The Kenyan steeplechasers celebrate their two medals in the Olympic final (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Men's 3000m Steeplechase - FINAL

What was supposed to be a Kenyan cakewalk turned into anything but thanks to one Mahledine Mekhissi-Benabbad of France.

Now Mekhissi-Benabbad did not strike gold, but the gutsy and unexpected nature of his silver medal means it will be the previously unheralded 23-year-old rather than the gold medallist, Brimin Kipruto, that will probably linger longer in the memory.

We should, of course, also hail the achievements of the remarkable East African nation who secured a seventh straight Olympic gold medal and have won every steeplechase title they have competed in since 1968 - they boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Games.

Kipruto, the World champion, bided his time and was back in sixth at the bell but timed his run to perfection to take the lead at the final barrier and hold off a late surge from Mekhissi-Benabbad.

Kipruto stopped the clock in a season's best of 8:10.34 - 0.15 ahead of the French athlete.

Behind, Richard Mateelong added Olympic bronze in 8:11.01 to the World bronze he won in Osaka last year.

Kipruto summed up his suprise at Mekhissi-Benabbad's performance by adding: "I didn't know the French guy before."

Going into the final Ezekiel Kemboi, the defending champion, had cast doubts on his ability to retain his Olympic crown by running a strange tactical heat to scrape into the final in the fourth and last automatic qualifying position.

However, it was Kemboi who raced to the front from the gun, although he struggled to impose his will on the race as Sweden's Mustafa Mohamed and briefly, South African Ruben Ramolefi swept into the lead, the latter taking them through the 1km mark in 2:46.97.

Mohamed returned to the front with Kemboi in close attention, although Mateelong and Kipruto preferred to hold a position in mid-division.

Three-and-a-half laps out US champion Anthony Famiglietti burst to the front only for Mohamed to re-establish control at the head of the field, passing 2km in 5:33.84 with virtually the entire 15-man field still in contention.

It was clear, however, that Mohamed did not inject enough pace in the race to avoid anything other than a last lap burn up for the gold.

The Swede dropped out of the medal picture and Kemboi tracked by Mateelong, the French duo of Mekhissi-Benabbad and Bouabdellah Tahri, Ethiopia's Yakob Jarso and Kipruto all looked to fill the podium at the bell.

Kemboi quickly faded out of the medal shake up, although Mateelong and Mekhissi-Benabbad were close in pursuit and Kipruto was starting to move through the field like a knife through butter.

At the water jump Kipruto moved ominously into the frame alongside Mateelong and Mekhissi-Benabbad and by the final barrier the World champion held a slight advantage from his compatriot with Mekhissi-Benabbad in third, appearing to slightly stumble at the final barrier.

However, the 2007 European Under-23 champion burst past Mateelong and then set his sights on Kipruto.

Alas, on this occasion, the 22-year-old Kipruto held on to be crowned Olympic champion. Mekhissi-Benabbad earned France's first Olympic Steeplechase medal since Joseph Mahmoud won the same colour medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Mateelong took the bronze.

Ethiopia's Yakob Jarso finished fourth in a national record of 8:13.47 to hint at his country's future potential at an event they have yet to master in the same way they have the 5000m and 10,000m. Their only medal at this discipline came in 1980, a bronze to Eshetu Tura.

Tahri finished fifth in 8:14.79 and Youcef Abdi of Australia, the 2002 Commonwealth 1500m bronze medallist, took sixth in a PB of 8:16.36.

Kemboi, faded to seventh in 8:16.38. Mohamed, the long-time leader, wound up tenth in 8:20.69. The first ever Moldovan men's Olympic finalist, Ion Luchianov, was 12th in 8:27.82.

For Mekhissi-Benabbad it had been a remarkable peformance. Last season he was crowned European Under-23 champion and also clocked a personal best of 8:14.22 but this season he has quietly progressed.

He landed the European Cup title in Annecy in June and after bagging the French title he was an impressive winner in Monaco (8:17.22), the last major international competition before Beijing.

Nonetheless, few would have predicted with any confidence he could slice nearly four seconds from his lifetime best in the Olympic final to take a silver medal. Victory and the plaudits, though, go to Kenya, again.

Steve Landells for the IAAF