belgium in 2004. It has remained the world record since.

Kenya is a dominant athletic country because geographically, it has the “greatest concentration” of athletes in “the annals of sport” notes John Manners (a journalist whose father was an anthropologist in the Rift Valley where they lived) who wrote Kenya’s Running Tribe.

 To prove how laughable Kenya’s prowess is, consider that in the 200-year-plus history of the US of A, only 17 runners have done the marathon in under 2:10 min. In 2011 alone, 32 Kenyan marathoners accomplished just that in October! Most hailed from the ‘athletic hot spot’ that is ‘Kale’ land.

Anthropologists, sports scientists and genetic engineers, have over the years camped in the Rift Valley to study the Kembois. The conclusion is that dominating the steeplechase is largely due to biological and ecological reasons and Darwinian natural selection of inherent talent.

The highlands of the Rift Valley are 10, 000 feet above sea level. Hearts and lungs in such regions have to adapt to low oxygen making their “cardiovascular systems exceptionally strong” meaning a Kenyan steeplechaser has more ‘hewa power’ than the pack, writes Jon

Entine in Shattering Racist Myths: The Science Behind Why Kenyans Dominate Distance Running.

Steeplechasers from the Rift grow on a large complex carbohydrate diet ideal for endurance races.

Their lithe, sinewy bodies have muscle fiber composition that contributes to ‘oxidative capacity.’ Thin ankles and calves specific to highland Nilotes ensure faster speeds without tiring.

In fact, outside of ‘Kale’ land, only Julius Kariuki won the 3000m steeplechase Gold claimed during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Kariuki-from the highlands of Nyahururu (that has produced five-time World Cross Country great John Ngugi and Olympic marathoner

Samuel Wanjiru) clocked 8:05.51 which has remained the Olympic record since. But guess who came second...Peter Koech!

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