Ezekiel Kemboi’s last year on the steeplechase throne

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The Birds Nest stadium in Beijing. Picture: ronan crowley via Flickr

In a nation that has dominated the steeplechase for so long, it can be hard for a Kenyan to stand out in the event.

However, for the best part of ten years, one man managed to do so.

Multiple Olympic and World champion Ezekiel Kemboi’s long time at the top saw him become the greatest steeplechaser the world has ever seen, the undisputed king of the event in almost every sense of the word.

Judging purely by the times he recorded, it may seem strange to paint Kemboi in this light. He never made the top five of the all-time lists and was only the fastest in the world during two of his 16 years competing internationally.

However, his record at major championships is simply unrivalled, with his two Olympic golds,  four world golds and three silvers proving that he knew how to consistently be at his best for the big occasion.

Kemboi had it all. The ability, the desire and the charisma. Watching his celebrations was often just as entertaining as watching him race, with the multiple world and Olympic champion never afraid to let his joy in victory shine through.

And nowhere was this joy more reflected than at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, which saw the already legendary steeplechaser grab an unprecedented fourth successive gold, beating his own record as the oldest ever world champion in the event’s history.

It would also prove to be the very last time that the steeplechase king would ever sit on his throne, missing out on medals at the following Olympics and worlds before making an official switch to the marathon.

However, it was also truly memorable for the simple fact that it was Ezekiel Kemboi just doing what he does best.

When the likes of current Olympic and world champion Conseslus Kipruto came along, Kemboi’s position as the dominant force was seriously under threat.

Kipruto was very young, still a teenager at the 2013 world championships and only nine when Kemboi won his first major gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games.

Despite this, Kipruto did come very close in 2013 to finally dethroning the man who had dominated for so long.

A final surge after the very last hurdle in the home straight in Moscow saw Kipruto quickly begin to claw back Kemboi’s lead that he had amassed with a near-perfectly timed kick with 200m to go.

But his rival never really looked under threat. His kick had already done the damage, with Kemboi relaxing somewhat in the final few metres before embarking on another of his captivating celebrations.

Two years later in Beijing, it appeared as though the three-time world champion’s time at the top was coming to an end.

The Glasgow Commonwealth Games the previous year saw him only come away with his first bronze medal at a major tournament, beaten by compatriots Jonathan Ndiku and Jairus Birech.

With Birech sitting top of the 2015 rankings, and the USA’s Evan Jager emerging as a strong contender, Kemboi faced his sternest test yet. But when the final came at the famous Birds Nest in Beijing, Kemboi knew exactly what to do. With all the young contenders present in the race, the under-fire world champion instead decided to sit back and let them battle it out in the early stages.

For much of the final, Kemboi was largely anonymous, yet still never lost sight of the battle at the front.

Then, with just over 300m left to go, the 33-year-old produced one of the most astonishing kicks that you could ever wish to see.

He scorched past the front three with a turn of pace that most sprinters would be proud of, shrugging off the final hurdle to signal the start of yet another iconic victory celebration.

Once again, as he had been doing for over a decade, the pulled a big moment out of the bag at the best possible time, shaking hands with every single competitor that crossed the line as he revelled in yet another moment of glory.

Despite this achievement, Kemboi’s time in the steeplechase would end rather unceremoniously. A controversial disqualification at the Rio Olympics the next year saw him just miss out on a bronze medal, prompting him to delay his retirement until the world championships in 2017.

By that time however, Kemboi’s aura had all-but faded, with the London seeing him finish a disappointing 11th in the steeplechase final.

Therefore, it’s probably best to remember the 2015 World Championships as Kemboi’s official swan-song. Free from controversy, free from disappointments. Just the greatest of all time doing what he was born to do.

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First published on: 24 January, 2019 8:00 am

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