Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad was born and brought up in the French historical city of Reims which lies 129 kilometres north-east of Paris.
He grew up nursing ambitions of becoming the king of the steeplechase running after watching the seemingly endless dominance by Kenyans in this race. (Read: Kemboi wins 3000m steeplechase title)
This dominance dates back to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when Amos Biwott led Benjamin Kogo in a 1-2 finish, a feat that was replicated in Munich four years later by Kipchoge Keino and Ben Jipcho at the Olympic Stadium.
Mekhissi-Benabbad’s dream was not misplaced at all as Reims lies in the Champagne-Ardenne region, famous for the crowning of kings of France during the Gallic era.
But the Frenchman on Thursday abandoned his dreams of ascending to the throne when he failed to clinch the world title in the 3,000 metres steeplechase at the 13th World Athletics Championships here, declaring that Kenyans are “impossible to beat” in the steeplechase.
Ezekiel Kemboi, the 29-year-old policeman from Kapsowar, led compatriot, Olympic champion Brimin Kipruto, across the line to retain his world title, maintaining the Biwott-Kogo legacy and electrifying the crowd at this magnificent venue with his theatrics in celebration.
Mekhissi-Benabbad settled for the bronze medal.
Kemboi’s mohawk hairstyle had global journalists wondering what his game-plan was, and the Kenyan star’s response left the scribes in stitches.
“When I shave my hair this way, then it means there is fire ahead. I warned my opponents that there was fire ahead and you can see what happened,” said Kemboi who first won the world title two years ago in Berlin.
“I dedicate this medal to my parents, my family all the people of Kenya, the President and the Prime Minister.”
Eight minutes, 14.85 seconds was Kemboi’s winning time that saw Kenya consolidate third place in the standings at these championships with 10 medals — four gold medals, three silver and as many bronze.
The USA, here with a contingent of 155 athletes compared to Kenya’s 46, lead the standings with a collection of 12 medals (seven gold, four silver and one bronze) with Russia second with 12 (4-3-5).
“Kenyans are the best in the world,” Mekhissi-Benabbad said after the race. “They are very good… I tried to catch up with them but it was not possible.
“The thing with the Kenyans is that no one is up there. There are many runners and they are all very good because they train throughout. I have tried but they are impossible to beat.”
Coming five days after the world’s most popular athlete, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, was disqualified from the 100 metres final, Kemboi’s triumph Thursday provided some comic relief to the expectant Daegu crowd, that included a handful of Kenyans living in South Korea, led by Kenya’s high commissioner to Seoul, Ngovi Kitau.
The policemen’s celebrations started some 10 metres to the finish line when he was sure he had the job done and dusted, the world champion punching his right fist into the air, going down on his knees before dancing and throwing his vest into the adoring crowd.
“I was very happy to defend my title and that’s why I danced and did all those celebrations,” the champion said.
“The people of Daegu and South Korea have been very friendly and I wanted them to celebrate with me and feel as though they have won the title with me,” he added.
Kenya’s tally is expected to go up to five gold medals today when re-hot favourite Vivian Cheruiyot, also of the Kenya Police team, lines up in the final of the 5,000 metres at 8.25pm local time (2.45pm Kenyan time)
Saif Saeed Shaheen
With the world title safely back to Nairobi, the only thing remaining is the steeplechase world record currently held by Qatar’s Saif Saeed Shaheen at 7:53.63.
For the record, Shaheen was born on October 15, 1982 in Keiyo as Stephen Cherono but changed his name when he defected to Qatar in 2003.
“It’s just a matter of time. We will get that record if now next week, then early next season,” silver medallist Kipruto said yesterday.
Kipruto came close to shattering Shaheen’s record just over a month ago, clocking 7:53.64, just 0.01 seconds shy of the Qatari’s mark.
For the moment, the Team Kenya camp here is in a party mood.