Mekhissi aims to topple Kenyan steeplechase hegemony
France's Mahiedine Mekhissi (C) celebrates in the last meters on his way to win the Men's 1500m final at the European Athletics Championships in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 17, 2014 - by Olivier Morin
Mekhissi shot to fame at last month's European Championships in Zurich when he stripped off his top as he charged to a convincing win in the 3000m steeplechase, gripping it between his teeth in an emotion-charged moment.
But drama ensued as he was promptly disqualified for disrobing only for the 29-year-old to rebound almost immediately to win the 1500m in impressive style.
Mekhissi's target now is solely on the seemingly never-ending Kenyan production line of supreme steeplechasers, and organisers have drawn together a field for the season-ending Diamond League meet better than any championship final.
"My aim tomorrow is to run against and beat the Kenyans," said Mekhissi, twice Olympic silver medallist and twice world bronze medallist behind athletes from the east African running powerhouse.
"It's like an Olympic final, although there are more Kenyans! There are the three Americans as well. For race tactics, it's races like this that motivate me.
"I'm looking forward to a very quick race, good pacemakers and good conditions - and the time could be there."
Mekhissi, with a personal best of 8:00.09, could realistically be in with a good shout at breaking the European steeplechase record and become the first European to break the 8-minute mark, with only 10 athletes in track history having ever run under that time.
- Mouth-watering line-up -
But the Reims-born runner insisted times were not his priority, saying: "I'm not putting myself under pressure as regards the time, just to measure myself against the Kenyans.
"But if I can do the two, why not? I want to be among the top 3000m steeplechasers and to do that I really need a sub-8 minute record."
The current world record of 7:53.63 was set in Brussels in 2004 by Saif Saeed Shaheen from Qatar, a former Kenyan who was known as Stephen Cherono. He has since retired but a mouth-watering line-up has been organised for Friday.
Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya's 2004 and 2012 Olympic gold medallist and three-time defending world champion, is taking part for no appearance fee, having missed the budgetary cut-off.
There will, however, be a bonus for a sub-8 minute run, and Kemboi has a raft of compatriots to help push him along.
The second and third fastest of all-time will race: 2008 Olympic champion and 2007 world gold medallist Brimin Kiprop Kipruto and 2004 Olympic bronze medallist Paul Kipsiele Koech.
Among the five other Kenyans are Diamond Race winner and Commonwealth silver medallist Jairus Kipchoge Birech, current world silver medallist Conseslus Kipruto, recently-crowned world junior champion Barnabas Kipyego and Hillary Kipsang Yego, who has stepped down from marathon and last season won the Stockholm Diamond League race ahead of Koech, Kemboi and the two Kiprutos.
"The 3000m steeplechase is a very tough event, dominated by the Kenyans," admitted Mekhissi, appearing in his first Diamond League meet of the season in the discipline.
"The Kenyans have dominated the event for 30 years and I want to break that hegemony. The first athlete to do that will enter into legend and I want to be part of it."
While Mekhissi has shone with his exploits on the track, his actions coming off after a race have garnered him some more unsavoury headlines, notably involving a punch-up with teammate Mehdi Baala and pushing around mascots.
But beware, come Friday: organisers have signed up the Smurfs as the meeting mascots, so Mekhissi can expect a blue-skinned humanoid -- and legendary Belgian cartoon character -- to welcome him across the line.