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Kemboi out to hog London limelight

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 3- Ezekiel Kemboi adores nothing more than hogging the limelight, commanding headlines and his penchant for attracting publicity has endeared him to the hearts of Kenyans.

Whether it his ‘Pamela Chepchumba’ dance at the Daegu Worlds, his hurdling celebration when he won his maiden steeplechase title in Berlin or his bold declaration, “If I don’t win gold, I will never come back to Kenya,” ahead of Beijing Olympics, Kemboi is a media darling and the consummate showman.

His antics coupled with a litany of enviable success in the water and barriers race, an event known in this land as ‘Kenya’s race’ has catapulted Kemboi from a teenage aspiring disc jockey to one of the most recognised runners – an admirable feat considering Kenyans rarely embrace their talented athletes.

However, the Athens Olympics and two-time world champion, is averse to the very media he relies on to amplify his antics to his adoring public, offering himself for interviews when he wishes and easily melts away in the presence of journalists.

But there is no arguing Kemboi ranks among, if not, the best male steeplechaser to bestride the earth since he hatched his career in 2001 but preparations for potentially his last Olympic hoorah in London generated a storm of publicity he did not relish.

Having qualified for his third Olympics by finishing second to reigning titleholder, Brimin Kipruto at the June 23 Trials, the media machine went overdrive last Thursday when Kemboi was arraigned in court facing criminal assault charges.

Although not in the open domain, Kemboi’s love for finer things in life especially in his Eldoret home town is the stuff of legend.

On that fateful Wednesday, June 27 night, his presumed date with Ann Njeri Otieno ended up with the 26-year-old restaurateur beauty in hospital nursing injuries including a stab wound to the chest and the steeplechase star accused of inflicting them.

It took five days for Team Kenya chiefs to confirm his aspirations of being the first Kenyan male steeplechaser to win two Olympic gold medals and the third behind Reuben Kosgei and Kipruto to hold the Worlds and Olympics titles simultaneously were still on.

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The scenario was different four days before the alleged assault incident when Kemboi raced 8:12.82 to finish behind Kipruto at the London 2012 selection event to nail his slot after competing at the Athens and Beijing Olympics for his nation.

“I feel so great to be in the Olympics. I’m so happy since this is my third Olympics. I will go now to start new plan for London, Agenda 1 is done, to make the team, now it’s time to Agenda 2,” Kemboi gushed after entertaining the 15,000 gathered with a rendition of his famed jig before revelling in a well received lap of honour.

Such was his supreme confidence that he would make the team that he appeared to usher Kipruto to go for the victory after catching up with him and pulling alongside in the last 50m- he had the luxury of saluting to the crowd in the third lap when he was hanging in the tail of a world class team in what was signature Kemboi repertoire.

Having proclaimed as he waited in queue to check-in for his flight to Beijing four years ago that he would not return home if he did not retain his crown in another priceless sound byte for cameras, Kemboi reflected on his failure in China.

“In Beijing I was sick, I had stomach problems and it cost me as I became number 7. In London, I’m going to watch on my diet especially during the competition period and as for my training, I’m going to do my best in London.”

When put across that he had won the last two world titles hence installing him as a firm favourite for the top medal in the forthcoming Olympics he cautiously quipped;

“Everyone is a favourite for the medal, everybody! From here, I want to sit down with my coach and prepare for the Olympics.”

On if he deliberately allowed Kipruto to lead him to the altar at the Trials, he replied, “I just wanted to be in the top 2 and that one worked well.”

“I love all Kenyans, I had to dance for them in the same way I did in Daegu. I want to tell all Kenyans, I love them all, cheer us in London and I will do my best,” the steeplechase champion added on his rendition that included an imitation of his friend, Usain Bolt’s arrow after the race.

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Turning to the expected challengers to the Kenyan hegemony in the water and barriers race in London, the Berlin and Daegu gold medallist admitted it would not be all about the red, green and black brigade.

“The French guys are strong, so are the Bahrainis and Qatari, everyone is strong and they all want to win a medal and so is I. As a sportsman, I say may the best man win. Thank you very much,” he expressed as he nonchalantly took his leave from the press hounds.

Having bounced back from his Beijing disappointment to sour to the last two World titles, the second in Daegu witnessing the show pony at his best when a devastating sprint in the back straight saw him finishing with the aplomb of cutting across all lanes as he crossed the line, no one doubts Kemboi’s fortitude of overcoming the damaging assault charges.

With the case set for hearing in September, Kemboi who has stated his intention to step up to the marathon may yet see his post-London celebrations clouded by an incident that allegedly occurred when he was at his element in his home town where he is universally adored.

So, how big is Kemboi in Kenya?

“We need the likes of Mr. Kemboi to have their careers secured so that they can continue making us (Kenyans) proud in the International arena. There should be official security provided for our sportsmen and women as it is in other countries,” Ida Odinga, the spouse of Prime Minister, Raila, said in a statement sent to newsrooms on Tuesday in her response to the incident.

“Last week, when I joined the Prime Minister for the dinner hosted by the mothers of the London bound athletes at the Safari Park Hotel, I saw optimism amongst these great ambassadors of our Nation.

“But I am deeply distraught by the incident in Eldoret last week involving Kemboi; a young and promising Kenyan who’s intend is to continue making Kenya proud in such world competitions,” her statement added as she blamed administrators in sport of not shielding runners from being mired in such incidents.

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