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Captain Kemboi charged to lead from front

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Ezekiel Kemboi (right) in action during the August 1 Trials for Beijing in Nairobi. Teammate Jairus Birech (second left) won the race. PHOTO/Raymond Makhaya

Ezekiel Kemboi (right) in action during the August 1 Trials for Beijing in Nairobi. Teammate Jairus Birech (second left) won the race. PHOTO/Raymond Makhaya

NAIROBI, August 20- “I will not return to Kenya if I don’t win gold,” Team Kenya captain, Ezekiel Kemboi famously declared before he left for the Beijing 2008 Olympics to defend the men 3000m steeplechase title he had won in Athens four years before.

The charismatic 34 year-old was among the overwhelming favourites to hurdle to the top medal in a straight fight with compatriot Brimin Kipruto who had beaten him to the world title in Osaka a year before.

However, Kemboi snuck back to the country quietly two days after finishing seventh in the final won by Kipruto after he slumped to a shocking seventh finish and since then, the world has not known any other world or Olympics champion in Kenya’s signature race.

He returned with vengeance to win the next three world titles at the Berlin 2009, Daegu 2011 and Moscow 2013 editions between reclaiming the Olympics title at the London 2012 Games to cement his status as arguably the greatest steeplechaser of all time.

Kemboi is hungering to erase the nightmare of the Chinese capital with memories of his spectacular collapse in Beijing continuing to haunt him to date.

“I want to redeem myself here since I suffered food poisoning three days to the final at the Olympics,” Kemboi, who has been tasked to lead the team to 2015 Worlds, said Thursday at the Beijing Intercontinental Grand Hotel where the squad will be based for the duration of the championships that start Saturday and run to August 30.

“We have a young team with many of the runners out to make their name here and that gives me hope Kenya will do well. This is my last World Championships and I want to end on a high,” the skipper added.

To realise his dream, Kemboi has formidable internal competition to overcome with Kipruto returning to the venue of his greatest triumph aspiring for another slice of glory at the Bird’s Nest after failing to add to his 2007 Worlds and Beijing 2008 Olympics gold medals.

“I remember Beijing with happiness because I became the Olympics champion there. It made me motivate myself to return there. Even if it’s the World Championships this time, the Bird’s Nest is a special place.

“We have a strong team but it is almost the same group we had in 2008 and going there and winning again is my target,” Kipruto asserted before they left for China on Monday.

Having blazed the IAAF Diamond League circuit for the past two seasons, series winner and current leader, Jairus Kipchoge, believes this is his time to ascend to the world title.

“This is my year and there will be another name in the gold medal. I have worked so hard and winning these Trials will lift me,” Birech said after winning the Kenyan selection race for Beijing Worlds on August 1.

The fourth spoke in Kenya’s deadly artillery in the water and barriers race is Conseslus Kipruto, the world junior champion from 2012 who added Worlds silver behind Kemboi in Moscow 2013.

“It feels good to be back to the World Championships after a period injured and I will try my best to win another medal. We have a great team and I’m looking towards making my nation proud,” the youngest exponent in the squad told after finishing second at the Trials.

“This team can win all the medals if we work together. Personally, I’m happy to defend my title and I will work to ensure I do,” Kemboi, the figure head who is chasing an unprecedented fourth title to surpass the three he shares with his mentor and former coach, Moses Kiptanui, the legend from yore who swept to the 1991, 1993 and 1995 edition of the Worlds in Stuttgart, Tokyo and Gothenburg.

Kenyans will not have it all their own way when the heats start on Saturday with memories of July 4 when American and biggest threat Evan Jager almost upset Birech at the Areva Diamond League meeting in Paris in a loaded field where all the four Kenyans in the Beijing squad were present.

Jager will run with Conseslus in the first preliminary race before Kemboi and Kipruto take it on in Heat 2 with Birech closing the Kenyan charge in the final heat starting from 10:25am Kenyan time (+3GMT).

“We will work together to find the medicine for Jager in the final,” the captain promised should the Kenyan quartet make the Monday final where they are hoping to complete the first medal sweep at the Worlds since Osaka 2007 when Kipruto led Kemboi and Richard Mateelong to the podium.

The only other time the feared East Africans have achieved the feat was exactly ten years earlier in Athens when former record holder, Wilson Boit Kipketer, wrecked Kiptanui’s charge for a fourth straight title by beating him to silver as Bernard Barmasai came home for bronze when Athens hosted the biennial IAAF track and field showpiece.

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