A few months after Usain Bolt made his first ripple on the surface of international track and field athletics, winning the world junior 200 metres title, at age 15 no less, in his backyard in Kingston, Jamaica, Stephen Cherono created a tidal wave, crushing all-time great Hicham El Guerrouj in the Moroccan’s much publicised senior debut at 5000 metres, in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
That was in June, 2003. And Cherono aka Saif Saaeed Shaheen has been making waves ever since, both on and off the track.
Though there had already been a trickle of Kenyans switching nationality to Gulf States, eager to use their oil wealth to build national sports teams, those athletes were mostly young unknowns. But when a emergent star like Cherono did the same, declaring for Qatar shortly after the Ostrava shock, and becoming Shaheen, there was widespread incredulity. And not only at the HQ of Athletics Kenya. Professional sports around the world have a long tradition of buying and selling players, including across international borders, but those players remain members of the national team of their birth. In athletics, switching nationalities had been the preserve of political and, increasingly, economic refugees; and the occasional move through marriage.
This looked like a blatant buy-out. with rumours of a million dollar sweetener to Cherono/Shaheen, and a pledge from Qatar to build a new track in Shaheen’s home of Eldoret, the heartland of Kenyan distance running. What’s more, Shaheen made no secret of the fact that he spent little or no time in Qatar, and had gone there for the day, to swap his Kenyan passport for a Qatari one, then gone back ‘home’. That was the story anyway, and he seemed happy to broadcast it. He told me as much in an interview I did with him at the Paris Golden League meet, a month after his switch.
I caught up with Shaheen, and prior to that, his former coach and mentor, Italian Renato Canova in Doha last week, the day before Shaheen’s return to the track after a lengthy absence through injury, which had ultimately required surgery.
When we had talked in Paris, it was clear that the newly minted Shaheen was a very bright young man and – unlike the majority of his former Kenyan colleagues, many of whom are country born and bred, and shy in English – ready to express his opinions. Vociferously. If anything, he has grown even more confident and contentious. At a press conference prior to the world cross in Jordan in March, a Kenyan colleague had given a diplomatic answer to a question about Ethiopians (ie Bekele and Dibaba) faking injuries in order not to run. With the glint of a natural born trouble-maker, Shaheen followed up, “They’re lying, they’re not injured at all”. Cue furore in the press tent, with Shaheen barely able to suppress a grin.
Our time in Doha was limited, since he was concerned about getting sufficient rest before his return to the track the following day, so we concentrated on just three races, all in 2003; that 5000 metres victory against El Guerrouj, won in 12.48.81, by the way, fastest time of that year; and the steeplechases at the World Championships in Paris, and at the World Athletics Final in Monte Carlo. They are the three events that did most to establish Shaheen’s reputation for eccentricity. But they are also three of the most extraordinary races I’ve ever witnessed, in that they say much about Shaheen’s intelligence and his will to win. Couple those with the sort of talent and work commitment (according to Canova) that Shaheen has and that is an almost unbeatable combination.
When I start by asking about the race against El Guerrouj, Shaheen takes up a sheet of paper, and lays it lengthways on the table between us. “The difference between me and everyone else is they do it this way,” he says, indicating the paper, before turning it sideways, and continuing, “I do it this way.
“I looked at his (El Guerrouj) races on the TV, trying to figure out, ‘what is he thinking?’ And I see every race, he goes (increases pace) from between 450 to 600 metres to go. So, in the 5000 metres, I waited. After 3000, he’s not moving. Then between 600 and 450, that’s exactly what he did. But I was waiting”.
The extraordinary thing in all this is that although he had won the Commonwealth steeple the year before, his best time for 5000 metres was only 13.11.55, and he was racing a man who was master of the final 500 metres in middle distance running; and had lost just one major 1500 metres race in seven years. But Cherono didn’t attempt to defuse El G’s long kick for home by going earlier himself, say from 600, 700 or even 800 metres from the finish. No, he waited for the superstar to do exactly as he’d planned. Then ambushed him. The supremely confident 21 year old followed the Moroccan’s kick, then killed him with his own extended sprint, to win by over 10 metres. El Guerrouj wasn’t the only party in the stadium suffering from shell-shock. He was just the worst.
Canova gives an insight into the mentality of his former advisee. “Stephen is incredibly serious in his choices. Unlike many of the Kenyans, he is able to focus when he is in full training. The sign of a good athlete is how they spend their free time, most of them don’t have enough rest. Stephen has a beautiful home in Eldoret, but he does a lot of his training in Iten (about 40k away, and location of the famous St Patrick’s School), where he has a poor room. South African television came to interview him, and they saw the two houses, and said, ‘how can you live here (Iten)?’ He said, ‘When I’m training, I need four things, a room, a bed, and maybe two blankets, for when it gets cold’. That’s the big difference,” continues Canova, “It’s the ability to be tough with himself”.
In Carl Lewis’ autobiography Inside Track, the US sprinter reveals that as a youngster he was considered the, ‘runt of the family’ by his high-achieving siblings. Shaheen, whose full birth name is Stephen Cheruyiot Cherono, says that his elder brothers treated him the same way. And when your elder brothers are Christopher Kosgei, world silver then gold medal in the ‘chase (1997/9), and Abraham Cherono, you begin to get the picture. What’s more, the big bro’s laid it on him. “I was very good at school, almost genius,” he says with disarming modesty. “My brothers told me, you’ll never be any good as an athlete. Go back to class. If somebody tells you that, you want to prove them wrong. This was my motivation”.
Representing Qatar for the first time, in the world championships final in Paris 2003, Shaheen and team mate, Khamis Abdullah went out like men demented, covering the first lap in 59sec, and the first kilometre in 2.36.24. Although slowing to 2.43.34 for the second kilometre, when Abdullah dropped back, Shaheen had a lead of 50 metres. But he throttled back, and seemed to let former Kenyan colleague, Ezekiel Kemboi catch him. They played cat and mouse for the next two laps, slowing even more, so the rest of the field were on their heels, before launching into a last lap (over barriers) of 57sec.
Shaheen, who won his first world title recalls, “There was pressure from the (Qatari) goverment, they provided a pacemaker, and I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I decided to follow (Abdullah). After two kilometres, I was very tired, but I have mental strength. If your mind says this guy (Kemboi) is not going to beat me, then he’ll never beat me. So, I slowed to stop him completely, I knew I could win on the last lap”. Having beaten Kemboi by one hundredth of a second in Zurich ten days before, he won by five metres in Stade de France.
The World Athletics Final a month later was even more impressive. Exhausted from a season which had begun with that demolition of El Guerrouj in mid-June, and stretched through seven undefeated steeples up to mid-September, Shaheen looked as if he was going to end with a defeat, when Paul Koech, having finished behind him on several occasions was close to 30 metres up at the bell. Shaheen summoned another superhuman effort, caught Koech five metres from the line, and won by four-hundredths of a second, in 7.57.38, the fastest of the year, and the fifth on the all-time list.
“That is one of my best memories,” says Shaheen. “In Zurich, there was a photo-finish with Kemboi, in Brussels, another photo with Koech. I was very tired (Monte Carlo), but in my mind, I said, this guy is not supposed to beat me. I’ve been winning everything, why can this guy beat me? I just had the strength to finish first”.
These three races were the greatest entertainment on a track this century, until Bolt got into his stride in Beijing. And the emergence of Bolt was all the more striking since the absence of Shaheen, injured before the start of the track season 2007 had left such a gap.
“He had a problem with his right knee,” says Canova, “and he tried to run all through 2007, without surgery. We went to Germany, to (Dr Hans-Wilhelm) Mueller-Wohlfahrt, many times. Finally he said, I cannot do more, this is a soccer injury, runners do not usually get it. He advised us to go to Augsburg, so we went the next day, January 18, 2008, and Stephen had an arthroscopy. Fortunately the tendon was OK, otherwise, he would never have come back. He started training in February, and in April, we went for 20 days to (intensive physiotherapist) Gerard Hartmann. But he still couldn’t run more than 50 minutes.
“At the end of May, he ran three races, 13.49 for 5000 metres, 7.47 for 3000, and 8.22 steeplechase. But he still couldn’t do long runs. So he had two months complete rest. And then started again”.
“I look at it positively, if in one year, I come back very strong ” says Shaheen, of his effective two-season absence. “I was disappointed to miss the Olympics. That was my dream, because of 2004 (his switch to Qatar was penalised by exemption from Athens). Now I’m on the road to 2012, I hope I don’t get injured again”.
I asked him what the name Shaheen meant to him, saying that given the history of European colonialism in Africa, wasn’t this a modern example of a slave name. That bemused him, and he said simply, “I prefer my English name”. He then added, “I didn’t do it for the money. I never requested a single penny. When I changed, it was because I was in a society where I couldn’t express an opinion”. I asked if he meant expression in grand political terms, or in local political terms. “Local political,” he replied.
He was ready for bed, with his race the following evening, ie last Friday in Doha.
He finished 13th in the world cross in late March, a mightily impressive run after such a lengthy absence. And now he was going to run 3000 metres against, principally, Eliud Kipchoge and Edwin Soi, former compatriots, who had finished second and third in the Olympic 5000 metres in Beijing.
“The time for this is not exactly right,” he said, which I took to mean that it was a bit early in the season and in his comeback to be pitching in against such speed merchants. But this is the biggest meet in Qatar. “But I wanted to come here and test myself against guys who run 5000 metres,” he continued. “If they run 7.30, I’ll be happy with 7.35-7.37, but if they run 7.35, who knows?”
As it happens, the traditionally fast end-of-meet race in Doha was, well, traditionally fast. Shaheen was always in the lead group, and only fell away when Kipchoge kicked in with a lap to go. Kipchoge won in 7.28.37, from Soi. But Shaheen hung in long enough to finish fourth in 7.32.46. He couldn’t contain his joy, clapping his hands in exultation as he crossed the line. And started us all thinking of what is to come over the barriers both in the lead up to the world champs in Berlin, and in the Olimpiastadion itself in mid-August.
But his ex-compatriots will undoubtedly have something to say about that. In Shaheen’s absence from the steeplechase, Brimin Kipruto has won both the 2007 world title and Olympic gold. But the star of Doha was 2004 Olympic steeple champion, Ezekiel Kemboi, who has also finished twice three times (twice to Shaheen) in the world champs. Kemboi ran away from Kipruto among others, to win in 7.58.85 in Doha, and was tempted to say afterwards that he wanted to take the world record of 7.53.63, which Shaheen had set in Brussels a month after Kemboi’s Athens 2004 victory.
So it looks like another vintage year in prospect in the ‘chase, with Kenyans and an ex-Kenyan duking it out down the finishing straights of the world’s major tracks.
And the odds are that when the dust settles, the last man standing will be Saif Saaeed Shaheen. Again.