As the world watched Ethiopia’s World 10,000 metres champion and Morocco’s World 1500 metres champion tussle over the world 5000 metres title, the Kenyan who charged past to snatch the victory was not Abraham Chebii, who had beaten the Ethiopian nor two-time former World cross country champion John Kibowen, but the last Kenyan to make the world championships team.
Eliud Kipchoge finished third behind Chebii and Kibowen at Kenya’s trials in July to make the squad that would join Richard Limo, the defending champion.
In Paris, the double gold bids of Ethiopia’s double world cross country champion Kenenisa Bekele and Morocco’s world record-holder Hicham El Guerrouj commanded attention.
“I knew that everybody is watching Chebii, Bekele and Hicham, so I took the prize,” said a smiling Kipchoge, 18. “I have never raced Hicham. I have raced with Bekele, and he beat me in Oslo,” he said, adding that he thought, “If Bekele and Hicham are watching Chebii, let me go, they won’t get me.”
Kipchoge, who set the 12:52.61 world junior record for the event in Oslo, had been mulling over the opportunity for a while, only with a slightly different goal. “When we came here, from the beginning of the championships, I was thinking that if the pace is faster, I will become a medallist,” he said.
He took the lead more than once during the race, but then began to gather strength. “I had to regain energy to prepare for Hicham,” he said. After El Guerrouj took the lead I with about two laps left, and was being chased by Bekele, it was Kipchoge who managed to overtake one and then the other in the final straight. “With 300 metres, I was thinking of a medal,” said Kipchoge. “When there was 70 metres, I saw Hicham is no longer going. I decided to go.”
“I am now the World champion, and I am very happy,” said Kipchoge. “Richard is my training partner, so I am glad I have this title now.”
The two Kenyans have the same manager, Jos Hermens, who also manages Bekele, and said he expected two medals, from Bekele and Kipchoge, but not in the order things worked out. “But we know he is very good and that he has a good kick,” said Hermens of Kipchoge. “He ran a smart race tactically.”
Kipchoge used the same sprint finish to blast past Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop in the junior race of the world cross country championships in March, where he earned his only other global medal, although on a junior level. At 18, Kipchoge can still compete at junior level, but showed he can play with the big boys as well.
It was as a boy growing up in the rural Kapsisiwo area of the Nandi district, some 50 kilometres from the town of Kapsabet and not far from Eldoret, that Kipchoge first thought about running. “Patrick Sang is my neighbour,” he said of Kenya’s steeplechaser Sang, whom Kipchoge watched and tried to imitate in running.
However, it wasn’t until 2000, after running in school but never having taken it seriously that Kipchoge, the last of five children of subsistence farmers who grew corn and beans, and kept cattle, began to train seriously, encouraged by Sang.
Kipchoge made it to provincial cross country championships in February of 2001 and placed fifth in the world cross juniors in 2002. The year 2003 will certainly be remembered as his breakthrough year, with his world cross title being followed up by the world junior record, wins over 5000m on the European circuit in Milan and Stockholm, and now, the World 5000m title coveted by multiple World champions.
Kipchoge’s victory in Paris gives the running powerhouse of Kenya only its second gold medal of the championships, both earned on the last day, beginning with Catherine Ndereba’s marathon victory. “This is so important for us,” said head Kenyan coach Moses Kiptanui. “We were expecting gold on the first day, the women’s 10,000m, and then the second day, and so on.”
Restoring Kenyan pride has become something of a habit with Kipchoge, who won the junior men’s title on the last day of the World cross country championships after Ethiopia swept all three individual gold medals on the first of the two-day championships. In Paris, too, the first three of the distance track events, the men’s and women’s 10,000 and the women’s 5000m, went to Ethiopia, but Kipchoge swooped in during the last individual track event, to pull Kenya back up the medal table.
“I know people in Kenya are watching, and it feels great,” said Kipchoge.
Sabrina Yohannes for the IAAF