One of the most entertaining — and difficult — events in track and field is the steeplechase, with its barriers and water jumps that are not unlike the ones in the horse race it is named after.
Starting in the 18th century in Ireland, horses and riders raced from one town’s steeple to the next because of their visibility over long distances, with competitors navigating various obstacles in the countryside along the way. Now contested on a track, the most famous steeplechase race in the world is the Grand National, run in Liverpool, England, since 1839.
The track and field event can be traced to the two-mile cross-country races run at Oxford University in the mid-19th century. It was made a track event, with barriers, at the 1879 English Championships. The men’s steeplechase has been an Olympic event since 1920, although with varying distances before being standardized at 3,000 meters. The women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase appeared for the first time at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
On the track, competitors have to navigate 28 fixed barriers and seven water jumps. Besides strength and endurance, top steeplechasers, not unlike horses, also require superior agility.
The barriers in steeplechase are wider and more stable than those in hurdle races in track and field. In contrast to those races, athletes can step on the barriers. The height of each barrier is 36 inches in the men’s event and 30 inches in the women’s.
The water jump includes a hurdle and a water pit that is 12 feet square and 70 centimeters, or more than two feet, at its deepest. Athletes try to jump farther to avoid water to maintain their speed. The water jump is not a part of the oval track; it is situated inside or outside the track’s second bend (in Tokyo it’s on the inside).
Unlike some other track events, the steeplechase does not require athletes to stay in their lanes. Instead, they can break immediately for the inside lane after a bunched standing start.
One of the most famous mishaps in the history of the Olympics happened in the steeplechase event in the 1932 Los Angeles Games. The officials lost count of the number of laps, and the athletes ran about 3,460 meters.
While they might not have been quite as dramatic, the events at the Tokyo Games did not disappoint.
On Wednesday, Peruth Chemutai of Uganda won gold in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase, with a time of 9 minutes 1.45 seconds. Courtney Frerichs, a 28-year-old from Nixa, Mo., earned silver in 9:04.79, and Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya took bronze in 9:05.39.
Two days earlier, Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco secured gold in 8:08.90 to become the first non-Kenyan to win Olympic gold in the men’s event since Bronislaw Malinowski of Poland won the title in Moscow in 1980. Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia finished second with a time of 8:10.38, and Benjamin Kigen of Kenya was third in 8:11.45.
Since the 1968 Olympics, men’s steeplechase has been dominated by Kenyan athletes, who won gold in every Games except those in Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980, which they boycotted, and earned a clean sweep of the medals at the 1992 and 2004 Games.