2016 Olympic Men’s Steeple Preview: The GOAT, Ezekiel Kemboi, Goes for a Third Olympic Title Against Conseslus Kipruto; Can Evan Jager Prevent a Kenyan Sweep?

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by LetsRun.com
August 15, 2016

The women’s steeple being at 9:25 am ET today.

Race Times
Prelims: Monday, August 15, 9:25 a.m. ET
Final: Wednesday, August 17, 10:50 a.m. ET
2015 Worlds results
1. Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya 8:11.28
2. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:12.38
3. Brimin Kiprop Kipruto, Kenya 8:12.54
4. Jairus Birech, Kenya 8:12.62
5. Dan Huling, USA 8:14.39

2016’s Fastest performers (among men entered)
1. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:00.12
2. John Koech, Bahrain 8:09.62
3. Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya 8:14.19
4. Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco 8:14.41
5. Evan Jager, USA 8:15.26

A Showdown Worthy of the Olympics: Ezekiel Kemboi vs. Conseslus Kipruto

No country dominates an event like the Kenyan men in the steeplechase, having won the event in eight straight Olympics (10 if you don’t count 1976 or 1980 as Kenya boycotted both Games). The closest another country comes to Kenya’s streak is the U.S. women in the 4 x 400 relay (five straight titles); no other country has an active streak of more than two consecutive titles in a men’s event. The only country you can compare Kenya to is the United States in the early 20th century, back when the Olympics was not yet a truly global event.

Most consecutive wins in an Olympic event
16 — USA, men’s pole vault (1896-1968)
9 — USA, men’s 110 hurdles (1932-72)
8 — Kenya, men’s 3000 steeplechase (1984-present)
8 — USA, men’s 4 x 100 relay (1920-56)
8 — USA, men’s high jump (1896-1928)
8 — USA, men’s long jump (1924-60)

And of all the champion Kenyan steeplers through the years, none is greater than Ezekiel Kemboi. Kemboi has an impressive streak of his own, winning the last five global championships, and if he can tack on a sixth in Rio, he’ll become the second man to win three straight golds in an individual Olympic track event (Bolt beat him to the punch by winning his third straight 100 on Sunday night). Across all Olympic track & field events*, only Pole Robert Korzeniowski (50k race walk), Soviet Viktor Saneyev (triple jump) Czech Jan Zelezny (javelin) and Americans Carl Lewis (long jump), Al Oerter (discus) and John Flanagan (hammer) have won three golds in the same individual event.

*American Ray Ewry also won the discontinued standing high jump and standing long jump three times each.

Kemboi swapped jerseys to celebrate his second Olympic title in 2012

Kemboi swapped jerseys to celebrate his second Olympic title in 2012

What set apart Kemboi from every other steepler in history is his kick. There’s nothing else like it in track and field. It’s as if, on the back stretch of every championship race, an alarm goes off inside Kemboi’s head: Finish line approaching! Time to start racing! As soon as that alarm starts ringing, Kemboi turns into a blur and everyone else is racing for second. Even quoting Kemboi’s last lap (56.6 in ’15, 60.29 in ’13 — which converts to 56.8 with an inside water jump, 56-mid in ’12) doesn’t do him justice as he generally slows down to celebrate his victories. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to list the lanes in which he’s finished his last few global championships: lane 3 in ’15, lane 3 in ’13, lane 8 in ’12 and lane 7 in ’11. Normally we’d advocate for runners to run the shortest distance possible, but when you’re as good as Kemboi, it doesn’t matter.

Kemboi has struggled on the Diamond League circuit in recent years, and though it’s not uncommon for a kicker like Kemboi to perform better in a championship race than a rabbitted affair, Kemboi has been downright awful at times. Generally, he’s had one good DL race per season before crushing everyone at Worlds/the Olympics. Please find another multi-time global champ who has done this in their last 11 DL events: DNF, 10th, 1st, DNF, 15th, 1st, 10th, 11th, 4th, 12th, 11th.

Here is what Kemboi has done this year (results courtesy All-Athletics.com):

DateCompetitionCnt.Cat.TypeNr.Pl.ResultScore
06.05.2016Doha IAAF Diamond LeagueQATGLF12.8:31.181117
18.05.2016Beijing IAAF World ChallengeCHNBF1.8:14.191193
02.06.2016Roma Golden Gala – Pietro MenneaITAGLF11.8:24.261148
30.06.2016Eldoret Kenyan Olympic TrialsKENFH13.8:35.881096
01.07.2016Eldoret Kenyan Olympic TrialsKENFF3.8:27.951131

He’s also 34 years old. But there’s more to his results than meet the eye. For one, you can throw out that result at the Kenyan Trials. Kemboi, Conseslus Kipruto and Brimin Kipruto finished way ahead of everyone else and Kemboi was actually ushering them on to finish ahead of him in the final meters.

One other interesting note from that video: you won’t find 2014/2015 Diamond League champ Jairus Birech, our #1 ranked steepler last year, in it. Birech, who was nursing a knee injury, dropped out after 1k of the steeple final at the Kenyan Trials. In some events, such as the men’s 10,000 with Geoffrey Kamworor and Bedan Karoki, the top guys have dropped out and still received a wildcard entry to the Olympics. But with two Olympic champs (Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto) and the world’s best steepler this year (Conseslus Kipruto) going 1-2-3, Athletics Kenya just picked based off the Trials results, leaving Birech as the odd man out (Editor’s note: If you want to hear an unconfirmed rumor, here you go. A source told us that Birech had been told (or assumed) he was on the team before the Kenyan Trials so he dropped out. Once he dropped out the other guys in the race realized that if Brimin Kipruto won the Kenyanae would have to name him to the team as it would look bad if a former Olympic champ who won the Trials wasn’t on the team (even if the others weren’t trying). So the other guys let Brimin win. That’s bad news for Birech but great news for Jager).  That would have been a bigger development if Birech were running like he was in 2014 and 2015 — dominating DL races from the front — as Kemboi may be more vulnerable at the Olympics in a fast race. But Conseslus Kipruto has clearly surpassed Birech as the top guy on the circuit. It’s he, not Birech, that Kemboi needs to be worried about in Rio.

Kipruto at Worlds last year

Kipruto at Worlds last year

Kipruto, still only 21 years old, would already be a two-time world champ if not for Kemboi, and it’s only a matter of time before he takes over from the master. Aside from the Kenyan Trials, Kemboi has won all five of his races this year and has five of the six fastest times in the world. Like Kemboi, he likes to take it easy as he approaches the finish line, and that explains why he has yet to break 8:00 (he’s run 8:00, 8:01, 8:02, 8:05 and 8:08).

Kipruto’s style is a hybrid of Birech and Kemboi’s. Like Birech, he likes to push the pace and break the field early. But he can also kick, and while he’s not as strong as Kemboi over the final 300 (no one is), he wasn’t that far behind at Worlds in 2013 and 2015, where he was close to Kemboi as they approached the final barrier but had to slow down as his shoe was coming loose.

The problem is, back in 2013, Kipruto was in the same spot. He came into the World Champs with a perfect record, including three head-to-head victories over Kemboi and best times of 8:01, 8:03 and 8:04. But when it really mattered at the World Championships, Kemboi got it done and pulled out the victory. Has anything changed three years later?

Kipruto has closed well at the last two World Champs, and against anyone else, he’d be favored in a kick in a slow/moderate race. But even if he’s improved since last year and Kemboi has declined (and we can’t really know since Kemboi goes all-out about once a year), does Kipruto believe he’s good enough to outkick the greatest kicker of all time? Kipruto should try to avoid that scenario if at all possible, and he can do that by sticking with what he’s done all year long on the circuit: take it out hard and try to run the kick out of Kemboi. Of course, it’s not easy to go wire-to-wire in an Olympic final, and Kemboi has run fast in the past when he needs to: his PR is 7:55 and he ran 8:00 to win Worlds in ’09 and 8:06 in ’13. But can he still summon a low-8:00 clocking (and kick off it?) at age 34? Kipruto’s best bet is to force Kemboi to answer that question; allowing the Olympic final to turn into an 8:1x race is just asking for trouble.

One last thing: though Kemboi and Kipruto were joking around in the video of the Kenyan Trials above, it hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows. Remember when Kemboi shoved Kipruto off the track at the 2013 Pre Classic when Kipruto caught him at the end of the race?

Will Kenya Go 1-2-3? Can Evan Jager Kick With the World’s Best?

Keep your shirt on this time, dude

Mekhissi-Benabbad was DQ’d from the Euro Champs in ’14 for removing his shirt in the home stretch

Kemboi and Kipruto are the favorites to go 1-2 in some order, but there are several guys who could take the bronze — and perhaps even the silver if one of the top two slips up. France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad missed all of 2015 due to injury, but he’s undefeated this year in races he finishes and has earned silver at each of the past two Olympics. A 3:33 1500 guy and the 2014 European 1500 champ, Mekhissi-Benabbad can kick with anyone (except Kemboi). However, in his only race against the top Africans this year (Rabat DL on May 22), he DNF’d. Can he still contend with the world’s best?

Brimin Kipruto, the third Kenyan, has a whole pile of medals (two gold, two silver, two bronze between Worlds and the Olympics) and was the bronze medallist in Beijing last year. If it weren’t for Kemboi, he’d be the greatest steepler of his generation. Kipruto looked shaky in his 2016 opener in Rome (14th in 8:29) but he was a more respectable fourth in Birmingham (8:19) and won the Kenyan Trials. It would be foolish to count out a guy with his track record and at 31, he’s three years younger than Kemboi.

Kenyan-born Bahraini John Koech has the third-best time among entrants at 8:09, but he didn’t even make the final in Beijing last year and was 12th and 9th in his last two DL steeples. Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali has the next-best SB in the field (8:14). He’s coming off a PR in Monaco, but this his Olympic/World Championship debut. Canadian Matt Hughes was 6th and 8th at the last two World Champs.

Really, aside from Kemboi, Mekhissi-Benabbad and the two Kiprutos, the only other guy with shot to medal is American Evan Jager. A medal by Jager would end a long drought for Americans in the steeple. Check out the last time an American man medalled in the running events at Worlds/Olympics and one sticks out like a sore thumb:

100: 2015
200: 2015
400: 2015
800: 2013
1500: 2013
5,000: 2011
10,000: 2012
Marathon: 2004
110 hurdles: 2015
400 hurdles: 2013
3,000 steeplechase: 1984

Not since Brian Diemer‘s bronze in Los Angeles has an American stood on the podium after a global steeple final. Jager desperately wants to end that skid, and it’s medal or bust — he will consider any other result in Rio a failure. Jager knows that to to medal, he needs to be able to close, and he and coach Jerry Schumacher have performed surgery on his kick over the past two years.

“Last year was the first year that we really introduced pure speed to the group,” Jager said after winning the Olympic Trials in July. “We did it all flat. And this year, we’ve done a little bit more of that pure speed over hurdles and water jumps. And I think last year I kind of just assumed that it would translate well to the steeple. I thought speed was speed and I could handle it, I’d just get used to hurdling fast. But it’s just different. For me so far this year, it’s been a process of trusting myself that I can run that fast over a full 400 meters over barriers and not crumble the last 100 meters.”

That last point is something that’s often overlooked in steeplers. Kick too early in a steeple and there’s nowhere to hide. You’re either going to slow way down, or you’re hitting the track. Gaining the confidence, through races and practice reps, that you can kick hard with a lap to go and make it over five barriers safely, is not easy. Especially if, like Jager, you’ve fallen on that final barrier.

Jager has great speed — his 3:32 1500 pb is tops in the field — but it’s changing gears late that’s been a struggle for him. Just watch what happened at Worlds last year. As soon as the Kenyans take off with 300 to go, Jager is toast:

Jager didn’t need a kick at the Olympic Trials in July, as he simply ground the field into submission. He could try that strategy again at the Olympics, but it’s a tough one to pull off against studs like Kemboi and the Kiprutos, who will be able to respond in a way Jager’s American foes could not. A faster race may help Jager, but at the end of the day, he’ll still need to close for a medal. That’s where his new and improved kick comes in. The sample size for Jager’s kick this year is limited — one race, to be precise — but the result was excellent. At Oxy in May, Jager ran 8:15, closing in 57.3. That’s essentially what the Kiprutos closed in for silver and bronze at Worlds last year in a similar race (their time was only slightly faster, 8:12). And if Jager has improved since then (there’s no way to tell as he’s been holed up in Park City), then he might not just be kicking for a medal — he could be kicking for gold.

As for the other two members of Team USA, Donn Cabral has made the final in both of his global championship appearances and is coming off his best race of the season at the TrackTown Summer Series (8:20 FTW). He’ll hope to better his eighth-place showing of four years ago. No one knows much about Hillary Bor, but he ran a PR of 8:24 at the Trials to beat Cabral. If he can beat Cabral again in Rio, he will be doing pretty well for himself.

LRC Prediction: 1. Kemboi 2. Conseslus Kipruto 3. Jager

We discounted Kemboi heading into Worlds last year and he made us look silly. We’re not making the same mistake twice. As great as Kipruto has been this year, Kemboi is the GOAT and we’re going to pick him until he gives us a reason not to. Jager will have to run a great race to snag bronze, but he’s shown this year and last that he’s capable of greatness — he just needs to put it together on the day. He’s in his prime at 27 and will never have a better chance of medalling at the Olympics.

 


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