Kenya’s history in 3,000m Steeplechase
11 Kenyan Gold Medals in the Steeplechase
Long-distance running is becoming a fashionable prospect for athletes from all corners of the world – even in the United States of America. Not too long ago, the dominance of African nations, particularly Kenya, in competitive distance-running was the subject of much fascination. Kenya throws its hat in the ring of virtually all long-distance events, from the two-laps 800m up to the genteel 42 km marathon. The only track races still elusive to the Kenyans are the sprints, yet, the appraising work in the 400m affair, that waltz on an unhesitating pace, reflects the enthusiasm in athletics. If there’s a race that convincingly conjures images of Kenya’s emergence and dominance of long-distance running, it is the 3,000m steeplechase. You can almost hear the celebrations even before the race begins. Every time Kenya has turned up for the Olympics it has won gold in the 3,000m steeplechase. An event that has honoured Kenya with endless praise as the ultimate performer in long-distance running. And the 7 lap race crossing 28 barriers and 7 water jumps is a brutal face-off, once described by the legendary Kipchoge Keino as “a race for animals”. The 3,000m steeplechase requires the finishing speed of a miler, stamina of a cross country runner and strength of the 400m hurdler. It was introduced to the Olympics in 1920 as a special event to popularize the games. The winner of that inaugural race was Percy Hodge from Great Britain. In spite of not reaching the podium until 1968, Kenya is now the most successful nation at the 3,000m steeplechase. It has won every men’s title since 1968, excepting 1976 and 1980 when Kenya boycotted. Hitherto, Finland had won four consecutive gold medals (1924, 28, 32, 36), Great Britain had won it twice (1920 and 1956), once to the United States (1952), and Belgium (1964).
1. Amos Biwott, 1968, Mexico City
Amos Biwott would be the first to break the silence. The unlikely Kenyan novice steeplechaser had only run three previous races prior to Mexico Olympics. This was only his fourth steeplechase to run. Biwott probably had not trained as well as today’s athletes although he got the job done, albeit in a very exuberant style. His determination was unrelenting, literally sprinting in every hit like it was the finals. Biwott’s eccentric style of clearing the water jump was perhaps the most memorable. He will probably go down as the only steeplechase gold medalist to finish the race with dry feet. “He would hop off the water jump barrier, clear the whole pit, and land on his take off leg. Over the barriers, he would jump with his feet together.” Or again: Biwott cleared the hurdles like he feared they had spikes embedded and leaped the water hazard as if he thought crocodiles were swimming in it. However unorthodox, Amos Biwott had inspired a great legacy.
2. Kipchoge Keino, 1972, Munich
The growing popularity of 3,000m steeplechase at the Olympics Games helped enforce Kenya’s dominance in Munich. That may not have been entirely good news for Kenya, because using the most rudimentary training to win this rather tactical race required lots of determination and a knack to read the race, too. Kipchoge Keino, who had run in the Mexico Olympics four years earlier, came to the race with burning confidence and refined skills. Kipchoge had obliterated the field in 1,500m defeating the race favourite by 20m, won a silver in 5,000m and participated in the 10,000m. In many ways Keino came to this event better prepared and, rather more importantly, with a token of troth that winning gold was possible. Physically, he was at the top of his game and raring for gold. His strategy at the water jump was also very different and more conventional from Amos Biwott’s style; stepping on with his right foot, keeping low and actively pushing off with arms in opposition to his legs. Kipchoge ran a passably tactical race, reserving his energy for the final 1,000m push. At the post race interview, responding to the obvious question of the water jump, answered: “I had a lot of fun jumping the hurdles, like an animal. My style is not good”. With this win, the prospect of Kenya’s dominance in 3,000m steeplechase was now emerging.
3. Julius Korir, 1984, Los Angeles
When Kenya returned to the Olympics games following a 12 year hiatus – after the withdrawal of 25 African nations protesting at New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa – the Kenyan team was ready to pick up from where Kipchoge had left off in Mexico City. There were two Kenyans in the set of twelve runners starting the finals, both bent on buoying up the patrimony. Julius Korir would re-stage Keino’s epic run. Now 24 years old, Korir had won the Commonwealth Gold and feeling confident. The code of hanging back for most of the race was now being perfected, as both Kenyans trailed the lone New Zealand runner who led the race for five laps. Kariuki’s inexperience showed as he faded back in the sixth lap. With 200m to go, Korir not comfortable with the large crowd around him put the hammer down slotting in a 25m gap by the time he crossed the line.
4. Julius Kariuki, 1988, Seoul
Most 3,000m steeplechase gold medalists rarely win it on the first attempt. And for Kariuki who had been a newcomer at the summer games in Los Angeles, the constant injection of pace had gotten the best of him then. More confident and seeking redemption following the 1984 mislay, the medal was nigh. Aside from relying on mental strength, Kariuki played it cool, determined to run at his own pace, holding back at the beginning of the race and only setting off beyond the 2000-meter mark. Kariuki kept to the script, rarely running fast in the first lap of the finals, preferring to slip back and settle into the contest, getting a rhythm and then move up from behind. He came to the finals as the fastest Kenyan with the hope of carrying on the immutable legacy of winning the event. Determined to get things right, Kariuki and Koech stayed together for the first 2000m of the race. At the bell, Kariuki cast extra speed, pushing hard all the way to the finish.
5. Matthew Birir, 1992, Barcelona
As it inevitably happens, money weighs against Kenya’s success in the 3,000m steeplechase. How quickly life’s fortunes can shift with the sound of the starting gun! By 1992, the sponsorship deals had come into being, where most athletes earn decent money (shoes/clothing). Sponsored athletes are far more interested in winning and therefore making more money from both event prize money and endorsement deals. And while money is a big motivation to win, Matthew Birir would demonstrate that duty comes before riches. When the starting gun went off in Barcelona the Kenyans were the firm favourites. All attention was on the Kalenjin runners of the Rift Valley, now famous as good long-distance runners. In the third lap Brahmi clipped the heel of Matthew Birir’s shoe, Birir fell to his knee and slipped back to ninth place, before making a stunning comeback. The Kenyans ran the rest of the race as a unified clique. This would be the first time the Kenyan team led a full medal sweep – well received with a standing ovation.
6. Joseph Keter, 1996, Atlanta
All the Kenyans somehow laugh off when asked if they anticipate a medal in the race, although Kenya had almost every medal, and all gold medals since joining the event. Atlanta would be no exception. Kiptanui and Keter were neck and neck at the final water jump, and the only thing that was going to separate the two was stamina in the final kicks. Keter got the better of the tussle in the final nip of pace, in a race where less than 17 seconds separated the 1st and 8th place.
7. Reuben Kosgei, 2000, Sydney
As expected, the Kenyan steeplechasers, now answering to the popular moniker of the East Africans in major global events, showed up for the Sydney Olympics seeking to set an unprecedented record. Their zeal, lean bodies, high altitude training, diet, and capability to withstand fatigue longer was going to be put to the test, in one of the most demanding events in the track and field program. Unerring training, diet and hard work are the only way to win the steeplechase is a hackneyed answer to any probe of the secret; and still used frequently. One additional tactic that was now working well for the Kenyans was to always keep the tempo fast enough – to spread and shake off the field – injecting pace over the proceedings of the race. The finals in Sydney had not gone entirely Kenya’s way. At the sound of the bell there were about eight runners in the leading pack, which was an unfamiliar sight, with many looking to disrupt the dominance. If all tactics fails however, the Kenyans can rely on the final kick to do the job. So in the final lap, Reuben Kosgei ran with fresh legs, wearing out the rest of field.
8. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2004, Anthens
By the time the Athens Olympics rolled in, no one could quite explain Kenya’s success at the 3,000m steeplechase. Certainly the lean bodies adept at training in high altitude improved lung capacity, but there really wasn’t any biologically interesting facts to go by. Even that talk about genetic edge had faded away. At the Athens Summer Games the Kenyan runners would introduce the world to a new concept of team racing per-excellence. All things fell into place in Athens. Koech had kept the pace throughout, Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto, now only 19 years old, keeping close, always running together. Koech, the pacer, surged the pace gradually, and by the close of the fifth lap it was three Kenyans in the first four. At the last water jump Kemboi seemed more concerned with making it a ‘1-2-3’ rather than winning gold as he gestured Kipruto and Koech to keep up with him as he led them to Kenya’s second full medal sweep at the steeplechase. It was now beyond doubt that Kenyans were acers of the 3,0000m steeplechase.
9. Brimin Kipruto, 2008, Beijing
The outcome of the Beijing Games was rather unexpected! Ezekiel Kemboi, the defending champion, had got into the finals as the race favourite, with Brimin Kipruto pitted to take silver. The two favorites ran in different patterns but their distinctions always leveled by their intelligence and physical attributes to win the 3000m steeplechase. No one took particular interest in the French runner towering over the rest of the field at the start. He was about to make headlines in 9 minutes. Only one athlete had ever won multiple Olympics steeplechases ( Volmari Iso-Hollo, 1932 and 1936) and the world was in anticipation. Kipchoge Keino had of course won Olympic medals in disparate distance running events. True to form, Kemboi got off to a sprinting start but quickly settled within the lead pack. The stature of the Kenyans at the sound of the final bell had all the tell-tale signs of another clean sweep, if they could somehow shake-off the tall Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad. In the customary injection of pace at the final lap Mekhissi was unrelenting and stood his ground keeping up with the pack of Kenyans in a nail biting dash to the finish that almost disrupted Kenya’s record. Mekhissi finished second, only 15th of a second behind Kipruto who won gold.
10. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2012, London
Kemboi who had only managed to finish seventh at the Beijing Olympics, his worst performance on the global stage, was desperate to expunge that memory. Kipruto had also proven his pedigree at the events as had the tall Mekhissi with confidence written all over his face. Kemboi would regain his form and winning ways in London. While there is little science to give away any clues in figuring out the perfect steeplechase runner, much of the aptitude comes from training. According to Ezekiel Kemboi, the more you train, the more you increase your adroitness to both consume and effectively utilize oxygen. World class athletes have training regiments most of us would consider exigent. Training in a region that has produced so many champions has its benefits too. Kemboi also had the benefit of being trained by Moses Kiptanui. While steeplechasers are obviously specialists of endurance, longevity seems to the weak point, but not for Kemboi. Mutai, the youngest of the Kenyans, injected speed in the fifth lap, to spread the field, Kemboi and Kipruto keeping relatively close. Kipruto would unfortunately stumble in the sixth lap, leaving him a lot of catching up to do and dashing the hopes of a third clean medal sweep. In the final lap, Kemboi assuredly took the race away sprinting the entire lap with a mastery pace, arms up with 10m to go.
11. Conseslus Kipruto, 2012, Rio de Janeiro
The Kenyan contender of the steeplechase title is always determined to make a name for himself on the greatest sporting stage, and a new titlist was taking his place in dramatic style at the Rio Olympics. On this stage, Kipruto ran the race of his life, finishing in a mind-boggling world record time of 8:39; hands in the air a long way before the finish line: “I saw the screen and I saw I was far from them, and I knew nobody was going to catch me,” he said. “I knew I was going to win the gold in the final 100m. Even before the race I knew I would win.” Two-time Olympic champion Kemboi finished third, but was later disqualified for stepping outside the track, giving the bronze to 4th-place finisher Mekhissi of France. No doubt, the American, Evan Jager, who incredibly won silver knew that piece of the trivia. And of course this: His silver was the best an American has placed since Horace won the race in 1952: “It feels like silver, but I’m totally okay with it,” He added. “I think breaking up the Kenyans in the steeplechase, and just beating Kenyans in the steeplechase final, is a very hard achievement.”
The Olympics On The Record
- Kenya at the Olympics – An Overview and All-time Medal Table
- 11 Kenyan Gold Medals in the 3,000m Olympic Steeplechase
- Kenya’s Olympic Marathon History – A Long Time in the Waiting
- Kenya’s Performance in the Olympic 5,000m & 10,000m Event
- Kenya’s Heroes and Heroines in the 800m Olympic Events