Steeplechase is the coolest Olympic event you’ve never heard of.
The duck-billed platypus of track and field, steeplechase combines distance running, hurdling, and long jumping—with some water thrown in to the mix. Based on the 18th century distance races in Ireland, in which cross-country thoroughbred horses were required to jump fences and ditches while running from church steeple to church steeple, steeplechase is an obstacle race contested on a track. Human competition in the event began in mid-19th century Britain, and the two-mile steeplechase was first run at Oxford University, with competitors jumping small walls while racing from one church to the next. It was first made an official track event at the 1879 English Championships.
The foremost version of steeplechase is the 3,000 meter race. Run on a 400-meter track, the circuit has four ordinary barriers—also called jumps or obstacles–and one water jump. Runners make bunched, standing starts and can break immediately for the inside lane. Obstacles are evenly distributed around the track. After covering the first portion of the race without barriers, runners complete seven full laps around the track. Over the course of 3,000 meters, each runner must clear a total of 28 barriers and seven water jumps. Jumps begin after the runners pass the finish line for the first time, with five jumps in each of the final seven laps.
Unlike hurdles, steeplechase barriers do not fall over if hit, and rules allow the athlete to negotiate the barrier—which measure five inches from front to back–by any means. Many runners step on top of the obstacles rather than hurdle them. Barriers, which are nearly 13 feet wide, are 36 inches high for men while 30 inches high for women. Four barriers are spaced around the track on level ground, and a fifth barrier, at the top of the second turn [fourth barrier in a complete lap from the finish line], is the water jump.
A water jump consists of a barrier followed by a pit of water with a landing area 12 feet wide, 12 feet long, and a little over two feet deep. The water is deepest below the barrier and slopes upward, beginning at 28 inches deep and advancing across the 12-foot length until level with the surface of the track. The slope of the water jump rewards runners with more leaping ability, as a longer jump results in a shallower landing in the water. The rule of thumb for landing is, one foot in, one foot out. The water jump comes on the back turn and is not actually located on the track. In some venues, it is set up outside the outer line, while in international competitions it is inside the inner lane.
The steeplechase is the craziest, most chaotic race in the Olympics, and the 3,000 meter final is the sport’s most prestigious event. The men’s event was first run in 1920 and has part of the Olympic program since. The first women’s Olympic steeplechase took place in the 2008 Beijing Games. The International Association of Athletics Federation [IAAF], which governs the sport, establishes Olympic qualifying times for men and women. Once achieved, athletes must qualify for their nation’s Olympic team. A maximum of three competitors per country may compete in steeplechase, which culminates with a 15-runner Olympic final. The race begins with a standing start and ends when the runner’s torso [not head, arm, or leg] crosses the finish line.
The first 3,000 meter steeplechase completed in under ten minutes came in 1914, when Sweden’s Josef Ternstrom accomplished the feat. Thirty years later, fellow countryman Erik Elmsater broke the nine-minute barrier. Moses Kiptanui is the godfather of steeplechase, dominating the event in the first half of the 1990s. Holder of three world titles, Mr. Kiptanui—a Kenyan—was the first man to run under eight minutes, going 7:59.18 in 1995. The IAAF’s first ratified world record occurred in 1954, when Hungarian Sandor Rozsnyoi ran 8:49.6. Since then, the world record has been lowered 32 times, and is currently held by Saif Saaeed Shanheen of Qatar, who ran 7:53.63 at a meet in Brussels in September 2004. Born and raised in Kenya as Stephen Cherono, he moved to Qatar in 2003, where he changed his name and, allegedly, received one million dollars to become a Qatari citizen. After taking the gold medal in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the 2003 World Championships, Shanheen was barred from entering the 2004 Athens Olympics by an IOC rule that prohibits athletes from competing in international events for three years after competing in an international event for a different country. Shanheen, who ran the world’s fastest time four straight years from 2003 to 2006, retired in 2016 after injuries derailed his career.
Like the Jamaicans and sprinting, the Kenyans are nearly unbeatable in Olympic steeplechase. They have won every men’s title since 1968, with the exception of 1976 and 1980, when they boycotted. Kenya swept the medals in 1992 and 2004 and has earned a total of 21 Olympic steeplechase medals. Finland is a distant second, with nine. The American record holder is 2016 Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager, who ran 8:00.45 in July 2015. Unlike Kenyan runners who are small and slight, Jager is tall and muscular, which can be an advantage in steeplechase. “Having long legs is a benefit,” says Gary Geyer, a former track standout at Arizona State. “They make it easier to clear the hurdles and also help in the water pit. The farther an athlete can leap, the less water he has to deal with. The 6’4” Geyer, who competed in the 800, 1,500 and steeplechase for the Sun Devils, believes an ideal steeplechaser “combines the endurance of a 5,000 meter runner with the speed of a miler. Top performers know how to stay out of traffic, and the best runners know how to hold their ground when they get in a pack.”
The 2017 IAAF Track and Field World Championships will be held August 4-17 in London, England.
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