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Odd couple set for new steeplechase duel

14 August 2013, 12:48

Nairobi - Kenyan steeplechase great Ezekiel Kemboi jumping into the arms of France's two-time Olympic silver medalist Mahiedine Mekhissi after regaining his Olympic title last year was one of the images of the London Games.

Their close friendship will have to be set aside for the fourth time in a major championship final when they line-up on Thursday at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow.

But both acknowledge that, whatever the result, their relationship will be as strong as ever.

Mekhissi, who has only once finished in front of Kemboi in a final when he took the silver in the 2008 Olympics while the Kenyan could only finish seventh, summed up the nature of their friendship after their race at the Paris Diamond League meeting in July.

"He (Kemboi) is my best friend off the track but my worst enemy on it," said the 28-year-old.

The shy Frenchman was speaking only moments after 'his worst enemy on the track' had deliberately slowed down to help him break the European record in the event and then celebrated with him by holding hands.

Mekhissi said Kemboi's presence had helped him as he had hated the build-up to the race, the razzmatazz and frenetic nature of the meeting not to the liking of his introverted character.

"I really want to enjoy the final on Thursday, which was not the case in Paris," he said.

"The schedule of the events was hectic, the announcer continually referred prior to the race of how I was going to try and break the European record which added to the stress. I really didn't like that.

"Thankfully Ezekiel was there and when I looked across at him before the start he smiled at me and it helped me enormously as it gave me reassurance."

The roots of their touching friendship – rare in athletes competing from different countries in the same event – dates back to the Beijing Olympic final when the Kenyans were impressed by Mekhissi preventing them from a cleansweep of the medals.

"Kemboi is the Kenyan I appreciate most," he said. "It is a good-natured and fair war between us,

The friendship, though, cemented itself in London last year when both produced great performances after coming into the Games under a bit of a cloud.

Mekhissi had been suspended for six months by his federation for an extraordinary and unseemly brawl with compatriot and fellow athlete Mehdi Baala at a meeting in Monaco in 2011.

Kemboi for his part had been charged with assaulting and causing bodily harm to a female friend in Kenya but was allowed to compete.

"We drew strength from both our bad experiences and it fed into our respective performances," said Kemboi, who was later to see the charges withdrawn by the woman.

Mekhissi hopes that Thursday will see him reverse finishing positions but he admits it will be hard to better their post-race celebration.

"We exchanged shirts at the finish. That had never been done before in athletics.

"That day I did not win gold but I took home the Olympic champion's vest.

"We created a little bit of history for our event, showed a good image for our sport. I hope that we continue to enjoy ourselves."

- Sapa - AFP

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