By Isaack Omulo
LONDON (Reuters) - There is no guarantee Kenya will top the medals table at this year's World Championships, as they did in Beijing two years ago, or even win the 3,000 meters steeplechase gold which they see as their birthright, head coach Julius Kirwa said on Monday.
The United States currently top the medals table with eight, including two golds, while Kenya are in third place with four medals, including one gold, behind Ethiopia and Kirwa believes increased competition has made success more difficult.
“Competition is too high here. Countries have invested heavily in the science of athletics, while we are still using old methods of training hard and depending on foreign coaches handling our athletes out there,” he told Reuters.
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“There is no guarantee of retaining the overall world title. I will be wrong if I said we can retain the title. People are well prepared," added the Kenya Army officer, whose country won 16 medals at the 2015 worlds including seven golds.
"I fear that even this (3,000m) steeplechase race may be taken away from us,” said Kirwa.
The 3,000m steeplechase final on Tuesday will feature a stellar cast including Kenya’s current Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto, twice Olympic and reigning four-time world champion Ezekiel Kemboi and Jairus Kipchoge Birech.
They want to maintain their hold on a title won three times in a row by Moses Kiptanui from 1991 to 1995, Wilson Boit Kipketer (1997), Christopher Kosgei (1999), Reuben Kosgei (2001), Brimin Kipruto (2007) and Ezekiel Kemboi (2009-2015).
Their reign was interrupted in 2003 and 2005 by Saif Shaheen Shaheed, but even he was a Kenyan-born Qatari national.
Kirwa believes 28-year-old Evan Jager of the United States, who was the fastest qualifier for the final in London and whose eight minutes 01.29 is the season’s best ahead of Kipruto (8:04.63), poses a major challenge to Kenya.
“He (Jager) has emerged as the strongest steeplechaser this season, and we no longer take it for granted (that the gold is ours),” said Kirwa.
Other notable athletes in the race will be Kenyan-born American Stanley Kipkoech Kebenei and Uganda’s Jacob Araptany.
Kenya's woes in the men’s 800 meters has added to Kirwa’s worries with Kipyegon Bett the only Kenyan through to the final, which starts shortly after the steeplechase.
The Kenyan camp suffered a setback last week when twice Olympic champion David Rudisha withdrew from the event with an injury, while the promising Michael Saruni had already been dropped from the team despite coming third at the Kenyan trials.
Ferguson Rotich and Emmanuel Korir were eliminated in the semi-finals in London, leaving Bett - who was the fastest qualifier - to lead the Kenyan charge in a race that includes Botswana’s Nijel Amos who has the world leading time of 1:43.18.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)