2020 Olympic Men’s Steeple Preview: Lamecha Girma Battles Soufiane El Bakkali in an Event in Flux
By Jonathan Gault
July 28, 2021
It’s fair to call the men’s steeplechase a hot mess right now.
Conseslus Kipruto, who has won the last three global titles, has not finished a track race since the 2019 World Championships and last year was charged with sex with a minor in his native Kenya. He will not be in Tokyo.
Evan Jager, the American record holder and reigning Olympic silver medalist, has not finished a steeple since 2018 as a result of injuries to his foot and calf. He will not be in Tokyo, either.
With Kipruto and Jager gone, Ethiopia seemed set to take over the steeple in 2021 and end Kenya’s stranglehold on the event — a Kenyan has won every Olympic steeple title since 1984. But neither Lamecha Girma nor Getnet Wale, the two fastest Ethiopian steeplers in history, were initially supposed to run the event at the Olympics, even though either man would have immediately become one of the favorites for gold. Girma, who came .01 away from winning the 2019 world title, developed a stress fracture in May and missed the Ethiopian Olympic trials. Wale, the 2019 Diamond League champion, is running the 5k in Tokyo instead. Girma, eventually, was added to the team – we think – and will run in Tokyo after a ton of drama that is still unfolding.
And as if things couldn’t be more confusing, the most recent Diamond League steeple — which featured a number of the top contenders for Tokyo — was a complete farce as an official ran the bell a lap early, leading to total chaos.
Prelims: Thursday, July 29, 8 p.m. ET
2019 Worlds results
2021’s fastest performers (among men entered)
So yeah…there’s a lot to sort out.
Prior to Girma’s addition, Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali has emerged as the Olympic steeple favorite, almost by default. He has an impressive resume. After finishing 4th at the ’16 Olympics in Rio, El Bakkali was 2nd at Worlds in ’17 and 3rd in ’19, and his 7:58 pb is three seconds faster than anyone else in the field. He has also shown incredible speed with a 3:31 1500 pb in Doha in May, won the only major steeple of 2020 in Monaco, and won his only steeple of 2021 in comfortable fashion, clocking 8:08 in Florence on June 10.
And he has been remarkably consistent — he has finished in the top three in 17 of his last 19 steeples dating to the start of 2017. However, there is one big question mark surrounding him. He hasn’t raced at all since June 8th. Was that what he intended all along or was he injured?
Now that Girma is in the field, he and El Bakkali are co-favorites. Girma was second at Worlds in ’19 as an 18-year-old, and though he hasn’t run 3:31 this year, he still has some seriously fast pbs at other distances, running 3:33 for 1500 last year and 7:27 for 3k this year indoors.
Because of his stress fracture, Girma has only run one steeple this year, but he ran a world leader, 8:07.75, to win Monaco. And that performance was actually worth a lot more, as Girma kicked early due to the officials’ bell error, running his penultimate lap in 60.5 and his last in 66.0. Realistically, he’s close to 8:00 shape and El Bakkali is the only other man in the field capable of running that fast.
The Medal Contenders
If you are under the age of 40, you probably don’t remember a time when Kenya wasn’t dominating the men’s steeplechase. The country has won the last nine Olympic titles, and a Kenyan-born man as won the last 23 global titles when you include the World Championships. Kenyan track fans view the event as their birthright; after Kipruto pulled off his dramatic gold in Doha two years ago, he said, “I was there to save the event [for Kenya].”
In 2021, the task of extending Kenya’s streak falls to Leonard Bett, Abraham Kibiwot, and Benjamin Kigen, who finished 1-2-3 in that order at the Kenyan Olympic trials in June. Bett is the natural successor to Kipruto as the next great Kenyan steepler. As a 16-year-old in 2017, he won the World U18 title in Nairobi. The next year, he was the silver medalist at the World U20 champs as a 17-year-old, and in 2019 he won the African junior title as an 18-year-old before finishing 9th in his senior Worlds debut. Now 20, Bett won the Kenyan trials but was beaten in his only Diamond League of the year, finishing second to American Hillary Bor in horrible conditions in Gateshead in May.
Kibiwot, who trains with Kipruto, has more experience at the senior level, taking bronze at the African champs in 2016, silver at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, and 7th at Worlds in 2019. He was second in Monaco this year in 8:07, but he has yet to show what it takes to be the absolute best in the world: he hasn’t won a race outside of Kenya in almost five years.
Of the three, the 28-year-old Kigen may be the biggest threat for gold, as he has a monster kick and has shown he can beat the best in the world on multiple occasions. Back in 2018, he destroyed Jager and Kipruto to win at Pre and beat El Bakkali on home soil to win in Rabat. He won in Rome in 2019 and was in contention for the win in Monaco before his bell mishap (he ran his penultimate lap — which he thought was the final lap — in 59 seconds). He’s not someone you want in your rearview mirror with a lap to go.
Based on his run at the Ethiopian Olympic trials in June, 18-year-old Bikila Takele looked to be a serious medal contender as he ran 8:09 (third-best sb in the field) to win that race. He doubled back two days later with a solid 8:10 in Florence, but was only 8th in Monaco — and even if he was caught up in the early-bell craziness (his last three laps were 66.5, 62.8, 68.8), he had already been well dropped by the leaders with two to go. He’s a wild card heading into the Olympics.
France’s Djilali Bedrani (8:05 pb, 5th at ’19 Worlds) and Spain’s Fernando Carro (8:05 pb) both have shots at a medal.
With all the uncertainty in the men’s steeple this year, an American medal cannot be ruled out, though Girma’s addition to the field significantly hurts their chances. US champ Hillary Bor won the Gateshead Diamond League back in May against a field that contained two of the three Kenyans on the Olympic team (including world leader Abraham Kibiwot) and Djilali Bedrani. Bor, who was 7th at the ’16 Olympics and 8th at the ’19 Worlds, looked strong in winning the Olympic Trials ahead of training partner Benard Keter, and owns a personal best of 8:08, which he ran in Doha in 2019 when he almost beat El Bakkali. At his best, Bor can absolutely medal.
But Bor was not close to his best in his most recent race in Monaco on July 9, finishing 5th in 8:14. All four men who beat Bor in that race will be in Tokyo, as will Kigen, who only finished behind Bor because officials rang the bell early. Plus El Bakkali wasn’t in that race either.
On the flip side, Bor was hardly the only American to struggle this summer since coming over to Europe. Whether it’s jet lag or they’re still recovering from the intensity of the Trials and its preparation, many US Olympians underwhelmed in Monaco. I’m not going to write off every American who raced in Monaco, so I’m not writing Bor off either. The odds are still against him finishing in the top three, but with some key absences among top athletes, he will never get a better opportunity to medal.
Neither Keter nor the third US Olympian, Mason Ferlic, have made a US team before, and neither has run faster than 8:18. It simply isn’t realistic to expect either to contend for a medal, but each man will have a good shot to make the final and perhaps defeat Bor if he’s off his game.
JG prediction: 1. Girma 2. El Bakkali 3. Kigen
El Bakkali has been the most consistent guy on the circuit the last few years and has gotten it done at major champs before but Girma beat him at the 2019 Worlds and has had the best performance of the year (he ran faster in Monaco than El Bakkali did in Florence even though El Bakkali didn’t have to deal with any bell issues). They’re close to even in terms of who will win; I’ll go with Girma as I know he’s healthy but don’t know what El Bakkali has been up to. Kigen can kick so I like him for third.
Talk about the men’s steeplechase on our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Men’s Steeple Official Discussion Thread: Who has the edge – Lamecha Girma or Soufiane El Bakkali?
More: MB: Email of the Week – Chaos in Ethiopia – Ethiopian Olympic Federation Name Several Stars Who Weren’t Top 3 At Trials To Team, Could Bekele Be Next? The Ethiopian Olympic federation wants its stars in Tokyo – Girma and Edris may be running despite not finishing top 3 at the Trials. Might the GOAT Kenenisa Bekele be next?