Ezekiel Kemboi can justifiably lay claim to being the best steeplechaser of all time. With two Olympic gold medals, two World titles as well as a Commonwealth and All Africa Games titles, he certainly is the most decorated.
However, during his illustrious career, Kemboi has courted fame and infamy almost in equal measure.
Whether it is his ‘Emily Chepchumba’ dance at the Daegu World Championships, his hurdling celebration when he won his maiden Steeplechase title in Berlin or his bold declaration, “If I don’t win gold, I will never come back to Kenya,” ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Kemboi is a media darling and the consummate showman.
His antics coupled with a litany of enviable success in the water and barriers race – an event known in this land as ‘Kenya’s race’ – has catapulted Kemboi from a teenage aspiring disc jockey to one of the most recognised runners – an admirable feat considering Kenyans rarely embrace their talented athletes.
The fame: Thus far in his career, Kemboi has won two Olympic gold medals, two World Championship crowns, three World silver medals, an All Africa Games title, a Commonwealth Games title, and an African Junior Championship crown.
The infamy: in June 2012, he was arraigned in court and charged with assault after a woman claimed that he had stabbed her. It took five days for Team Kenya chiefs to confirm his aspirations of being the first Kenyan male steeplechaser to win two Olympic gold medals.
In 2008, he had vowed he would not return home if he did not succeed in defending his Olympic title in Beijing and in 2009, he was disqualified before being re-instated at the 2009 Kenyan National Championships.
This year, he changed his travel plans to Moscow without informing the team officials until the day before they departed while his spat with youngster Consenslus Kipruto in Eugene saw him disqualified in June.
However, all that said, Kemboi remains a most charming and accessible runner, especially when things are going his way. His position as one of the greatest from the cradle of Steeplechase running that is the Marakwet District, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, cannot be disputed.
The third of seven children, and the son of a farmer, 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 Moses Kiptanui and William Mutwol.
Kemboi attended Kapsowar Boys Secondary, completing in 1999. In April 2001 he entered an open Athletics Kenya meeting in Kakamega and won the Steeplechase in 8:56. “No strong guys were there,” he says. He attracted the attention of IAAF/IOC coach Paul Ereng, who invited him to train at the then newly created High Altitude Training Centre in Eldoret.
After another local win, Kemboi wrote to several European managers. Only Enrico Dionisi wrote back. Kemboi flew to Europe in late May 2001 and ran five races in two weeks, lowering his PB to 8:23.66, and returned to Kenya for trials for the African Junior Championships in Mauritius. Finishing second to 2003 World Championships team-mate Mike Kipyego, he then won in Mauritius (8:39.80) in spite of falling.
In 2002, the year he married Jane Jepchumba, Kemboi ran the Steeplechase in two major championships: the Commonwealth Games, in Manchester, where he finished second (8:19.78) to teammate Stephen Cherono, and the African Championships, where he was fourth (8:27.14) behind Brahim Boulami, Wilson Boit Kipketer and Cherono (later awarded bronze after Boulami received a doping suspension).
He also competed in five European meetings, winning three – Strasbourg (8:20.95), Paris Golden League (8:10.11) and Brussels Golden League (8:06.65 PB), solidly confirming his potential after just two years’ running
In 2003, before the World Championships, in Paris, Kemboi ran 11 Steeplechases and won seven – including Kenya’s National Championships and the brutally competitive World Championships trials (8:12.55 at 1700 metres altitude).
Each of the four races he lost were won by Saif Saeed Shaheen, his former teammate Stephen Cherono, who had changed allegiance by picking up Qatar citizenship. In the most telling of those four races, at the Zürich Golden League meeting, Kemboi lost by 0.01 second in a then PB 8:02.49.
Going into the Paris final, Kemboi had never beaten Shaheen, the world’s top-ranked steeplechaser for two years. But he was well aware that his former countryman’s defection had not gone down well in Kenya, and he felt Kenyans would be looking to him to extend the country’s string of six straight World Championship Steeplechase gold medals.
The race started strangely, with Shaheen and Qatari teammate Abdullah Saifeldin Khamis sprinting to a 50-metre lead from the gun, baffling the Kenyans. By mid-race, as Khamis began to fade, Kemboi sprinted after Shaheen and passed him in less than a lap. There followed the most extraordinary duel anyone can remember in a championship Steeplechase. The lead changed several times before Shaheen pulled away from the exhausted Kemboi to win by less than a second (8:04.39 to 8:05.11).
After disappointing showings at the Brussels Golden League meeting (8:12.87 for fifth) and the World Athletics Final (8:11.79 for third), Kemboi closed his season with a gold medal at the All Africa Games in Abuja (8:12.27).
Until the Olympics, 2004 was a surprisingly low-key season for Kemboi. Apart from his decisive win at the Kenyan Olympic trials (8:16.5 at altitude), he won two other races (Lausanne and Paris) and finished second twice to Shaheen (Ostrava and Zürich), with an undistinguished season’s best of 8:11.03. But Shaheen was not competing in Athens. The Kenyan Olympic Committee refused to waive the three-year eligibility delay for established athletes who switch nationalities, so the new Qatari was obliged to wait until Beijing for his Olympic debut.
Kemboi thus started as favourite, and the race went very much according to form, with the three Kenyans (plus another former countryman, Moses Kipchirchir, running for Qatar as Moussa Omar Obaid) pushing the pace from the second lap and soon leaving the rest of the field behind. Kemboi won gold (8:05.81, just 0.3 seconds shy of Julius Kariuki’s 16-year-old Olympic Record) in a Kenyan sweep.
He spent much of the ensuing weeks being feted in Marakwet and returned to competition in the World Athletics Final (WAF), where Shaheen, who set a brilliant World record 7:53.63 shortly after the Olympics, took out his frustrations with a six-second win, in spite of Kemboi’s determined effort (8:02.98 SB).
2005 seemed like a replay of the previous two years – creditable performances in a few European GP races, a win in the Kenyan trials and another second to Shaheen in the Helsinki World Championships. 2006 brought the Commonwealth Games, another championship for which Shaheen wasn’t eligible, and Kemboi won with an undistinguished month of March performance (8:18.17). Seven races on the GP circuit yielded three wins, two more losses to Shaheen and a bunch of lacklustre times (plus a DQ in the African Championships in Bambous, Mauritius, for improper hurdling).
In 2007, with another World Championships to consider, Kemboi raced sparingly, but showed good form when it counted, finishing second to teammate Willy Komen in the All Africa Games, in Algiers (8:16.93), but comfortably winning the Kenyan trial (8:17.52 at altitude) and recording his best time in three years (8:05.50) in winning the Athens GP.
In view of his superb record in global championships, and the absence of the injured Shaheen, Kemboi was rated the clear favourite in Osaka. However, just as Komen had stunned him in Algiers by sprinting away in the last 200m for gold, another youngster, Brimin Kipruto (then 22) who had won silver behind him at the Athens Olympics, out-kicked Kemboi for the top medal (8:13.82 against 8:16.94). Richard Mateelong romped home for bronze to complete a medal sweep for Kenya.
“It does not matter who won gold as long as it came to Kenya and we won all the medals – that is fine by me,” Kemboi said. A 12th place finish in Brussels (8:36.11) and victory in Dubnica (8:33.06) two days later saw out his season.
The year that Kemboi set out to defend his Olympic title, in Beijing, saw him skip all competition to reserve his energy for the Kenyan trials that he barely won from Kipruto in 8:13.56. However, protests led by legendary 1972 Olympic Steeplechase champion, Kipchoge Keino, accusing Kemboi of illegal hurdling at the early part of the race, and Athens Olympics bronze medal winner, Paul Kipsiele Koech, who charged that the winner had pushed him as he came into the last 150m, greeted his triumph.
Athletics Kenya (AK) nonetheless chose to ignore the claims and proceeded to name Kemboi in the team alongside Kipruto and Mateelong. As the team departed for China, he made the most infamous comment of his career that far. “I’m going to Beijing to defend my gold,” he said. “If I don’t win gold, I will never return to Kenya.”
In the Olympic final, Kemboi shockingly slumped to seventh (8:16.38), his worst performance at a major championship. Upon the return home of the team that was received with rousing celebrations, the deposed champion slipped out of the country’s main airport almost unnoticed.
When asked why he returned, Kemboi offered a wry smile replying: “Those are the kind of things we say to make the game a bit interesting. Kenya is home, I don’t have another.” Later, he was to disclose, “After two laps, I felt my stomach churn and I started feeling sharp pain. Up to that point (he had taken the lead), I was feeling very good but afterwards, I said to myself I would do all I could to finish.” His second WAF silver (8:15.32), this time behind Kipsiele Koech, wrapped up his season.
Disappointed with his 2008 showing, Kemboi turned to Kenya’s greatest steeplechaser of all time, Moses Kiptanui, for help, “He has really improved my technique on how to jump and also on how to control my race, when to cruise and when to turn on the heat,” he explained.
In his opening race of the 2009 season, in Qatar on 8 May, Kemboi made a major announcement of intent in another World Championship year, when he dipped under 8 minutes for the first time, posting a personal best of 7:58.85 and the eighth best mark of all-time. “This year, I’m feeling great with my shape and it is a good sign ahead of Berlin,” he said after the race.
Kipruto was next to fall to a resurgent Kemboi in Ostrava, where the Olympic champion accepted the bridesmaid role to his predecessor (8:09.95 against 8:09.55
At the final of Kenya National Championships ten days later, Kemboi, slipped and fell after the water jump as they went to the bell and faded to ninth. An incensed Kemboi threw his running jersey to the ground in anger after the race. Initially, he had been disqualified, but was then reinstated, after being accused of jumping outside the hurdle.
“There was no video evidence to support the race marshal’s claim and even if he saw Kemboi doing that, he should have raised his flag immediately, not waited until the race is over to launch his complaint,” AK general secretary, David Okeyo told reporters.
Kemboi was then beaten into second place twice, in Athens (8:05.14) and Paris (8:15.27), before running 8:24.15 for third at the Kenyan Berlin trials and he was subsequently named to the team. “I’m tired of silver, silver, silver at the World Championships,” he exclaimed. “This time Kemboi should win the gold, it’s only fair to me. It will be tough but I will struggle to win this gold that has escaped me,” he said.
In Berlin, Kemboi safely negotiated his path to the final, where he lined up against three other Kenyans seeking his first world crown.
Ever the free spirited lad in the Kenyan camp, he showed up for the race spotting a new haircut inspired by a German friend. “I wanted to be different from the rest. A friend of mine from Germany gave me this design and he told me in the morning that if I got my hair like this I would win.”
Kemboi moved for the kill at the bell, before accelerating on the back straight; a clean clearance at the water jump increased his lead as he went on to win in a new Championship record of 8:00.43.
His celebrations at the end told it all, as he stripped off his vest, pumped his hands in triumph before collapsing on the track and kneeling down in prayer. A dance and a lap of honour with silver medallist Richard Mateelong, where they hurdled over the 400m H barriers, summed up the 27-year-old’s delight at finally coming up trumps.
“It’s my time to celebrate, that is why went to dance with Mateelong. After three silvers in a row in 2003, 2005, 2007 at the World Championships now I have won gold and am a great man,” said Kemboi.
Always unpredictable, Kemboi then declared he would move up to marathon! “In the next two years I will move up to marathon. I have run Steeplechase for eight years and I think I need to change because what I was missing was a World Championship gold and now I have got it.”
After Berlin, Kemboi won in Zürich before wrapping up the year with victory at the World Athletics Final in 8:04.38.
The Doha Diamond League meeting, in May, was the location for his first race of the 2010 season and he recorded another victory in 8:06.28. Another win followed in Brazzaville (8:17.55).
Always at the centre of drama, Kemboi was celebrating having qualified for the final at the National Championships, in June, when he was struck by a hammer thrown by one of the competitors, injuring his foot and ruling him out of the final. Athletics Kenya officials however threw him a lifeline, handing him a wild card after getting word from the team’s physiotherapist that he would be fit for the continental event.
A third-place finish in 8:03.79 at the Paris Diamond League mid-July proved that he had fully recovered and could look forward to winning the one medal missing from his impressive collection. However, Mateelong had his own ambitions, of holding on to his continental crown, which he duly accomplished in 8:23.54, leaving Kemboi to settle for silver in 8:26.13.
Circuit speedster, Kipsiele Koech (8:17.70 to 8:19.95) then defeated him at the London DL Grand Prix but six days later, he turned in a season best performance of 8:01.74 to return the favour at the Zürich DL meet as his conqueror in Nairobi, Mateelong, came home fifth.
The trio of Kemboi, Mateelong and Olympic champion Kipruto turned up on their nation’s duty at the Commonwealth Games, in Delhi, where the top two spots from Nairobi were replicated, as the African champion prevailed in 8:16.39 and the World titleholder took silver in 8:18.47, with the Beijing winner closing the podium in 8:19.65.
Kemboi started the 2011 outdoor season with a series of competitions mainly outside his favourite event in Italy in May, posting a personal best in 10km race (28:38).
He also appeared in five races in his specialty leading up to the World Championships, winning two and placing on the podium in the remainder, with a resounding personal best of 7:55.56 at the Monaco DL meet on 22 July, in the race where his rival Brimin Kipruto came only one hundredth of a second off Sheheen’s 2004 World record, while Kemboi’s effort moved him up to sixth in the all-time lists.
A week later, he set a new personal best of 7:49.95 in 3000 metres flat.
At the Worlds, in Daegu, Kemboi easily won his heat to make the 1 September final, where he was never far away from the leading pack and with 200 metres to go he unleashed a ferocious finishing kick pulling away from the rest of the field to win in 8:14.85.
Such was his margin of victory that he started his celebrations well before the finishing line. He then peeled off his running vest before embarking on the Emily Chepchumba jig in front of a capacity crowd.
“Am happy to have defended my title in Daegu. I wanted a faster race but when I realised it was slow, I decided to wait and attack in the last 400 metres. But I changed my mind and waited till the last 200 metres because there were some strong guys in there.”
Never shy of stealing a headline or two, he said the jig was a tribute to ‘his friend’ Usain Bolt who had a day earlier been disqualified from the 100 metres final. “Always when I shave my hair, it means I’m ready for war. It was a tough race, the final and I had to dance after winning for my friend Usain Bolt. If Bolt had won the 100m, he would have danced well and I did it for him,” the ecstatic Kemboi announced.
Kemboi then won his specialty at the Diamond League Final in Zürich (8:07.72) but the victory was not enough to unseat Diamond Race leader Kipsiele Koech, who closed just behind him and took the overall crown.
Having raced so much in 2011, Kemboi has had a relatively quiet 2012, running in only two races before heading to London for the Olympic Games. He finished fourth at the Golden Gala in Rome in 8:10.55 in May. Then at Kenya’s Olympic trials, he pulled up right next to leader Brimin Kipruto before waving him to go on and win while he came in second in 8:12.82.
“I feel so great to be in the Olympics. I’m so happy since this is my third Olympics. I will go now to start a new plan for London, Agenda 1 is done, to make the team, now it’s time for Agenda 2,” Kemboi gushed after entertaining the 15,000 gathered with a rendition of his famed jig before revelling in a well-received lap of honour.
Off the track however, he hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Four days after the trials, his presumed date in Eldoret with Anne Njeri Otieno ended up with the 26-year-old restaurateur beauty in hospital, nursing injuries including a stab wound to the chest and the Steeplechase star accused of inflicting them.
Arraigned in court the following day, he denied the charges and was released on bail, pending hearing in September. He maintains he was a victim in the incident and not the transgressor; a theory that was backed by Team Kenya CEO, Stephen Arap Soi, as it was confirmed that he would keep his place in the team.
In London, Kemboi made history by becoming the first Kenyan (and the second athlete ever after Finn Volmari Iso-Hollo in 1932 and 1936) to win the steeplechase twice at the Olympics when he triumphed in 8:18.56. It was a cagey race during which he showed his tactical flexibility staying back till the final 250 metres when he made his move before accelerating away after the final water jump.
Such was his margin of victory that he wandered towards the outer lanes finishing in lane eight. “It signified that am moving towards road running,” he quipped dryly in reference to his long held promise of graduating into marathon running.
To his credit, he did give the road a go, finishing fourth in an 8.5km race in Amatrice, Italy, in mid-August and he was again fourth in a 10km race in Castelbuono, Italy, in September.
Even better news followed in October when Anne Njeri Otieno, who had filed the assault case in June, voluntarily withdrew the charges saying that she had instead chosen to focus on her studies.
Never far away from controversy, he kicked off 2013 in dramatic circumstances after he shoved Kipruto in the final few metres of the steeple in Eugene in June and was disqualified as a result.
Kemboi redeemed himself in Paris in July, dipping under the 8:00 barrier for only the third time in his career as he won a season’s best time of 7:59.03.
Given a bye to Moscow as he is the reigning champion, Kemboi did not do much at the trials, finishing sixth before entertaining fans with his trademark dance afterwards.
Having already made history last year as only the second man to win the steeplechase twice at the Olympics, Kemboi goes in search of a third World crown as he looks to match the record of his coach who won three straight titles in the nineties.
3000m Steeplechase: 7:55.76 (2011)
5000m :13:50.61 (2011)
10km: 28:38 (2011)
2001 – 8:23.66; 2002 – 8:06.65; 2003 – 8:02.49; 2004 – 8:02.98; 2005 – 8:09.04; 2006 – 8:09.29; 2007 – 8:05.50; 2008 – 8:09.25; 2009 – 7:58.85; 2010-8:01.74; 2011-7:55.76, 2012- 8:10.55; 2013-7:59.03