2022 Worlds M Steeple Preview: More of the El Bakkali-Girma Show, or Can Conseslus Kipruto Three-Peat?

By Jonathan Gault
July 6, 2022

Let’s be honest. The men’s steeplechase stunk last year. The world-leading time was just 8:07, the slowest in 27 years (not counting the COVID year of 2020 when there were virtually no steeples worldwide). One of the best races of the year in Monaco was ruined when an official ran the bell a lap early. And two of the event’s biggest stars, 2016 Olympic gold and silver medalists Conseslus Kipruto and Evan Jager, failed to finish a single steeple all year due to injury.

2022, then, has represented a renaissance. Already this year, Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma has broken 8:00 three times — as many as the rest of the world, combined, managed from 2014-21. And he’s not even the world leader; that would be Morocco’s Olympic champion Soufiane El Bakkali, whose epic 7:58.28 victory over Girma in Rabat on June 5 was one of the races of the year. Plus Kipruto and Jager are finally healthy again and will both be back at Worlds this year. The potential is there for a race as thrilling as the 2019 Worlds final in Doha, where Kipruto edged Girma at the line by .01. Let’s dig into it.

Prelims: Friday, July 15, 8:15 p.m. ET; Final: Monday, July 18, 10:20 p.m. ET

2021 Olympic results
1. Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco 8:08.90
2. Lamecha Girma, Ethiopia 8:10.38
3. Benjamin Kigen, Kenya 8:11.45
4. Getnet Wale, Ethiopia 8:14.97
5. Yemane Haileselassie, Eritrea 8:15.34

2022’s fastest performers (among men entered)
1. Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco 7:58.28
2. Lamecha Girma, Ethiopia 7:58.68
3. Hailemariyam Tegegn, Ethiopia 8:06.29
4. Abraham Kibiwot, Kenya 8:06.73
5. Getnet Wale, Ethiopia 8:06.74

Does anything change up front?

Embed from Getty Images

For the last two years, major men’s steeplechase races have largely followed the same script. Lamecha Girma and Soufiane El Bakkali will break away from the field, Girma will try (unsuccessfully) to drop El Bakkali, and El Bakkali will outkick Girma and win. It happened in last year’s Olympic final in Tokyo and again this year in Doha and Rabat. There’s a gap between those two men and the rest of the world, and because El Bakkali has a better kick, he always beats Girma.

For the guy with the kick, El Bakkali, the strategy is pretty simple: just keep track of Girma until it’s time to go. What about Girma, though? At the Olympics and in Rabat this year, he began pushing with a couple of laps to go. In neither case did it work — not in Tokyo, where the winning time was 8:08 nor in Rabat, where the winning time was 7:58. So he may want to try a different approach in Eugene.

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One strategy would be to go out and try to run a world record or close to it. Girma has broken 8:00 three times this year — something accomplished by only one other man in history, Saif Saaeed Shaheen in 2005, the year after he set the world record of 7:53.63. If Girma wants the gold instead of a third straight silver and 7:58 wasn’t enough to drop El Bakkali in Rabat, it may take a truly crazy time to beat him in Eugene, which means starting fast and keeping it fast — not just trying to slam home the last 2-3 laps. Of course, there are two big risks with this approach. First, the pace could prove too much and Girma could blow up spectacularly. Second, El Bakkali might be able to run 7:53 right now as well and we just get a slightly faster version of the race we’ve already seen between these two.

The other option would be for Girma to back off and let someone else lead. That’s what he did in the 2019 Worlds final (Girma’s only victory over El Bakkali in seven attempts) and in Doha earlier this year. Girma lost both of those races, but he only lost them by .01 (and in the latter, he had an awful final barrier which cost him the race). Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. Girma is viewed as a guy without a big kick in part because he lost those races. But .01 is nothing over a 7.5-lap race. It’s basically a coin flip. Maybe Girma isn’t doomed to always be outkicked. Maybe he’s just been unlucky.

Of course, the risk of sitting back and letting someone else dictate the pace is that you bring more athletes into the race. Given how much better he and El Bakkali have been than the rest of the world this year, Girma may not want to take that chance. Especially because of this next guy…

The Return of Conseslus Kipruto

El Bakkali may have had the best kick last year, but it’s no match for Conseslus Kipruto at his best. When it comes to kicks in the steeplechase, steeple GOAT Ezekiel Kemboi is the only man who can rival Kipruto. Remember the 2017 Worlds, when Kipruto showboated off the final hurdle even though El Bakkali was kicking hard right on his shoulder?

Or the 2018 Diamond League final, where Kipruto only needed one shoe to run down El Bakkali?

If Kipruto is close to the lead on the final lap, the rest of the field is in a whole lot of trouble.

After Kipruto posted a string of DNSs and DNFs in 2020 and 2021, it was reasonable to wonder if Kipruto would ever get back to a high level. Kipruto’s agent Michel Boeting told us Kipruto was supposed to race in 2020 but missed the only DL steeple of the year in Monaco after testing positive for COVID. With no global championships that year and the Olympics postponed, Kipruto backed off of training — perhaps a bit too much — and couldn’t get fit enough in time for the Olympics in 2021.

“He’s at his best in the pressure cooker,” Boeting said. “If there’s a season that you don’t know what’s happening, that has thrown him off. He really needs a goal to work somewhere. If there’s a lot of uncertainty, he’s a bit of all or nothing. 2021 was clearly nothing.”

When Kipruto ran 8:32 to finish 5th at the Kenyan Championships in April 2022, it was the first race he had finished since winning the world title in 2019. But Kipruto has improved significantly since then, running 8:12 in Rabat on June 5 and 8:08 in Rome on June 9 before running 8:18 at the Kenyan trials to finish 3rd (the place there is somewhat irrelevant — once assured of top 3, Kipruto did not try to kick it in and win the race).

That may not sound like a gold-medal contender — he was 4th in Rabat and 4th in Rome, never coming within nine seconds of Girma — but it’s actually a lot better than Kipruto’s form before his last world title. Here were his 2019 steeple results:

Date Race Result
August 24 Paris DL 5th, 8:13.75
August 26 All-Africa Games DNF
September 6 Brussels DL final 7th, 8:14.53
September 13 Kenyan trials DNF
October 4 World Championships 1st, 8:01.35

Kipruto won that title after rehabbing by aquajogging in a pool he built in his own backyard. His buildup for the 2017 Worlds was hardly seamless, either. That year, he dropped out of his final race before Worlds and only ran one track session in the month before Worlds because of an ankle injury. He won that title as well.

It’s been three years since Kipruto has been on a stage as big as this, so who knows how much of his legendary kick remains. But he’s one of the all-time greats, he’s still only 27, and he ran 8:08 a month ago. If he’s there with a lap to go, I wouldn’t bet against him.

The Americans

In 17 World Championships, the US has only medalled once in this event: Evan Jager‘s bronze in 2017 in London. It is unlikely that the US adds a second medal this year.

Kevin Morris photo

Jager, after missing out in 2019 and 2021, endured four years of injury hell to book his spot on Team USA in 2022. And while his comeback was one of the best stories of USAs, he’s not close to the medal-winning Jager of years past: his season’s best of 8:17 places him 22nd on the 2022 world list. Just making it onto the team makes this year a success for Jager. If he can string together another healthy year of training, he may be able to factor at Worlds in 2023, but time is against him: he’s 33 years old. Jager has a shot at making the final in Eugene but any medal talk is fanciful.

The same is true for USA third-placer Benard Keter. He’s made a global final before — he was the only American to do so in Tokyo last year — but that required a pb of 8:17 in the prelims and he’ll have to be close to that sort of effort again to make the final in 2022.

US champ Hillary Bor is the only American who can realistically dream of a medal. Bor has finished 4th, 6th, and 8th in three races on the Diamond League circuit this year and was actually leading in Doha in May late in the race before getting dusted by El Bakkali and Girma. He even won a Diamond League last year, in Gateshead.

The problem for Bor is there are five guys in the field who have run 8:06 or faster in 2022. Bor’s pb is 8:08, and it will take that sort of effort — at least — to win a medal in Eugene. It also doesn’t help that Bor has a checkered championship history. Though he was 7th at the 2016 Olympics and 8th at the 2019 Worlds, he’s also twice failed to make the final, bombing out in the rounds at the 2017 Worlds and 2021 Olympics.

JG prediction: 1. El Bakkali 2. Girma 3. Kipruto

El Bakkali and Girma went 1-2 in Tokyo last year and there is nothing to suggest the pecking order has changed in this event in 2022. Those two and Kipruto are the only guys with a real shot to win this race. Benjamin Kigen, the Olympic bronze medalist from 2021, is entered and has a big close but he hasn’t run faster than 8:17 this year and was only 7th at the Kenyan trials. Getnet Wale, 4th at the 2019 Worlds and 2021 Olympics, has incredible flat speed (he’s run 7:24 for 3,000) but has yet to translate it to major steeple success. He could medal but hasn’t shown he is at the level of El Bakkali or Girma in 2022.

The big question mark is Kipruto. He has a fantastic championship record (two silvers, three golds at global champs) and could absolutely win the whole thing, but is he really ready to challenge El Bakkali and Girma? I still have some doubts so I’m taking him for 3rd instead of 1st. Remember, he’s never broken 8:00 (his pb from 2016 is 8:00.12).

Who wins the men's steeple?

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Who do you think will win the steeple? Talk about it on our messageboard. MB: 2022 World men’s steeplechase preview: Who you got – Girma, El Bakkali, Kipruto? Does an American factor?

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*Complete 2022 World Outdoor Coverage.

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