Kenya: How Kenya Threw Away Rich Steeplechase Tradition

In Tokyo

1968 (Amos Biwott), 1972 (Kipchoge Keino), 1976 (Olympic boycott), 1980 (Olympic boycott), 1984 (Julius Korir), 1988 (Julius Kariuki) 1992 (Mathew Birir), 1996 Joseph Keter, 2000 (Reuben Kosgei), 2004 (Ezekiel Kemboi), 2008 (Brimin Kipruto), 2012 (Ezekiel Kemboi), 2016 (Conseslus Kipruto)... 2021 (Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco).

For the first time in 53 years, a Kenyan name is missing from the Olympic men's steeplechase gold medal podium.

The only misses came during the Olympic boycotts of 1976 and 1980, and even then, a red-hot Henry Rono could have swept back-to-back titles should Kenya have travelled to Montreal and Moscow.

And don't tell me heads won't roll.

Listening to athletes' post race comments and from intelligence gathered throughout Kenya's Olympic preparations, we shot ourselves in the foot!

We simply chose to throw our rich heritage out of the window.

No, don't blame it on the government.

No, don't blame it on the coronavirus.

There's certainly something that needs to be fixed on Athletics Kenya's technical bench.

Morocco's Soufiane El Bakkali even apologised for breaking the rich Kenyan tradition after he convincingly won the Olympic steeplechase final on a rainy night at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Competition time temperatures see-sawed between a high of 43 degrees and a low of 28 on race day, with a humidity of 80 percent, perhaps indicating how uncertain Kenya's night would be. Unsettled.

Trailblazing Biwott gutted

And indeed, what was expected to be a night of double gold for one of the world's top athletics nations turned into a celebration of silver and bronze.

Amos Biwott, himself, now 73, was gutted.

"I'm a very sad man," he told Nation Sport on telephone from his home on the border of Nandi and Uasin Gishu counties.

"Yes, the coronavirus pandemic might have affected training, but all the same I wasn't happy with how things were going on in the preparations.

"During our days, we had only one coach - the late Charles Mukora - who was assisted by John Velzian and we would spend one month in camp at high altitude, as a united team.

"But these days, there are so many coaches and managers, or I don't know what you call them."

The trailblazing Biwott said he received so many calls on Monday after the race that he had to switch off his mobile phone at some point. Disappointed.

"I didn't know what to tell all these people who were asking me what happened. But I hope we can recover and win this medal again."

On the scene of crime, meanwhile, just as he had promised, Kenya Defence Forces soldier Benjamin Kigen fought like it was war, chasing the Moroccan down the home straight, a little too late, the bronze medal a consolation Kenyan athletics purists will be hard-pressed to take.

El Bakkali won in eight minutes, 8.90 seconds with Ethiopia's Lamecha Girma, who ran Conseslus Kipruto to the wire at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, settled for another silver in 8:10.38.

Kigen battled for bronze in 8:11.45.

No teamwork

Being a Kenyan Olympic steeplechaser carries added pressure and responsibility, something Kigen and Abraham Kibiwot (10th in 8:19.41) were well aware of.

Kenya had already dropped junior champion Leonard Bett in the semi-finals.

But from information available and, sadly, corroborated by performance on the track, the Kenyans lacked tactical discipline and teamwork, not just in the steeplechase, but also in the women's 5,000 metres.

They were at sixes and sevens.

With Kenya's opponents spending sleepless nights scheming how to upset the country's dominance, it was clear that Hellen Obiri, Lilian Kasait Rengeruk and Agnes Jebet Tirop in the 5,000m along with Kigen and Kibiwot in the steeple attacked Monday night's finals as individuals, rather than as Team Kenya.

Indomitable Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan won the 5,000m, the first race in her treble attempt, in 14:36.79 with Obiri fighting for silver in 14:38.36 and Ethiopia's Gudaf Tsegay taking the bronze to Addis Ababa in 14:38.87.

Obiri wanted a fast race to burn out Sifan, but the Kenyan camp couldn't agree on who to sacrifice in a game plan that would have easily helped the world champion to her first Olympic gold.

"The race pace was slow and this is what Sifan wanted. I wanted a fast race, but, unfortunately, none of us was prepared to go out fast," Obiri explained.

"Everybody wanted to win, but for me to finish second is something great although the race was a little bit slow and nobody wanted to go in front, and, as you know, Sifan is good in the final 400 metres... I tried to follow her but there's nothing I could do. I tried my best."

Kigen was equally disappointed.

"Ideally, we are supposed to work as a team but, unfortunately, each one of us had a separate coaching programme and we didn't train as a team," he said, visibly disappointed.

"But I, personally, have learnt my lessons... I shouldn't have let El Bakkali open up that huge gap because I tried to close it and it was difficult."

El Bakkali is an admirer of Kenyan steeplechase running and was, sort of, apologetic for beating the Kenyans.

"Conseslus is my good friend... Please say sorry to him," he said at the media mixed zone as he tackled media interviews, proudly draped in the red Moroccan flag.

A Kenyan tradition broken.

Will it be business as usual?

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