In a country teeming with athletics talent such as ours, it pays to strike hard when the iron is hot. That wisdom should hold a lot of significance for reigning world 1,500 metres champion Timothy Cheruiyot.
Traditional African folklore holds that lightning does not strike the same place twice but to 2017 World Championships 1,500m champion Elijah Manang’oi, you could as well tell that to the birds.
I will explain. In the run up to 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, an ankle injury to Manang’oi meant that the responsibility of leading Kenya’s charge in the metric mile race in the championship fell on Cheruiyot’s shoulders.
Before that injury, Manang’oi had dominated 1,500m competitions in championship race as Cheruiyot played second fiddle.
But in 2019 IAAF (now World Athletics) Diamond League races, Manang’oi won in Doha while Cheruiyot triumphed in Stockholm (where Manang’oi finished 10th), Prefontaine Classic (where Manang’oi came 12th), Lausanne, and Monaco.
Fans, who had been looking forward to Manang’oi’s title defence in Doha, were shell-shocked when the 27-year-old announced he had suffered an ankle injury.
The injury denied Manang’oi a chance of competing with his brother George, who had qualified for the world championships, in Doha.
Cheruiyot, who had finished second behind Manangoi in the 2017 edition of the championship staged in London, stepped up to the challenge and delivered gold for Kenya in Manangoi’s absence.
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Lightning now seems to have struck the same place twice for Manang’oi.
The two-year ban slapped on Manang’oi on November 13 by the Athletics Integrity Unit after the former world champion failed to make himself available for three drugs tests means the Rongai Athletics Club runner will miss 2020 Olympic Games in Japan, and just like last year, the task of leading Kenya’s charge in the metric mile race will fall on the shoulders of reigning world champion Cheruiyot.
My take is that Cheruiyot should strike even harder, now that the iron is still hot. With great determination, the soft-spoken athlete who turned 25 on Friday has patiently worked his way up the ladder of success long enough to appreciate success when it comes his way, but he also has living examples of 1,500m athletes who have made career-limiting mistakes that he can learn from.
Before Cheruiyot won gold in 1,500m in Doha, he had made no less than two attempts at winning the metric mile race at the senior track and field championships.
In his first attempt at the 2015 edition in Beijing, he finished seventh as Asbel Kiprop and Elijah Manang’oi won gold and silver for Kenya. In the 2017 edition of the global championships held in London, Cheruiyot finished second behind Manang’oi, while Kiprop finished ninth.
Being one of Kenyan journalists who travelled to Doha to cover the 2019 World Athletics Championships, I had the pleasure of watching his crowning moment.
With defending champion Manang’oi out, Cheruiyot led Ronald Kwemoi, Kumari Taki, and George Manang’oi in the chase for medals.
On the final day of the global track and field event, Cheruiyot led from gun to tape to win men's 1,500m title, ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi from Algeria and Poland's Marcin Lewandowski. Kwemoi finished seventh.
But a word of caution for Cheruiyot. His predecessor Manang’oi has been banned for doping violation. Manang’oi’s predecessor Asbel Kiprop who had won the world title in 2015 in Beijing was banned in 2018 for using prohibited blood booster EPO.
Kiprop was awarded the 1,500m gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics after the original winner, Moroccan-born Bahraini Rashid Ramzi, tested positive for drugs.
Cheruiyot, please note that winning the 1,500m title in a major championship has become a poisoned chalice. Just compete clean, notify drug testers of your whereabouts without fail, and we will all be happy.
Please, don’t conform to the pattern that winners of major championships have established in the past.
Maintain your focus and go for gold at 2020 Olympics in Japan next year.