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Olympic Running Events (IX): Steeplechase with Ezekiel Kemboi

KENYA’S STEEPLECHASERS – RUNNING AS NATURE INTENDED

2004-08-04

THE SITUATION:

The steeplechase is African property, certainly it belongs to the Kenyans above all, since one of their runners has been first across the line in the last five Olympic Games. There’s been the same dominance at World Championships but what extraordinary scenes there were last year in the Stade de France in Paris!

Ezekiel Kemboi was beaten by Saif Saeed Shaheen, running in the colours of Qatar after the strangest race in the history of the World Championships. Yet both men come from Kenya and Shaheen had already made a name for himself as a top runner and is the brother of Christopher Kosgei, the 1999 World steeplechase champion. This conundrum contains a tale of pride and sporting ability in equal measure.

Will it be repeated in Athens, a drama as tense as any thriller? It’s hard to see rivals outside of the Kenyan heritage, perhaps only the Moroccan Ali Ezzine, Olympic bronze medallist in Sydney and second at the World Championships a year later, might have a say. On the other hand it was not yet decided if Sheheen would be allowed to run in Athens after switching citizenship. He would need a go ahead by his former federation from Kenya!

KENYA’S STEEPLECHASERS – RUNNING AS NATURE INTENDED

Kenya always wins the steeplechase, that’s what they assume in Kenya. For Kenyans, it’s the most prestigious distance of all, more so than the 1500 metres or marathon. It is cross-country with barriers and water jump but on the track instead of the bush. Kenyan runners, from Kip Keino on the 1960s to Ezekiel Kemboi and the new hope, Brimin Kipruto, only 19-years-old, feel at home around eight laps of the track.

Kemboi and Saif Saeed Shaheen, who won the Commonwealth title two years ago as Stephen Cherono, are classic examples. But the track rivalry was overshadowed by considerations of sports politics. Cherono believed he wasn’t treated fairly by the Kenyan Federation. He went looking for a new home for his talents. Other Kenyan runners have had similar experiences. Qatar in the Persian Gulf had an exchequer rich in funds from oil production and wanted to raise its sporting profile. Both sides quickly came to an agreement and out of Stephen Cherono was born Saif Saeed Shaheen, right on cue for the World Championships.

Kemboi lost a thrilling duel with Shaheen eleven days before Paris at the Zurich Golden League meeting. There was an extra factor adding spice to the final: Shaheen’s brother, Abraham, had qualified and would finish fifth. The pace was crazy: covering the first lap in 59 seconds, Shaheen and his team-mate Abdullah Saifeldin were together and then the former Kenyan went through the first kilometre in 2:36.24, on course for a world record by five seconds!

By the second kilometre Shaheen had slowed and Kemboi was only a few metres behind. That’s when the funny stuff started: each wanted to prove that they had the better finish. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, it was the strangest race ever witnessed by spectators at a World Championships. Shaheen proved the stronger, but only after coming off the last barrier, winning in 8:04.39 against 8:05.11 for Kemboi. Eliseo Martin of Spain took third, with the last lap run in a super fast 57.5 seconds.

Can Ezekiel Kemboi take revenge in Athens?

Can Ezekiel Kemboi take revenge in Athens? Both are 22 and have been in good form this season, though Shaheen still seems to have the edge in basic speed. For Europeans such Simon Vroemen, runner-up in the European Championships in Munich two years ago, a place in the top five would be a dream come true. For Kemboi or Shaheen, failure would be not winning gold.


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