2012 Men's Olympic Steeplechase Preview: Will Kenya's Record Streak Continue & Can Evan Jager Medal?
*Final at 4:25 PM ET on Sunday
August 1, 2012
No one would argue with us if we said that the world has changed a lot since the 1960s.
It's hard to argue that there have been a lot of constants in the world since 1968, but thankfully there has been one thing that the human race has always been able to count on. Starting in 1968, every time that Kenya has showed up at the Summer Olympics (they boycotted 1976 and 1980), a Kenyan man has won the Olympic gold medal in the steeplechase. No such other streak exists in track and field.
Fans of stability, we've got good news for you. It seems very likely that the streak will continue in 2012.
One thing is likely to change, however. During that 44-year-long streak, Kenya has never had the same man win a second Olympic steeplechase title.
That is likely to change, as the two leading men for Kenya in Ezekiel Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto have both previously won the Olympic title.
Kemboi won the Olympic title back in 2004 (although it should be pointed out that the dominant steepler Saif Saeed Shaheen wasn't allowed to run as he switched his allegiance to Qatar). The 30-year-old also has won the last two world titles (2009 and 2011). Three times (2003, 2005 and 2007), he has won WC silver. But nothing in sport is a guarantee and Kemboi certainly proved that in 2008 when he finished just seventh in the last Olympics in Beijing.
The Beijing winner was none other than Kipruto, who also won Worlds in 2007 (and silver in 2004 and 2011). But he also proved that nothing is guaranteed in sports in 2009 when he was just 7th at Worlds.
Nothing is a sure thing, but Kemboi and Kipruto are pretty darn reliable. Either Kemboi or Kipruto have won five of the six World or Olympic Titles dating to 2004 (Shaheen won in 2005).
We certainly expect one of them to win in London.
Kemboi Or Kipruto?
Given the fact that Kemboi has won the last two world titles and that Kemboi leads their career head to heat matchups 25 to 11, we think that Kemboi is the better runner. And the Kenyan Trials basically confirmed that, as Kemboi got the biggest ovation of the Trials - even bigger than Rudisha's - when he basically ran up next to Kipruto in the finishing stretch and let him take the victory. Kemboi, of course, is well known for his finishing antics, as last year his celebration while winning Worlds was legendary (see video on right): MB Ezekiel Kemboi Appreciation Thread - That was the greatest final 200 (and celebration by a distance runner) ever.
But there are a lot of question marks surrounding Kemboi and thus it makes sense to us that the oddsmakers in London have established Kipruto as the betting favorite.
The big question mark about Kemboi is what is his current fitness. He has only raced twice all year and hasn't raced since June 23rd at the Kenyan Trials (his first race was a 4th place showing in Rome on May 31st) . After the Kenyan Trails, he was arrested for stabbing a woman. He claims she was actually trying to rob him and she was stabbed by her own accomplices. The wife of the Kenyan Prime Minister has written a letter in defense of Kemboi.
A few weeks ago, Kemboi travelled to London to get away from the Kenyan distractions, but he shortly returned after a few days of zero training after not finding the conditions suitable for him (one thing we were wondering was maybe Kemboi went to London early just to make sure they'd let him into the country).
Kipruto, on the other hand, looked good after the Kenyan Trials in his lone race. On July 1st, he nearly beat world leader Paul Kipsiele Koech (who didn't make the Kenyan team) when Kipruto ran 8:01.73 in Paris on July 6th.
If Kemboi or Kipruto don't win, we think that the winner will be France's Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad. The 27-year-old, who won silver in 2008 and bronze in 2011, ran 8:10 twice in late May early June (finishing just behind Kemboi in Rome in 8:10.96 on May 31st) before winning the French Champs and Europeans.
It was a bit strange that he didn't test himself at the French Diamond League meeting in Paris, but that may have been because they didn't want him after he infamously pushed the 14-year-old girl mascot at Europeans (see YouTube video on right) a year after getting in a fight in Paris after the 1,500.
A Kenyan sweep is also a distinct possibility. After all, the Kenyans have swept the Olympic medals twice before (1992 and 2004), but it would certainly a big surprise if the third Kenyan in the field won the gold. The third Kenyan in the race in 23-year-old Abel Mutai started the year with modest credentials, having a PR of just 8:11.40. Now he leads the Olympic entrants in terms of 2012 seasonal bests (8:01.67), but he was no match for Kipruto and Kemboi at the Kenyan Trials.
What About Jager?
And after those four, the next best guy on paper is American Evan Jager. The following chart certainly shows that Jager belongs in the medal discussion.
Top Steeple Times From Olympic Steeplechasers in 2012
Top Times From Olympic Steeplechasers In 2011 & 2012
Jager set the American record in his last race in Monaco, which was just the fifth steeple of his life (counting prelims) and his first European steeple.
The only other guy that really belongs in the medal discussion behind Jager is Ethiopian national record holder Roba Gari, but the 30-year-old Gari ran his 8:06.16 national record back on May 11th and was recently only 6th in Paris, well back in 8:13.65.
On paper, we'd say Jager finishes fifth. But in case you didn't realize, we went out of our way to say that nothing is a guarantee in the steeple. Even when things are going well for stars like Kipruto and Kemboi, they occasionally slip up, as each has once messed up at an Olympics or World Champs which they went into running well. And then there is the fact that both Kemboi and Mekhissi-Benabbad haven't raced much of late due to their violent actions. That being said, we think asking for a medal for Jager in just the seventh steeple of his life is too much to ask for.
LRC Prediction: 1) Kemboi 2) Kipruto 3) Mutai
Quick Thought (QT) #1: Watching the video embedded above of Worlds last year, reminded us how good Kemboi is in the last 200.
QT #2: As we mentioned above, it would be the third Kenyan sweep in history at the Olympics. 5 times Kenyans have gone 1-2 at the Olympics and one other time they went 1-3.
QT #3: If countries weren't limited to 3 entrants, we wouldn't be talking about Jager's medal chances as there are three Kenyans faster than Jager this year not in the Olympics.
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