NAIROBI, Kenya, September 15- Caleb Mwangangi Ndiku completed a rare clean sweep of honours as Jairus Kipchoge Birech got into the golden act to continue his meteoric rise in the steeple when the IAAF Continental Championships wrapped up in Marrakech, Morocco on Sunday.
The battle of the continents saw the revered Kenyan distance running stars tally four gold medals for Africa (339), the biggest from a single nation at the event, but the hosts finished third on the overall standings behind winners Europe who scored 447.5 points and Americas (390).
Women world champion, Eunice Sum and Isiah Kiplangat Koech scooped the top medals in the women 800m and men 5000m finals on Saturday.
Two-time world champion, Asbel Kiprop and African 10,000m titleholder, Joyce Chepkirui enjoyed silver linings in the men 1500m and women 5000m races after being led to the altar by African teammates, Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti and rising Ethiopian sensation Almaz Ayana, the continental queen over the 12 and a half laps.
Five-star Mwangangi completes the sweep
Whatever happens in his career, and he is still 21, Caleb Mwangangi Ndiku will have 2014 engraved in gold after completing an amazing year by winning his fifth major honour.
As he prepares to return home for a well deserved rest and go over what has simply been an unbelievable season, Mwangangi stands as the World Indoor (3000m), Commonwealth Games (5000m), African Championships (5000m), Diamond League (3000m/5000m) and on Sunday night added the Continental Championships (3000m) gold to his personal collection.
That haul is enough for him to retire as a notable in distance running.
Fittingly, it was the last event of the two-day programme at the same Grand Stadium he ran to the continental title last month that Mwangangi once again raced to the middle step of the podium when he edged a stiff three-way battle for the gold that included the ‘grand daddy’ of athletics, Bernard Lagat, 40, his former compatriot who has representing America for an age.
Controlling much of the latter stages of the race, Mwangangi powered away from Azerbaijani Hayle Ibrahimov (7:53.14) down the home stretch to take the win unchallenged in 7:52.64.
“I wasn’t expected to come first, but I did it. It was in the last 100 metres when I felt strongly that I could win. The race was not easy, it was very technical, we ran together until the last 100 metres.
“I used my brain to control everything. The tape around my head is not an issue; I wrapped it when I felt the sweat going into my eyes, so I just made the hair band out of first material possible. I didn’t want anything to disturb me to this race,” the flamboyant athlete who was quite a sight with duct tape around his head said humbly.
“I came on the start with the aim to defend my title but I am also glad for the top three because I did not want to disappoint the team. With this team spirit, you have something to deliver and everybody is watching you. I am glad to take part again at the Continental Cup,” the deposed titleholder, Lagat who was third in 7:53.14 added.
Plan B delivers for Birech
World leader, African champion, Diamond Race winner and Commonwealth silver medallist, Jairus Birech, another who’s had an unbelievable 2014, also left Morocco with sweet memories after prevailing in the water and barriers race in 8:13.18.
Birech, 21, made it the eighth African steeple victory in the competition that started as the World Cup in 1977 in what was his ninth triumph of a stellar season.
While the outcome was not surprising since he duly fulfilled his favourite role, the manner the race panned out was strange in the stadium he won at the African Championships last month in his duel with rising American talent, Evan Jager.
After a topsy-turvy race, it was Jager who led from his African rival coming into the final straight, but the North American record-holder couldn’t hold on to his advantage and had to settle for second in 8:14.08, the first American top-three finisher in this event since Henry Marsh finished second in 1985.
“This was a tactical race; I had to use a plan B in order to kill Jager. I am satisfied with my performance today and I plan to maintain my pace,” Birech, who switched from sitting back and running to the front to ground his opponent disclosed.
“It was good race for my experience in steeple. I need to try different races and different tactics for future improvements. Today, I just wanted to be relaxed in the race to manage everything and be strong at the finish. At least, I’m happy with second place and happy to be part of Team Americas.
“It’s absolutely amazing feelings to talk to guys from everywhere and realize that you are the members of the same team, great Team Americas,” Jager added.
Revenge fails for Kiprop
Kiprop was on a mission to turn the tables after finishing runner-up to Souleiman in the African Championships but in the end, the Djibouti luminary once again prevailed over his lanky rival in the African 1-2.
The 2011 and 13 world champion had been content to linger second to the back until just before the bell, when Souleiman slipped into the lead and his Africa team-mate followed close behind.
With 200m to go, Kiprop tried to get past but Souleiman resisted. It was the same as the pair came into the home straight. Again Kiprop attacked and this time Souleiman not only held his ground but pulled ahead to win in 3:48.91.
Kiprop finished runner-up in 3:49.10 with European champion Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad of France claiming third in 3:49.53.
“I am used to fight with Kiprop all the time: all the Diamond League meetings and other events but today, it was a completely different situation.
Despite the fact that we are in the same team, we were running our individual race. When I felt him behind me, it was pushing me to speed up. It is my second victory in Marrakech; I think it is my lucky stadium,” the winner said.
In the women 5000m final, Ethiopia’s Almaz put together the most commanding victory on the track on the penultimate final of the programme as Chepkirui led the challengers home for yet another African gold and silver performance.
“This is a lucky stadium for me,” said Almaz, who reached the finish in 15:33.32 to ahead of Chepkirui, who was rewarded with a 15:58.31 personal best.
The Ethiopian pulled free of her team-mate, building a cushion of some 40 metres on Chepkirui five laps to go, a lead she only kept adding to until she reached the finish.
Down the home straight Chepkirui had to struggle a bit to hold off a powerful closing charge by European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey, who came just 0.36 shy and finished third at age 40.
-Material from IAAF in compiling this report