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ELDORET, Kenya, Jun 28 (Reuters) - Some of Kenya's most celebrated athletes' reputations will be on the line when they compete in the country's Olympic trials on Thursday and Friday, just weeks before the start of the Rio Games.
The trials will be held at the high-altitude North Rift Valley town of Eldoret, some 350km north west of the capital, Nairobi, home to some of the world's finest middle- and long-distance athletes.
But whether the current generation of giants will secure their passage to Rio is far from certain, given the trials' reputation for ruthlessness and competitiveness.
They are being staged against the backdrop of doping scandals that have beset the nation and still hang over athletes’ heads like Damocles' sword.
More than 40 Kenyan athletes have been banned for failed drugs tests in the past four years and last week world athletics chiefs said Kenyan and Russian athletes hoping to participate at the Rio Olympics, which begin on Aug. 5, would have to undergo further doping tests.
Attention on the track is expected to focus on reigning Olympic champions David Rudisha (800m) and Ezekiel Kemboi (3,000m steeplechase), and a sprinkling of world champions who could be brought to their knees by hungry and ambitious young runners.
“I have watched Rudisha this season and I am not sure if he has the fire in his belly that propelled him to Olympic glory and a world record four years ago,” Robert Ouko, winner of Olympic 4x400m gold medal in 1972, told Reuters.
“His saving grace could be the selection criterion set by Athletics Kenya (AK), where a third athlete is selected on merit,” he said.
Referring to that third-chance policy, AK President Jackson Tuwei appeared to justify the widely held concern by top athletes that they might be affected by the altitude in Eldoret, which is more than 2,000 meters above sea level.
“You never know. Some of our top runners may be beaten here due to unforeseen circumstances, but they have the experience to win in major races. We will pick the first two across the finish, but a third one on merit,” Tuwei said.
“The beauty of Kenyans trials are their unpredictability,” he added.
Ferguson Rotich, fourth in last year’s Beijing World Championships, is the man to watch in the men’s 800m, where he will compete against Rudisha, whom he beat at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Shanghai and in Stockholm.
“This is the race to watch. It has all the ingredients of an Olympic final. Rudisha will want to put the young man (Rotich) in his place and prove that he is the best, while the young man want to prove that his feats in Shanghai and Stockholm were not flukes,” said Ouko.
Ezekiel Kemboi, twice Olympic and four-time world 3,000-metre steeplechase champion, will have to overcome 2008 Olympic champion Brimin Kipruto, former Olympic bronze medalist Paul Kipsiele Koech and twice world silver medalist Conseslus Kipruto.
Three-time world champion Asbel Kiprop seems hot favorite in the men’s 1,500-metre line-up, ahead of world silver medalist Elijah Manangoi, 2011 world silver medalist Silas Kiplagat and Commonwealth Games champion James Magut.
Reporting by Isaack Omulo,; Editing by Neville Dalton