Farewell to the GOAT: Ezekiel Kemboi, the World’s Greatest Steeplechaser, Retires (Then Unretires)
August 17, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO — After his bronze medal in the steeplechase final at the Rio Olympics, Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya announced his retirement from running. He ends his career as the greatest championship steeplechaser in the history of the sport with two Olympic titles (2004 and 2012), four World titles (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015), three World silvers (2003, 2005, 2007), and now an Olympic bronze.
Update: In an outrageous move showing a complete lack of sportsmanship, the French have protested and gotten Kemboi DQd for stepping on the line more than a mile from the finish line.
2nd Update: Because of the DQ Kemboi has now unretired, writing on facebook, “I had opted to retire right after the Olympics only if i had come home with this medal….now i feel that i have to bring back this medal not by protesting again but right on track. Kemboi is not retired i will be coming to London 2017 to re-claim my medal from France. No limits.”
For the last 13 years, with the exception of the 2008 Olympics, there has been one constant in the steeplechase at global championships: Ezekiel Kemboi on the medal stand.
Kemboi often did not have the fastest time in the world; in fact he was only the world leader in the steeplechase in two of those 13 years (2009 and 2013), but he knew how to raise the level of his performance for when it mattered most.
In a day and age when the sport is short on personalities, Kemboi was known for his. He talked about his “fans” and tried to entertain them. From his smile, to his celebrations at the end of races (often celebrating before the finish line as he drifted to one of the outer lanes of the track), to his dances after winning global titles, he was one of the more entertaining figures in the sport.
(Below we have two photos from each of Ezekiel’s six global titles, one of him winning and one of him celebrating after and then more analysis of his great career)
Athens 2004 (don’t let the photo below fool you, he celebrated before the line)
Kemboi had told countryman Conseslus Kipruto privately before Rio that he was going to retire and go out by winning the gold. Kipruto didn’t doubt Kemboi’s decision to retire, but also knew there was a little gamesmanship in Kemboi telling him that.
While Kemboi did not go out with the gold medal, there is no disputing his greatness. Evan Jager said it well, “In my eyes Kemboi is still the greatest of all time, no matter how old he is. I am very proud to have beaten him in a championship-style race.”
Kemboi himself used the world old, noting he had been in the sport 18 years. “At this old age, being on the podium is good…Sometimes we need to make the decision ‘ok you guys proceed (with the future)’. May the best man win (in London at the World Championships next year),” he said.
Kemboi looks forward to going back to Kenya and resuming a life that is devoid of athletics competition, but not athletics. He is a member of the IAAF Athletes’ Commission and will concentrate his time on that and also his other job, being a police officer in Kenya.
He’s also not averse to becoming a coach, if the price is right. When asked about Conseslus Kipruto’s unusual hurdling style, Kemboi said, “Now that I’ve retired I’ll go and teach him how to jump. Even if Evan Jager wants my teaching, I’ll teach him to jump. [However] when they come to me, if they want my services they’ll have to pay good money,” he said with his trademark smile.
Kemboi never forgot that what he did is sport, entertainment for fans, and something to be enjoyed.
When he announced his decision in the mixed zone he was sure to thank those fans, “I just want to say that today I’m retiring officially from athletics. I want to say thanks to all my fans over the world, the people in Kenya, my family.”
Kemboi will be missed by the sport of track and field and by his fans.
When Kemboi, went through the mixed zone, we asked him to pose for a picture forgetting he would be at the post-race press conference. He quickly flashed a smile and #1 (we didn’t take it in time). After the press conference, we asked to take another picture and for him to flash that #1. Kemboi flashed #1, but then quickly changed it to a #3. It was a subtle reminder that he knows the sport does not always let the stars go out how they want.
Quick Facts: 2 Olympics Golds (2004, 2012)
4 World Titles (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015)
2 Silver (2003, 2005, 2007)
1 Bronze (2016)
World Leader 2009, 2013
PB: 7:55.76 #6 all-time
Date of birth: May 25, 1982 (Wikipedia entry)