August 1, 2017
Evan Jager has already made plenty of history in his career. Six straight U.S. titles. An American record. An Olympic silver medal. Most recently, on July 21 he became the first American man to win a Diamond League steeplechase.
On August 8 in London, the 28-year-old Illinois native could go one step further and become world champion. A win by Jager would end all sorts of droughts. Not only would Jager become the first American world champion ever in the steeplechase, it would also make him the US’s first global champion in the event since 1952 when Horace Ashenfelter won the US’s only Olympic gold in the event. A gold for Jager would also represent the first World Championship gold by an American-born distance runner in the history of the World Championships, which date to 1983 (South African-born Mark Plaatjes won gold in the marathon in 1993 and Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat won 1500 and 5k gold in 2007) .
Jager would also break a Kenyan stranglehold on the event, as a Kenyan-born man has won the last 21 global titles in this event dating back to 1988. At the last World Champs in Beijing, Kenya went 1-2-3-4.
This isn’t just wishful thinking. With Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto‘s health in question, Jager’s dominant, world-leading 8:01.29 win in Monaco made him the favorite at Worlds. Two years ago, Jager entered Worlds as a medal favorite and faded to sixth; will the more relaxed approach he adopted midway through last season withstand the pressure that comes with being the man to beat?
Prelims: Sunday, August 6, 5:05 a.m. ET
Final: Tuesday, August 8, 4:10 p.m. ET2016 Olympic results
1. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:03.28
2. Evan Jager, USA 8:04.28
3. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, France 8:11.52
4. Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco 8:14.35
5. Yoann Kowal, France 8:16.75
2017’s fastest performers (among men entered)
The Gold-Medal Contenders Based On What They’ve Done This Year
We’ve already written two articles in recent weeks explaining why Jager is the favorite, which you can read below:
LRC Evan Jager Crushes 8:01.29 World Leader in Monaco to Become First Non-African Man to Win a Diamond League Steeplechase & Establish Himself as the Favorite at Worlds
LRC Monaco Madness Makes Jager The Worlds Favorite?, Eilish McColgan Is Faster Than Her Mom, Sammy Watson, Shalane Flanagan, Morgan McDonald Keep Rolling
However, the CliffsNotes version of why Jager is the favorite is simple. 1) Jager is in supreme form 2) His biggest rivals may not be in supreme form.
Let’s start with Jager’s fitness. Jager was utterly brilliant in Monaco, with his close (2:03.4 for the last two laps, 60.4 for his last lap) in an 8:01 race basically equivalent to what Kipruto did at the Olympics last year. And considering Kipruto has dropped out of/scratched from all three of his races since the Kenyan Trials on June 24, the mantle of man to beat passes to Jager.
Jager has only run one other steeple this year, and that came at USAs (technically two if you want to count the prelim). And once again, his formidable closing speed was on display as he ripped a 56.70 last lap to win in 8:16. Between his world-leading 8:01 and his terrific close in Sacramento, Jager has shown the strength and speed necessary to win gold in London.
Two men stand in his way. Kipruto, if healthy, is Jager’s #1 threat. Indeed, if Kipruto was healthy, he, not Jager, would likely be the favorite at Worlds. He looked good in winning the Rome Diamond League back in June in 8:04.63, a time that still stands up as #2 in the world this year. But after that, Kipruto picked up an ankle injury at the Kenyan Trials and hasn’t been the same since. He scratched Ostrava on June 28, ran one hard lap in Rabat on July 16 before dropping ultimately out and scratched again in Monaco.
Kipruto appears to be able to run and train on the ankle, but hurdling (particularly the water jump) puts extra strain on it, thus why he has barely raced. If the injury were so serious that he couldn’t train, Kipruto wouldn’t have even entered Monaco. The fact that he thought he had a chance to run it just five days after dropping out in Rabat shows that Kipruto thinks he’s close. So assuming Kipruto has still been able to train, we’re left with two questions:
1) How fit is he right now?
2) How will his ankle hold up?
Considering he ran 8:04 two months ago, we expect that Kipruto is still quite fit. But it’s hard to imagine the injury didn’t affect his training at all, and if it did, that may give Jager the opportunity he needs to move up from second in Rio to first in London. As for whether Kipruto’s ankle will hold up, well, that’s impossible to say. But this is the World Championships. Unless the pain is unbearable, Kipruto will run on it until it gives out.
There are considerably fewer questions about the third fastest man in the world this year, Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco. After placing 4th at the Olympics last year, the 21-year-old has shaved nine seconds off his PR to run 8:05, finishing a close second behind Kipruto in Rome before winning in Stockholm and Rabat. El Bakkali and Jager haven’t raced yet this year, but El Bakkali’s result in Rabat (8:05 with a 60.8 final lap while celebrating) wasn’t that far off Jager’s Monaco run. We anticipate a close race between the two of them.
The Gold-Medal Contenders Based On What They’ve Done In The Past/Other Medal Contenders/The Americans
Kenya returns its entire squad from its 1-2-3-4 domination in 2015, but none are running as well in ’17 as they were two years ago. If Kipruto isn’t fully healthy, Jairus Birech is the top candidate for bronze, though Birech’s history isn’t great in championship races. He was the world #1 in 2015 but couldn’t even medal, and he’s not as good now as he was two years ago (8:07 ’17 sb vs. 7:58 ’15 sb).
There’s the grand old man of the steeple, Ezekiel Kemboi, age 35. No athlete in the history of the event is more decorated than Kemboi (six Olympic/WC golds) and we love that, after a French protest for a ticky-tack violation resulted in Kemboi being disqualified and losing his bronze medal in Rio (LRC Olympic Debacle: The French Have Forgotten What The Olympics Are Supposed To Be About – Ezekiel Kemboi DQ’d From Men’s Steeple After Protest), he immediately unretired with a fantastic Facebook post:
“I had opted to retire right after the Olympics only if i had come home with this medal….now i feel that i have to bring back this medal not by protesting again but right on track. Kemboi is not retired i will be coming to London 2017 to re-claim my medal from France. No limits.”
But while Kemboi is known for running poorly in the regular season before crushing it at the championships, he usually runs at least one good race before Worlds. This year, he’s run one race, period: 8:33 for 17th place at the Rome Diamond League on June 8. We can’t totally write him off as we have no idea what his fitness is at two months later, but it seems like a big stretch to think he’s going to battle for gold. Then again, why would he even bother to show up if he didn’t think he could do something?
Brimin Kipruto, who turned 32 on July 31st, has six Olympic/World Champs medals including gold in 2007 and 2008, but like Kemboi, he’s only raced the steeple once all year (twice if you count prelims; he also ran a 3:46 1500 at altitude in April). Granted, that race went a lot better as he ran 8:19 at altitude to take second at the Kenyan Trials.
Likewise, there are question marks around the man who robbed Kemboi of that medal, France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad. Mekhissi-Benabbad, like Kemboi, usually brings it at the championships (five career medals) but he’s 32 and has an SB of 8:14 this year. Still, his SB was only 8:20 heading into the 2016 Olympics, so he should be a threat for a medal, but not gold.
Finally there are the other Americans, Stanley Kebenei and Hillary Bor. Kebenei was a fringe medal contender after his runner-up finish at USAs, but after running 8:08.30 in Monaco to move to #2 on the U.S. all-time list, he’s squarely in the conversation now. The Arkansas grad has clearly thrived under coach Scott Simmons, who has worked to improve Kebenei’s strength. That was an issue for Kebenei in past years as he fell in his biggest race of the year in 2014 (NCAAs), 2015 (USAs) and 2016 (Olympic Trials) but he stayed on his feet in Sacramento and the result was his first U.S. team. His training partner, Bor, has also improved in 2017, knocking two seconds off his PR to get down to 8:11.82 (#6 on the all-time US list). He was only 7th in Monaco, but three of the guys who beat him there won’t be in London. Considering Bor is a better runner than he was a year ago, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him better his 7th-place finish from Rio, though a medal is a longshot.
We’ll be very interested to see how the Americans stack up against the Kenyans head-to-head at Worlds. For decades, the Kenyans’ hegemony of the steeplechase has gone unchallenged, but it’s not insane to suggest that the U.S. may have the better team in London Take a look at where they stack up on the 2017 world list:
1. Evan Jager, USA 8:01.29
2. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:04.63
4. Jairus Birech, Kenya 8:07.68
5. Stanley Kebenei, USA 8:08.30
10. Hillary Bor, USA 8:11.82
25. Brimin Kipruto, Kenya 8:19.87
108. Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya 8:33.07
There are other factors at play here. In between Kebenei and Bor, there are three Kenyans who can’t run at Worlds because of the four-man limit. And of course, Kebenei and Bor were both born and raised in Kenya. But considering the questions around Conseslus Kipruto and the shaky form of Brimin Kipruto and Kemboi, it’s not hard to imagine USA winning Worlds if it were to be scored cross country-style.
Bonus note: The men’s steeplechase also boasts one of the youngest competitors in the meet as Norway’s 16-year-old 3:56 miler Jakob Ingebrigtsen will be running the steeple at Worlds. Ingebrigtsen, who has a PR of 8:26, won the European U20 Championships in July. Making the final would be a nice accomplishment for him.
LRC prediction: 1. Jager 2. El Bakkali 3. Kipruto
Everything is coming together for Evan Jager in 2017. He’s in killer shape, peaking at the right time, and his chief rival is banged up. Last year, he proved he can run with the best in the world on the sport’s biggest stage; all that’s left is for him to climb one spot on the podium and become world champion. He won’t get a better chance than this.
Talk about the race on our fan forum / messageboard: MB: Let the trash talking begin. Conseslus Kipruto says he’s recovered from injury and “won’t allow” an American to win