Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya celebrates as he crosses the line to win the gold medal and set the championship record in the men's 3000m Steeplechase final in the Berlin Olympic Stadium (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News 19 August 2009 – Berlin, Germany

For Kemboi, Patience and perseverance pays

Berlin, GermanyJust in case anybody had missed the significance of his victory in the men’s 3000m Steeplechase last night, Ezekiel Kemboi began his press conference with what, for him, was an important statement. “In 2003, in Paris, I was No.2 – silver,” he said.  “In 2005, in Helsinki, I was again silver. In 2007, in Osaka, I was again silver.”

Sanya Richards wasn’t the only one with a monkey on her back going into the fourth day programme of finals.

Fittingly, as he spoke Kemboi was sitting in the chair just vacated by Richards. In successive finals, 15 minutes apart, Richards got her long-overdue global gold but her tale of frustration stretched back only as far as 2005. For Kemboi, the game of patience has been longer. Although he took the Olympic title in 2004, he had been forced to settle for second place in three successive World Championships dating back six years.

Who better for Kemboi to turn to than Moses Kiptanui to convert silver into gold? Kiptanui, the only athlete to win the World title three times, became Kemboi’s coach after his hat-trick of silvers in Osaka.  “In January I said to my coach ‘I am tired of silver’,” Kemboi said.  “So I did a lot of training and now, here in Berlin, I can say I’m the champion.”

Not only the champion but the championship record holder in succession to his coach. Kiptanui completed his three successive gold medals in 1995 with a championship record 8:04.16 but Kemboi obliterated it last night with the fastest time run in a World Championships or Olympics, 8:00.43.

Will it be Kemboi’s last Steeplechase championship? He revealed, in the wake of his victory, that he will now discuss with Kiptanui whether to retire from the Steeplechase and switch to the Marathon. Having won Olympic, World and Commonwealth titles, he feels that, with full set of Steeplechase gold medals, and having specialised in the event since 2001, he would like a new challenge.

“Now I am happy, now I can go to the Marathon,” the 27-year-old Kemboi said. “I have been in the Steeplechase for eight years, so I will decide with my coach whether to go to the Marathon or stay with the Steeplechase. My coach said: ‘Win first then we decide’.” Those talks will take place soon as Kemboi returns to Kenya today to prepare for his appearance in the AF Golden League, in Zurich, on Friday week.

Sporting a special championships haircut highlighting the logo of his sponsor at the back, Kemboi is a jovial character who laughed as he explained: “I think my sponsor is very happy for this win and also for the haircut.”

Kemboi has been a controversial and mischievous figure in the national team, accused by none other than Kip Keino, the most famous of all Kenyan athletes, and 1972 Olympic Steeplechase champion, of illegal hurdling during the 2008 trials for Beijing. At the same time Paul Kipsiele Koech claimed that Kemboi had pushed him as they came to the last 150 metres.

Athletics Kenya ignored the claims and, as the team departed for China, Kemboi announced: “If I don’t win gold I will never return to Kenya.” Afflicted by food poisoning, he finished seventh.

Kemboi, who had been his country’s only Olympic champion in Athens, did not go through with his threat. Asked why, he said: “Those are the kind of things we say to make the game a bit interesting.”

Then, this year, at the Kenyan National Championships, Kemboi slipped and fell after the water jump and finished ninth. Initially, he was disqualified, but was reinstated, after being accused of jumping outside the barrier. He went on to finish third at the Kenyan trials for Berlin behind Brimin Kipruto and Richard Mateelong, who finished seventh and second last night.

So much did his gold medal here mean to him that Kemboi ripped off his vest in celebration after crossing the line - in the way that is common among goalscorers in football but rare among middle distance runners. And so exhausted was he that, after kneeling on the ground, he had to be helped up by Mateelong.

Kemboi praised Kiptanui for improving his technique and his tactics. “He has taught me how to attack the barriers and how to shift the gears,” Kemboi said. Tactically, Kemboi was always near the front until he struck out for his victory in the last lap. “My coach told me: ‘Whoever goes ahead, I must stay No.2 until the last 400 metres’.”

The third of seven children, unlike most Kenyan top athletes, Kemboi did not run in school. Extracurricular interests included football (midfielder), music (DJ at school parties), drama and debate. He started running on his own after leaving school, fixing on the Steeplechase in emulation of fellow Marakwet athletes Kiptanui and William Mutwol (1992 Olympic bronze medallist).

Kemboi’s perseverance may have a beneficial effect for the Kenyan team in future World Championships, regardless of whether he stays with the Steeplechase. Mateelong, after a series of minor medals, craves gold.

Borrowing from Kemboi’s line of delivery, Mateelong too offered an important statement in clear and concise terms. “In Osaka I won bronze,” Mateelong said. “In Beijing I won a bronze. Today is a step forward to silver and a personal best. I’m looking now to win a gold.”

David Powell for the IAAF