Kenyan steeplechase star was aiming for another global gold and a world record in 2020 but tells Chris Dennis how the coronavirus outbreak has forced him to go back to the drawing board
Conseslus Kipruto knows what it takes to become an Olympic and world champion: talent, hard work, a never-say-die attitude. This, after all, is the man who won the Diamond League final two years ago wearing just one shoe.
But now the 25-year-old Kenyan will have to find another quality: patience. The postponement of Tokyo 2020 means Kipruto will have to wait another year to defend his Olympic title.
“It’s very disappointing, but we understand what’s going on in the world because of this coronavirus,” he tells me from his home in Eldoret. “The way I’ve trained, the aim was to defend my title in Tokyo, but the IOC made the right decision, in my opinion.”
Kipruto has won four major 3000m steeplechase titles in the last four years. The first came at the Rio Olympics in 2016, followed by his maiden world title in London in 2017 and then gold at the Commonwealth Games the following year. Last year, he missed several months of vital training with an ankle injury. But he built a pool in his back garden, regained his fitness through aqua-jogging and went on to retain his world title in Doha by the thickness of his vest. It was an extraordinary story.
And he had been taking that impressive form into his preparations for Tokyo.
“My preparation was going very well,” he says. “We were pushing hard and actually I was on course to defend my title in Tokyo and was hoping to run a world record or close to a world record, so you can see why I am disappointed.”
Like thousands of athletes all over the world, Kipruto finds himself in fabulous shape but with no competitive racing on the horizon. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be in the same condition in 12 months’ time and the knock-on postponement of the World Championships in Eugene to 2022 means his next two years will have to be recalibrated.
“It’s really frustrating because I don’t know about next year,” he says. “My plans and my prayers were to have the Olympics this year and in 2021 to defend my title at the World Championships and then in 2022 to go to the Commonwealth Games (in Birmingham). Now I don’t know and I’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
“I was on course to defend my title in Tokyo and was hoping to run a world record or close to a world record”
To add insult to injury, Kipruto’s event, the 3000m steeplechase, was among those dropped from the Diamond League core programme. He was planning to run non-Diamond League races in Doha and Naples but they, too, have been postponed.
So, with an empty diary and severe restrictions on movement due to coronavirus, what will he do over the next few weeks?
“I’m stranded,” he says. “ My coach and I were confused. But we decided to take a break. I’m not training with my group. I’m training alone at home. My plan at the moment is to train slowly, reduce my training to 3-4 days a week and try to keep my shape.”
No competition, of course, means no income, from racing at least. As an Olympic and double world champion, Kipruto is well sponsored and well endorsed, but many of his Kenyan team-mates who rely on income from competition are struggling.
“I know many people are finding it difficult financially,” he says. “Even a week ago two of my friends called me, asking me how we are going to survive financially. People are struggling.”
Despite the postponement of the Olympic Games, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, has said he will do all he can to keep the 2020 Diamond League season intact and retain athletes’ earning potential as much as possible. Kipruto and athletes around the world are hoping that they can start competing – and earning – in late summer or early autumn.
For now though, athletes in Kenya, like in the rest of the world, are in limbo. Coronavirus didn’t reach Kenya until mid-March, much later than in other parts of the world, and the number of cases and deaths is still relatively low. Nonetheless, much of daily life has shut down.
“It’s not a normal life,” says Kipruto. “If you go into Eldoret town there are no crowds, there’s no life. Everywhere is closed. No business is going on. 80% of people are in self-quarantine.”
So Kipruto must watch and wait. His Olympic title defence will come next year. For now, the only sport being played is a game of patience.
» Chris Dennis is a sports broadcaster and part of the Diamond League commentary team