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History beckons steeplechasers

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NAIROBI, Kenya, August 8- The Athens 1997 and Osaka 2007 editions of the World Championships remain special to Kenya.

Those were the events where the country totally owned the podium in an event that has come to be known as ‘Kenya’s race’ namely -the men 3000m steeplechase.

In Athens, Wilson Boit Kipketer led three-time Worlds champion, Moses Kiptanui and Bernard Barmasai to fill the rostrum.

Exactly a decade later in Osaka, Olympics titleholder, Brimin Kipruto shared the podium with Ezekiel Kemboi and Richard Mateelong for the shut-out.

The introduction of the women’s equivalent at the 2005 Worlds in Helsinki posed a challenge for female runners to play catch-up with their male counterparts and ahead of the Daegu edition later this month, there is every possibility their chance has come.

“Women steeplechase has improved rapidly in the last two years and it is possible our team is capable of winning all the six medals on offer in Daegu,” Athletics Kenya general secretary, David Okeyo told Capital Sport.

During last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, history was made when the country won all medals on offer in the water and barriers race, an unprecedented achievement that got lost in the phenomenal showing Team Kenya track and field exponents recorded with a haul of 11 gold, ten silver and eight bronze.

In the men’s running, Mateelong led World champion Kemboi and Kipruto to the podium sweep with Milka Chemos, Mercy Njoroge and Gladys Jerotich matching their feat at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

The three podium finishers in Osaka and Delhi return to Daegu with Lydia Rotich taking the place of Jerotich in the women’s squad.

Newcomer Abraham Chirchir, 29, who finished third at the Kenyan Trials before racing 8:30.78 for fourth at the recently concluded CISM World Military Games, is the fourth runner in the men’s squad with Kemboi getting the automatic entry as titleholder.

“Competition has become tough especially from France, two of their runners prevented the 1-2-3 in Beijing and Berlin. We need to work as a team to realise the goal, we work to get everyone out of the race then at the bell, it becomes everyone for himself,” Mateelong who was the in-form steeplechaser last season said.

“But on occasion, our team has not been doing that since everyone wants to make a name for themselves and I believe this has cost us medals, we should not do that in Korea. I’m ready to sacrifice for the team and they should also do likewise but I retain ambitions to win my first world title.”

Having missed the world record by one hundredth of a second in Monaco in addition to blowing away the competition at the Kenya Championships, Kipruto looks the surest bet to add his second world title.

It follows a remarkable cycle amongst the three top steeplechasers who trade form at subsequent seasons. Kipruto was untouchable in 2008 before Kemboi took over a year later with Mateelong on the ascendancy last season.

But the buzz surely has to be in the women’s ranks where the unbeaten Chemos- with seven wins in seven starts- is the automatic front runner.

Njoroge, who ran her close in Delhi, feels her moment is just around the corner while Rotich is finally on the upward trajectory after illness blighted her ascendancy that started when she won the Trials for the 2008 Africa Athletics Championships in Addis Ababa.

After failing to medal at last year’s Africa Championships and missing the Delhi party, her second place finish at the Trials confirmed the 22-year-old return to fine fettle.

“We have a strong team that I believe can go ahead and win all the medals. However, Ethiopians are coming on strongly and this season, the Russians who were the runners to beat at the World Championships have not competed and we do not know what to expect from them,” Chemos said.

“We do not have problems working as team among ourselves since we want to develop and inspire more women to come in because the event is still new,” the African, Commonwealth and soon to be confirmed two-time Samsung Diamond League champion added.

“There are no two ways about it, if our steeplechasers unite and help each other, it is going to be difficult for everyone else to get any medal and that is what we are working on since with unity, we can make history,” Daegu head coach, Peter Mathu emphasised.

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