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Who to Watch in the Olympic 3000m Steeplechase

In an event in which one misstep can blow your chances, the victors in the steeplechase races in Tokyo could be who makes the least mistakes. 

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With 35 barriers, seven of them water jumps, the 3000m steeplechase is one of the toughest races in the sport of track and field. An event traditionally dominated by Kenya, many major championship finals have seen Kenyans work together to keep the pace high from the start. Championship finals are usually not as quick as races on the circuit, given the absence of pacemakers, and typically boil down to a last-lap kick. However, there are many occasions where the pace is fast from the outset as the athletes with the quickest PRs seek to minimize the risk of either being out-kicked or suffering a fall due to the grouping of athletes over the barriers.

Women’s Olympic 3000m Steeplechase Preview

Women hurdling over steeplechase barrier.
Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi Kiyeng is favorited in the Olympic 3000m steeplechase coming off a fresh victory in the Monaco Diamond League. Kiyeng was the silver medalist in the event in the 2016 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images

In an event where one error can end your chances, the destination of the gold medals in the steeplechase races in Tokyo could hinge on who makes the least mistakes. 

Given the multiple hurdles and water pits, there’s ample opportunity for mishaps. That was demonstrated again at the July Monaco Diamond League where 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and U.S. trials champion Emma Coburn fell at the final water jump while chasing her first sub-nine-minute clocking. 

The Monaco race was won by Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi Kiyeng, who won silver at the 2016 Olympics and who showed finishing pace in Monaco that makes her a strong contender for gold in Tokyo. 

“I think I can improve,” she said after that race. “But the Olympics will not be easy, everyone wants gold.”

She will be joined by teammate Beatrice Chepkoech, the world record holder and reigning world champion, who is hard to beat in fast races but is vulnerable when it comes down to a kick. Expect to see the Kenyans working together in the final to keep things moving fast up front through the early kilometres. 

Coburn will again be a strong medal contender, as will her U.S. teammate Courtney Frerichs and Germany’s Gesa-Felicitas Krause. Coburn looked very much at ease when finishing third in her heat in 9:16.91, an automatic qualifier, while Frerichs won her heat in 9:19.34, with Krause and Chepkoech finishing right behind. The favorite will be Kiyeng, who took victory in her heat in 9:23.17.

Chepkoech had once looked unbeatable in this event but the world record holder was carrying an injury coming into Tokyo in her hamstring, admitting after her heat that “it’s still painful” and that she’s been reliant on painkillers to get to the line.

Coburn said she was doing workouts she’d never done before on the build-up. “That makes me think I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been in,” she said. “But I’m assuming everyone else is in the best shape that they’ve ever been in too.”

Men’s Olympic 3000m Steeplechase Preview

Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco clears the water jump in the Men's 3000 metres Steeplechase during the IAAF Diamond League event at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar.
Kenya’s dominance in the 3000m steeplechase has never looked less secure with Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali likely the man to beat. Ethiopia’s Takele Bikila Tadese and Abraham Seme will also be dangerous. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

In the men’s race, U.S. medal hopes were dashed last month after 2016 Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager withdrew from the Olympic Trials with injury, and it will take something unforeseen from U.S. champion Hillary Bor to place among the medalists. 

Kenya traditionally has a stranglehold on this event, but its dominance has never looked less secure with Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali likely the man to beat given the absence of reigning world and Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto. Ethiopia’s Takele Bikila Tadese and Abraham Seme will also be dangerous. 

“El Bakkali is the standout but he tends to struggle under that pressure and without Jager or Kipruto there, the weight of the world is on him,” says three-time Olympian Alistair Cragg. “The Ethiopian guys are also big kickers.”

Kenya’s challenge will be led by Leonard Bett, who edged Abraham Kibiwott and Benjamin Kigen to win their Olympic Trials in June. Kigen only finished sixth at the 2019 World Championships but he proved himself ready to challenge for gold recently, dominating the 3000m steeplechase in Monaco before his race fell to pieces due to the bell being rung a lap early, which saw him eventually fade to seventh. With his kick, though, he’ll be extremely dangerous in Tokyo, where up to half a dozen athletes will likely be clustered together at the front before the last-lap burn-up.


Women’s Olympic 3,000m Steeplechase

Date: August 1 (Japan) / July 31 (U.S.) — Round 1
Time: 9:10 a.m. local time / 8:10 p.m. EDT

Date: August 4 — Final
Time: 6:30 p.m. local time / 5:30 a.m. EDT

Men’s Olympic 3,000m Steeplechase

Date: July 30 (Japan) / July 29 (U.S.) — Round 1 Startlists
Time: 9 a.m. local time / 8 p.m. EDT

Date: August 2 — Final
Time: 7 p.m. local time / 6 a.m. EDT