For those of us honed in the frequently freezing cauldron of cross country running, the steeplechase is always a treat. It is the track version in summertime, although starting in a temperature of 13C last night it was hard to tell the difference. Nevertheless, the World Championships men’s race only bolstered its mystique; because Conselsus Kipruto added another chapter to the reputation of the modern event for being dominated by Kenyan eccentrics.
Swinging into the final straight in the London Stadium, it looked as if the Rio Olympic champion had a real battle on his hands. He clearly didn’t see it that way. He was barely a stride ahead of Soufiane Elbakkali over the last barrier, and for a brief moment it looked as if the Moroccan might turn back the tide of history; but all Kipruto seemed concerned about was that the crowd wasn’t cheering enough. Off the last fence, he cupped his hands to his ears, and indicated he wanted a bit more appreciation. The crowd responded accordingly, and Kipruto stretched away to victory in eight minutes, 14.12sec.
And so the dynasty continues – in both senses. For not only have Kenyans dominated the ‘chase for fifty years, winning all but two Olympic titles (due to boycotts) since 1964, and all but two world titles since 1983 (through oversights), they have done so with more than their fair share of ‘characters’.
Older readers may recall Amos Biwott, one of the contingent of Kenyans who gate-crashed the Olympic Games in Mexico 1968. Certainly the benefits of being born, nurtured and trained at altitude could not have become more apparent. At 2250 metres above sea-level, Mexico City was always going to be a contentious venue. The great Ron Clarke was beaten by men he and we had never heard of, and he blamed his latter day heart condition on the effects of having run himself into a stupor in Mexico.
The man considered as the godfather of Kenyan running, Kipchoge Keino won the 1500 metres by the biggest margin in history. Naftali Temu had preceded him as the first Kenyan Olympic winner, in the 10,000 metres. But it was Biwott who blew everyone’s minds, by managing to keep his feet dry even at the water-jump with his eccentric vaults across both barrier and briny. Thirty years later, Stephen Cherono, masquerading as Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar ran his two world title winning races in 2003/5 as if they were training sessions, alternating fast laps when he sped away from his rivals, with slower laps where he let them catch up.
Since then, Ezekiel Kemboi has been one of the most exuberant Kenyans you’ll ever meet outside the stage of a comedy club. The twice Olympic and four times world champion has treated us to detours into the outer lanes of the track on his final lap, and victory dances that would discredit a dervish; on one such occasion, he ended by jumping into the arms of his rival Mahiedine Mekhissi Bennabad. Fortunately the Frenchman is a big guy while Kemboi is a featherweight. The 35 year old Kemboi finally ran out of inspiration, and could only finish eleventh last night.
Speaking of Frenchmen, Pierre-Ambroise Bosse finally won the major 800 metres title that his aggressive running over the last half dozen years has deserved. A former European junior champion, in 2011, Bosse has been a consistent finalist at a senior level since the World Championships in Moscow 2013. That lengthy experience served him well last night after he was baulked at the break from lanes, and got shunted back into fifth. But he didn’t panic. He bided his time, and struck at the perfect moment, which is to say, in the middle of the back straight on the second lap, before his faster rivals (on paper) were expecting it.
Bosse caused a minor furore on the athletics websites a couple of weeks ago when he voiced his suspicions about Mo Farah’s continuing superlative form. It went no further than “I have my doubts” but it was enough for the host on the French TV chat-show he was on to do what Bosse did not do last night, ie panic and change the subject.
Well, like the rest of us, the personable Bosse has another chance to see Farah in action tonight when the Briton takes to the stadium for the heats of the 5000 metres, the first step towards defending his title, and a potential eleventh major gold medal.
At 30 years of age, Isaac Makwala won’t have too many chances to win a first world medal. In the form of his life, last night was supposed to be the Botswanan’s big opportunity to trade strides again with Wayde Van Niekerk, as he had done in the semi-finals of the 400 metres earlier in the week. But after missing the 200 metres heats with a bout of a vomiting bug which struck a dozen athletes of various nationalities at the same hotel, Makwala turned up to run the final, and was turned away from the stadium by IAAF officials who claimed that he had a contagious norovirus, and should be in quarantine.
In his absence, Van Niekerk’s victory in 43.98sec the final event of the evening was a bit an anti-climax. But the South African has another world title to his credit, to add to Olympic gold in Rio last year. And his campaign for a world ‘double’ this time continues tonight in the semi-finals of the 200 metres.