By Jonathan Gault
November 8, 2019
When the IAAF announced in March that the 2020 Diamond League season would cut the number of disciplines from 16 to 12, Evan Jager knew his baby was on the chopping block.
“We kind of assumed it would be equal, maybe two field and two track,” says Jager, the American record holder and Olympic silver medalist in the steeplechase. “And it basically came down to, well if they’re only gonna have one distance race that’s 3,000 meters, which is it gonna be? Is it gonna be the 3k flat or the 3k steeple? And I kind of assumed it would be the steeple that would get chopped just because I would think, from their perspective, that they could get more big names in the flat 3k than they could in the steeple.”
So when the announcement came on Wednesday that the men’s and women’s steeplechase — along with the 200 meters, triple jump, and discus — would not be Diamond League events in 2020, Jager wasn’t totally surprised. But in some ways, he was. When Jager, 30, meets aspiring steeplechasers, they tell him the same thing: they want to run the event, not because they think they’d be good at it, but because it looks cool. Jager is, admittedly, biased, but he struggles to believe the Diamond League would seek to eliminate such a unique event.
“It’s not boring in the least,” Jager says. “There’s so much that happens over the course of seven-and-a-half laps — you have the barriers, the water jump. It lends itself to dramatic finishes. It’s not uncommon to have people falling in the course of the race, which is obviously very dramatic and exciting.”
Indeed, the Diamond League named Jager’s fall in Paris in 2015 — after which he still got up and broke the American record — the Diamond League moment of the year. Conseslus Kipruto‘s one-shoed victory in last year’s DL final in Zurich is one of the defining races of the Diamond League’s 10-year history.
It’s important to note, however, that the Diamond League is not making a clean break with the steeplechase. The event will still be contested at 10 meets in 2020 — five male, five female. And while the athletes will not accrue DL points and the event will not be held at the end-of-season final in Zurich, where the prize money is significantly increased from $30,000 to $100,000, the IAAF told LetsRun.com the five regular-season steeples will still pay out the normal $30,000 in prize money. Last year, there were four regular-season Diamond League steeples that counted in the point standings and one DL final — a total of $220,000 in prize money. This year, with five $30,000 meets, the prize money for the steeple will total $150,000 — a reduction of 31.8%.
That came as a consolation to those fearing the worst. Agent Michel Boeting, who represents world and Olympic steeplechase champion Conseslus Kipruto as well as 2019 World Championship finalists Abraham Kibiwott and Leonard Bett of Kenya, initially believed that the steeplechase would be removed from the Diamond League entirely.
“Overall, I’m not too disappointed,” Boeting says. “I’m sitting here [at the annual agents’ meetings in Boston] with [agent] Davor [Savija] and the general consensus was, hey, it’s not ideal, but it’s not bad, let’s try this. Most agents said, hey, it’s not ideal. And of course, the ones that had athletes affected, most of them, they say it’s not ideal. But for the steeple and 200, it’s not too bad off.
“I can understand if you’re a discus thrower or a triple jumper and say hey, wait a minute, one event in the Diamond League out of 14? And okay, we get compensated more for our event in the Continental Tour, [but] it’s still relegation…At least for the athletes that I represent, middle- and long-distance runners, the situation is better than I expected. So should I still cry about it? During the year, of course we’ll fight to see if we can get the event promoted and maybe even get a 5,000m in the final. But we don’t have the power to demand it. The athletes can still run a very nice program. We can still run in full stadiums. We can still run the best against the best.”
In some respects, the steeplechase may not look much different in 2020 than it did in 2019. Even without the official Diamond League designation, the steeples held at those meets will remain the highest level of competition in that event outside of the Olympics, and as of now, both Jager and US women’s record holder Courtney Frerichs say they plan to compete in some of those races. The prize money remains competitive, albeit without the big payoff in the DL final. The steeple could return as a DL event in 2021; that’s a decision the DL will make after next season.
More than anything, the Diamond League’s announcement on Wednesday created uncertainty. Was this a minor adjustment, or the first step in the elimination of the event from track & field? Nobody yet knows.
“The 10k has survived without really being a part of any major meet throughout the course of the year,” Jager says. “It’s still being held at World Champs and Olympics. I don’t think that will change all that fast. I would like to think that it wouldn’t change at all. But I did honestly have that thought, that who knows what’s going to happen to the event in the next five to 10 years?”
Neither Jager nor Frerichs considers money when planning their racing schedule, but both have lucrative Nike contracts. Not every athlete in their event has that luxury. Which events will a woman like world record holder Beatrice Chepkoech — who earned silver in the Commonwealth Games at 1500 in 2018 and ran the DL final in the 5k in 2017 and 2019 — choose to race moving forward?
“You’re still gonna see Beatrice, Hyvin [Kiyeng], Norah [Jeruto], the likes of them at the Olympics competing in the [steeple], they’re not just gonna ditch it altogether,” says Frerichs, 26. “But I do worry that they may opt for some of the flat events over running even some of the steeplechase opportunities that are provided because of the lack of Diamond League points, because we don’t know any prize money structures or anything like that. That’s my biggest fear, the lack of opportunity. And you just hope that this doesn’t progress further to where it could potentially start affecting, I suppose, contracts and stuff, because we’re not gonna be televised during the DL events and stuff like that.”
Of course, even if those opportunities are there, the athletes still need to take advantage of them. Jager and Frerichs are part of the Bowerman Track Club, a group that is notorious for its athletes’ limited racing schedules. Despite being completely healthy, Frerichs raced just one Diamond League steeple in 2019 and skipped the final. In four of his seven healthy seasons since taking up the steeple in 2012, Jager has run two or fewer Diamond Leagues.
Diamond League steeples per year (Frerichs’ final year of college was 2016)
Let’s be real for a minute: track & field is a niche sport. It’s not widely popular, and hasn’t been for quite some time. And so, from time to time, the people who run the sport do what anyone would do when they’re unhappy with the status quo: they change something and hope for a different outcome. So Jager and Frerichs understand why the Diamond League wants to make changes. They disagree with the how.
IAAF president and Diamond League chairman Sebastian Coe says that the DL’s objective is to create a “faster-paced, more exciting global league that will be the showcase for our sport.” Jager believes that if that is truly the DL’s goal, the best way to accomplish it would be to tighten the broadcasts and trim gaps between events, rather than removing them entirely.
“Shorten the dead time or the replay time or the intro time,” Jager says. “Just make the events bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. And then you’re giving more entertainment in a shorter or same amount of time.”
Frerichs doesn’t believe that shortening the broadcast window will solve anything, and, like Jager, has issues with how the sport is currently presented. One of the reasons the DL cited for the removal of the steeplechase was that, based on the DL’s research, it is one of the least popular events. But not all events are presented the same. It’s common for broadcasters to cut away from the steeplechase in the middle of the broadcast, and field events like the discus may only get a few attempts shown on TV.
“Whenever you can only see three minutes of a nine-minute race, it wouldn’t be surprising that someone that doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about what’s going on wouldn’t be fully entertained by the event because they’re not able to see actually what it is,” Frerichs says. “I think there can be a lot of improvement in the coverage.”
So is the glass half-empty or half-full for steeplechase fans? The event could certainly be in worse shape. The discus and triple jump will be held at just two Diamond League meets each in 2020(once per gender per event). The hammer has never been part of the Diamond League. But the steeple is undeniably in a worse spot than it was a week ago.
“The idea that the Diamond League, our biggest league for track and field, thinks less of the steeple is not a good move forward for the future,” Jager says.
For Frerichs, it’s particularly concerning considering the progress the women’s event has made in recent years. In 2014, no women broke 9:10; in 2019, nine women accomplished the feat, with Chepkoech, who took eight seconds off the world record last year, leading the way. Domestically, the US went 1-2 at the 2017 Worlds and Colleen Quigley (164,000 followers) and Emma Coburn (298,000 followers) are among the most popular track & field athletes on Instagram.
“It just blows my mind that we wouldn’t keep promoting it, particularly on the women’s side,” Frerichs says.
Boeting, the agent, isn’t losing hope, however.
“It’s certain that it’s not everybody’s most popular event,” Boeting says. “But on the other hand, there’s enough organizers that come to me and they ask whether Conseslus would be interested in a steeple, from Diamond League events and also Continental Tour meets. So I think there are still enough people that would like to have a steeple in their race. To me, it’s still a spectacular event.
“Even if you look now, it’s more diverse than ever. The last two global championships, we had medallists from [four] different countries…If we look at the Diamond League the last two years, we had winners from US, from Ethiopia, from Morocco, from Kenya. That’s [the same number of countries] we had in the [men’s] 100 meters.
“[The steeple] is not everybody’s favorite event. But I think that’s something that, in our sport, will always be the case. Some people are fans of this, some people are fans of that. But I think together, we create a nice audience. And none of the events, standing alone, will fill a stadium, I’m afraid.”