World Steeplechase champion and record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen was thought to have a chance of winning the short race at the World Cross Country Championships. Although he didn’t manage to grab any individual honour the 22-year-old was proud of his team’s bronze medal. Paul Gains spoke to the charming young man whose plan for the future may include a double gold medal attempt at the Helsinki World Championships.
“What shall I call you? Stephen or Shaheen?”
An innocuous question perhaps, but the answer will reveal much about how Saif Saaeed Shaheen, the World 3000m Steeplechase record holder perceives himself.
“If you want to call me Shaheen you can. If you prefer, you can call me Stephen. That is the name my parents call me still,” he answers me ever so politely - ever so diplomatically - and with a smile.
Shaheen is dressed in the burgundy coloured track suit of Qatar. He waits patiently with his teammates for the medal ceremonies at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in St-Etienne/St-Galmier to begin. A crowd gathers on the other side of the fence to take his picture and he smiles on cue.
Half an hour before the Kenyan born distance runner had led his adopted country Qatar to the short course bronze medal. It was a race in which he made an enormous impact, launching an audacious attack on the sensational Kenenisa Bekele midway through the 4km race putting 30 metres of daylight between him and the defending double World Cross Country champion.
Foolhardy maybe, but to those who know him best it is entirely consistent with the temperament of this 22-year-old phenomenon. Even his coach, the affable Italian Renato Canova shook his head saying his injection of pace likely cost him a medal. Bekele easily hauled him in to take the gold.
Regardless, Shaheen finished 4th, an improvement over his finish in Brussels a year ago. A day later he would also finish 8th in the long course race.
Qatar once again proudly stepped onto the medal podium for their second team bronze medal thanks in large part to the former Stephen Cherono.
Shaheen’s decision to change allegiance and henceforth his name resulted in numerous rumours circulating around the distance running world. When he won the 3000m Steeplechase at the 2003 World Championships merely days after switching citizenship he ended a string of six consecutive Kenyan victories in the event. That didn’t go over too well. Then it was reported he had been rewarded with a $1 million US bonus by the Qatari government.
“Mythology” Canova calls it. Shaheen simply shrugs his shoulders.
“First of all I wasn’t paid to change citizenship. I wasn’t paid any money,” he declares in perfect English. “I don’t like giving out my views just like that. It takes time to explain to people and to tell them I didn’t go there for money. If I was given one million dollars maybe I would have stopped running.”
“I only wanted the chance to be in all those very, very big meetings, the Olympics and the World Championships, and also to prepare for big races. And, of course, maybe try for the World record. That was my main, main goal.”
Both Shaheen and Canova believe they can plan their training and racing schedules better knowing that he won’t have to contest the highly unpredictable and competitive Kenyan trials where many superstars have fallen victim to inspired youth. It is this ulterior motive which guided him to make the controversial decision. Of course the promise of a monthly stipend of $1,000 US for life plus a daily per diem of $40 when the team is in training camp helps a bit.
Canova sequestered the Qataris in a training camp at Iten, near Eldoret. It is home to the group for six months of the year. The coach describes their accommodation as a glorified garage, very spartan, a place with an absence of distractions. Though he can afford to build himself a big house and live an affluent lifestyle compared to others, Shaheen remains, at heart, one of the guys.
“When we are in my home town in Iten it’s altitude, it’s quiet, there are few people,” he explains. “People are still poor there. I like it because there are some good things going on there. I know everybody. It is safer than Nairobi and other towns. The roads are still very good there for training. My mum and dad are still there. They live in Eldoret.”
“You see what I am trying at the moment; I don’t want to isolate myself. I know I am from a poor family and I don’t want to go there and say ‘I don’t care about you now.’ What I want is to share everything I have, at the moment, for the sake of the other guys. There is no need for me to be in a high class hotel and the others are poor. I like supporting people. There is no need for me to be high class, dress nice in expensive clothes and people are struggling.”
It is the coach who points out that Shaheen has paid school fees for three of his siblings because he wants them to benefit from education. Shaheen didn’t finish high school. Neither did his father. He is extremely articulate nonetheless and spends time reading books to expand his knowledge.
“My parents were farmers. They are still farmers. I have finished paying, my younger brother I paid his school fees from form two and another sister finished last year and I used to pay her school fees,” he confirms rather reluctantly, “and also I have another brother I pay school fees for. The two brothers at the moment they are running. I don’t want them to run anymore.
I don’t want them to run. I want them to go and study first and then they can choose what they want.”
Using his influence he is hoping they can combine the two by attending American universities.
The World Cross Country Championships was an occasion for Shaheen to test himself against his Kenyan neighbours. The majority of the Qatari team it should be noted, are also former Kenyans. Moreover, it was a chance for Shaheen to bond with the Qatari team, something he takes very seriously.
“For me I just came to the World Cross Country Championships because if I don’t come it’s a bad thing for the country,” he confides. “I come here as a moral booster for the other guys. That is the main goal. Because if I stayed behind some of the other guys might be disappointed. Some like cross country and they want someone to push them and give them some morale.”
“Always at the end of every long season there must be a big competition, always. So this World Cross Country Championships are a good gauge for me to see how I have been training for the past six or seven months during the winter.”
In true Kenyan spirit Shaheen emphasises the team success over his own medal aspirations. Only when pushed does he reveal his disappointment in failing to win an individual medal.
“When I came here today I was expecting to win a silver medal or a gold medal,” he says softly. “But I am a little bit disappointed right now. Happy on one side and also sad on the other side. I started kicking early in the middle of the race. If I had just waited until a quarter to go maybe I would have won the silver medal. On the other side we have won a bronze medal for Qatar and we are happy about it.”
Stephen Cherono was one of ten children - six boys and four girls born into a family of farmers all of whom lived in Iten. As a youngster he was a promising football player and had no ambition to be a runner. It was while attending Marakwet Primary School that he watched his elder brother, Christopher Koskei, achieve some success as a runner.
Koskei was coached by Canova and when he won the silver medal at the 1993 World Junior Cross Country Championships in Amorebieta, Spain it opened the young Stephen’s eyes. Then when his brother returned from the 1995 World Championships with the silver medal in the steeplechase he was inspired. He sought help from Brother Colm O’Connell the Irish priest who taught and coached at St Patrick’s School in Iten.
“It was hard for me to leave football for running,” he remembers. “I also joined Brother Colm (O’Connell) I had a good coach, a good training program and good advice from him. Everything there was very nice.”
“When we were in St Patrick’s there is a list of the gold medallists, silver medallists and the bronze medallists in the Olympics and World Championships and also the trees are grown with the names of the stars like (1988 Olympic 1500m champion) Peter Rono. I never met them but I saw videos and pictures of them.”
Eventually he asked his brother to describe the training programs Canova had written for him. It was not long before he met Canova and joined his group.
Naturally, Shaheen’s success has influenced other Kenyans from the area. He has assisted them both financially and with his influence to better their lot in life. Abdullah Ahmad Hassan (born Albert Chepkurui) who came through the field to claim the world cross 12km bronze medal is one. Essa Ismail Rashed who was Qatar’s second finisher in the world junior race is another.
Canova says “Stephen” wanted to put a camp together so everyone can benefit. And contrary to what has been reported they are no longer scorned by other Kenyans.
“We see each other when we are in Kenya.” says Eliud Kipchoge, World 5000m champion. ”We are friends but we don’t train together.”
The legendary Ben Jipcho, one of the Kenyan coaches at the World Cross Country Championships expresses similar sentiments.
“They are all friends, there is no problem. The minister of sport spoke with Shaheen here (in Saint Etienne),” Jipcho said. The mood contrasts the reports that all the “defectors” had been ordered to surrender their passports. Again Shaheen is amused by all the fuss.
“I surrendered my Kenyan passport a long time ago but there are some people who say ‘you know you didn’t return it.’ I gave up my Kenyan passport,” he emphasises, “I didn't want to go to Paris (2003 World Championships) and say ‘I gave up my passport’. It’s just a waste of time. I like someone who comes to me and says ‘Hey where is the Kenyan passport?’ then I explain to you in a good way, in good faith.”
The issue of citizenship is a contentious one and the ongoing friction cost him a chance to run in the 2004 Olympics in Athens where he would have been the favourite. Watching the race on television was not easy but he knew well in advance that he would not be going to Athens because of the rules.
Breaking the World record in Brussels shortly after the Olympics (7:53.63) was, therefore, immensely satisfying.
Buoyed by his performance in St-Etienne/St-Galmier Shaheen is now looking forward to the outdoor track season and has set some pretty significant goals. Though his success in the steeplechase is well known he also ran 5000m in 12:48.81 two years ago. Only five men have ever run faster.
“I want to double and run both the 5000m and steeplechase at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki,” he declares. “If I go for a fast time, maybe in one race, maybe I prefer to save my energy for the World Championships.”
“Yes it is possible for me to break my World Steeplechase record but it’s just a matter of time. Because I can’t just go for the World record today and then I stay in Kenya for a month then go to the World Championships and have to run 3000m Steeplechase heats, final and 5000m and then at the end of the season I will be tired and then my career will be shorter. I want it to be longer, just run very few races and then I will run for a long time. That is my goal.”
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2005