I Was Bored, So I Watched the Men’s Steeple at the 2003 World Championships

Throwback Thursday #6

By Jonathan Gault
May 14, 2020

Welcome back to Throwback Thursday. With no live sports during the coronavirus quarantine, I’m plumbing the depths of YouTube and watching/sharing my thoughts about one classic race per week.

If you missed the first five installments, click below.

Today, we’re tackling our first track race: the 2003 World Championship steeplechase final. I didn’t know anything about this race until a few years ago, when my Irish buddies Cathal Dennehy and Feidhlim Kelly told me all about it. They hyped it up, and it delivered.

While the race in itself is a thriller — big moves and an incredible finish between the two greatest steeplers ever — the backstory is what propels it from incredible to legendary. Kenya’s Stephen Cherono was the best runner in the world in 2003 — entering the World Championships, he owned world leads in both the steeple (8:02.48) and 5,000m (12:48.81, #3 in history at the time). One week before Worlds, Cherono announced he had become a Qatari citizen and had changed his name to Saif Saaeed Shaheen. That’s a mouthful — according to reports, upon arrival in France for Worlds, Shaheen had to consult his new passport to remind himself of his name.

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Big money was involved. Oil-rich Qatar, eager to win world and Olympic medals, reportedly paid Shaheen $1 million to switch, plus $1,000 a month for the rest of his life. Many Kenyans were not happy, including Shaheen’s brother, Abraham Cherono, a fellow steepler who also made it to the World Championship final that year. Remember, Kenya dominated the men’s steeplechase like no other event; entering 2003, Kenyans had won the last six world titles, and the last five Olympic crowns. No one wanted that streak to end at the hands of a Qatari — even one born, raised, and still training in Kenya.

With that in mind, let’s head to the Stade de France on August 26, 2003. Below the video, I’ll take you through what I was thinking as I watched it.

0:12 Here we are at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, just north of Paris.

There is something wrong with this picture. A good track nerd should be able to figure it out. I’ll give you a minute…




…did you get it? The steeplechase world record in August 2003 was faster than the current world record of 7:53.63.

How is that possible? Well, Boulami was popped for EPO in 2002, and once his ban was finalized in November 2003, his WR (which was never officially ratified) was annulled.

Boulami claimed his innocence by using an interesting excuse.

“How can I be accused of taking a banned substance when I regularly undergo medical tests, the number of which have multiplied since I first beat the world record last year?” Boulami told The Guardian.

Note to Boulami: being tested frequently only helps your case if you pass the tests.

Later in the same Guardian article, he delivered another line that hasn’t aged well.

“As far as I know, the fact that a Moroccan athlete breaks a record never raised an eyebrow. This is due to the world’s respect for our country and our sportsmen.”

0:39 Your 15 finalists. Finland, the Netherlands, and Japan all got a guy through, but the US went 0-for-3: Dan Lincoln was 10th in heat 1 and Robert Gary 12th in heat 2. Steve Slattery came the closest, finishing 5th in heat 3 in 8:22.32, but he missed the final time qualifier by a second.

This may seem odd now, but it was the norm back in 2003. Zero Americans made the final of the 1999 Worlds and the 2000 Olympics. From 1995-2011, just one global steeple final featured more than one American: the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when Mark Croghan and Marc Davis both made it.

This was also the first global final for steeple GOAT Ezekiel Kemboi. We’re not done with him…

1:14 Larry Rawson is on the call for this one and he tells us to expect a great race. Since this is being shown on tape delay, I’m not sure if Larry has predictive powers or if he had already seen the race and knew it was great.

Rawson: “About this race and what may happen, I think this could be a ‘Wow.’ And Keith Jackson would say ‘Whoa Nelly!'”

1:40 Shaheen was already unpopular among the Kenyans going into this race, so I’m sure they’re thrilled he’s using another Qatari import — the Sudan-born Khamis Abdullah Saifeldin — as his personal pacemaker. I’m not opposed to team tactics in global championship finals, but I fervently disagree with the idea of one guy torpedoing his own race to serve as a rabbit for another athlete (looking at you, Hicham El Guerrouj). That’s what happened here, even though Saifeldin — who finished second-to-last, 24 seconds back of the winner — only led for two laps. The title of world champion should be earned one way and one way only: by outracing everyone else.

1:50 It’s a little hard to tell, but the leaders have just hit one lap. Look at the clock.

Yes, it is correct: 59.6. Even with an inside water jump, that is moving, and explains why the field is already strung out.

2:44 Abraham Cherono — Shaheen’s brother — has joined the two Qataris up front.

Rawson: “Abraham, who is running for Kenya, says ‘I will not call him by his new name. He is Stephen Cherono to me.'”

3:14 I imagine a variant of this conversation played out in a production meeting before the 2003 Worlds.

“Let’s put a camera in the water pit for the steeple!”

“Cool idea! But wait. Will the video actually look good?”

“Who cares?”

3:21 The pace lags slightly on lap two, so Shaheen decides to take it himself. He hits 1k in front in 2:36.24 — 7:49 pace!

Rawson doesn’t understand why Shaheen is running so fast, particularly because he’s supposed to double back for the 5,000 later in the meet. Shaheen didn’t actually end up running the 5,000, but could you imagine if he did?

The 2003 World 5,000 final was already an all-timer. Add in Shaheen, and you would have had:

  • The eventual WR holder in the steeple (Shaheen)
  • The WR holder in the mile/1500 (Hicham El Guerrouj)
  • The eventual WR holder in the 5,000/10,000 (Kenenisa Bekele)
  • The eventual WR holder in the marathon (Eliud Kipchoge)

Kipchoge ultimately won that race, but Shaheen would have had a shot at gold. He ran 12:48 to beat El Guerrouj in Ostrava in June — at the time, it made him third-fastest performer in history and was faster than El Guerrouj, Bekele, and Kipchoge’s PBs. And El Guerrouj only finished .04 behind Kipchoge at Worlds.

4:09 Brothers Shaheen and Cherono are the only ones in the picture at the moment. According to Rawson, Cherono says half of their family is not on speaking terms with Shaheen because of his decision to switch to Qatar.

Play-by-play man Terry Gannon also tells us there is a third brother, Christopher Koskei, who was also a world champion in the steeplechase (Editor’s note: Koskei won the 1999 Worlds in Seville in his 14th of 19 steeples that year). They’re not better than the Dibabas, but is this the best men’s running family in history? The Bekeles were great — Tariku won a World Indoor title and an Olympic bronze and Kenenisa won a ton of golds. But are there any other brothers who have each won outdoor global titles? (In the same event, no less)

4:32 With four laps to go, Shaheen’s lead is enormous: roughly four seconds on Cherono in second and an additional two over Kemboi, leading the chase pack in third.

4:51 Gannon mentions that Bouabdellah “Bob” Tahri of France is the home favorite. I love that he was nicknamed Bob. I cannot think of a name that is less French than Bob.

5:28 It wouldn’t be a Larry Rawson race without an analogy to help viewers understand the race.

“The final time, for those of you who aren’t familiar with 3,000 meters and this event, is a half a lap shy of a full two miles. So add about another 40-41 seconds to the final time and you’ll be running the full two miles over 28 hurdles and seven water jumps.”

5:40 Shaheen hits three laps to go and his lead has shrunk to three seconds. And it’s no longer his brother Cherono behind him; Kemboi has taken over second place.

Kemboi and Shaheen have a history: they’ve raced each other four times in 2003. The first three were Shaheen blowouts, but Kemboi was only .01 behind in their fourth meeting in Zurich, less than two weeks before Worlds, with Kemboi running a pb of 8:02.49.

Also, Kemboi’s Tilastopaja page from 2003 is incredible. Counting the prelim at Worlds, he ran 16 steeples that year, including nine in a two-month span from June 7 to August 5 (Editor’s rebuttal: Jonathan clearly didn’t look up Koskei’s stats from 1999 when he ran 19 steeples).

6:17 Kemboi puts in a huge surge and half a lap later, he has caught Shaheen, whose second kilometer (2:43.34) was much slower than his first (2:36.24).

6:27 After using a ton of energy to catch Shaheen, Kemboi has no idea what to do. For a moment, he settles in behind Shaheen, but then elects to pass him, which Shaheen allows with zero resistance. But after opening up a gap off the water jump, Kemboi decides to pump the brakes and Shaheen catches back up to him.

Rawson: “Kemboi is really angry at [Shaheen] right now. He said, ‘what he has done is sell out our country.'”

7:20 Shaheen passes Kemboi on the back straight of the penultimate lap, only for Kemboi to pass him right back. Rawson doesn’t understand why Cherono took the money to switch to Qatar.

“If he wins first place, Shaheen — formerly Cherono — he wins $100,000, between his last race and this one. Why would you have to leave Kenya when bus fare is 15 cents?”

I don’t know, Larry. Maybe because he doesn’t want to take the bus?

“He says he’s getting paid $1,000 per month for life,” Gannon says.

Yeah, that might be another reason. Plus $1 million is a lot more than $100,000.

7:59 Spent from their early surges and seemingly only concerned with each other, Shaheen and Kemboi have slowed down a ton and suddenly the Spaniards Eliseo Martin and Luis Miguel Martin are right in it as they approach the bell.

8:07 Go Bob!

8:25 If you’ve watched Ezekiel Kemboi race, you know he likes to make a big move on the back straight and blow everyone away over the final 200. I can’t ever recall seeing someone in a global final pass Kemboi after making that move, but that’s exactly what happens here: Kemboi goes into a sprint off the barrier entering the backstretch, and Shaheen comes over the top with a move of his own to seize the lead.

Once again, it’s a two-man race. Thrilling stuff.

8:48 Shaheen and Kemboi hurdle the final barrier simultaneously, Shaheen leading with his right leg and Kemboi with his left. Watch it back — it truly is simultaneous. This is incredible.

8:51 Kemboi edges ahead off the final barrier. But it’s still not over…

8:54 …Shaheen battles back, drawing level with Kemboi and then passing him with 25 meters to go…

8:57 After being passed, Kemboi keeps fighting for approximately one second before packing it in over the last 15 meters. Has this guy ever actually run hard through the finish line in a global final?

Shaheen wins it in 8:04.39. Even with the fast final lap, his last kilometer is only 2:44.81. Incredibly, each of his kilometers got progressively slower: 2:36.24-2:43.34-2:44.81. That’s a hard way to run 8:04.

Worth noting: Shaheen’s brother did not congratulate him after the race.

9:15 A great head-on shot of the finish. I haven’t seen a steeple that dramatic since…well, the last steeple I watched. But this one was great too!

This race brought Kemboi’s lifetime record vs. Shaheen to 0-9. In fact, Kemboi would start out 0-19 against Shaheen before finally getting a win at a random race in Athens in 2008 — though even that comes with a caveat as Shaheen DNF’d that race. Kemboi would only beat Shaheen once in races both men finished — the 2010 Diamond League final in Zurich, which also happened to be the final steeple of Shaheen’s career (Editor’s note: While Jonathan constantly refers to Kemboi as the GOAT in the steeple, I’m not so sure. Shaheen is the WR holder and he holds an 18-1 career record of Kemboi in races they both finished. How can you be the goat and be 1-18 against the WR holder?)

Many people, including myself, consider Kemboi the steeple GOAT due to his six global titles (plus three silvers). But can you really be the GOAT when you are 2-19 against one of your chief rivals — who is also the world record holder? (Editor’s note: Ok, at least Jonathan is acknowledging the elephant in the room).

9:46 Again, this race was tape-delayed, so after it’s over, they cut back to live action. Gannon mentions the steeple medal ceremony and says “[Shaheen] said afterwards that he had never heard the national anthem of Qatar before they played it.” Yes, I can see why some people had an issue with this.

*TBT #5: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched the 1983 World Cross Country Championships
*TBT #4: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched Galen Rupp, Matt Withrow, & Jenny Simpson at the 2003 Foot Locker Championships
*TBT #3: I Was Bored, So I Watched the Insane 2007 World Cross Country Championships in Kenya
*TBT #2: I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched Ritz, Webb, & Hall Battle at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships
*TBT #1: I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships

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