2023 Worlds MSteeple Preview: Olympic and World Champ El Bakkali to Face WR Holder Girma in EPIC CLASH

The men’s steeplechase in the past couple of years has belonged to Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali, who won both the 2021 Olympics and 2022 World Championships. He has not lost a steeple since the Diamond League final in 2021 in Zurich. Since the turn of the decade, he has won 14/15 steeplechases.

In 2023, El Bakkali, 27, has been better than ever, having lowered his PB to 7:56.68 (9th fastest all-time). But what’s crazy is heading into Worlds, the question we have is, “Is El Bakkali even the favorite?”

How can that be? Well the entirety of 2023 has been historic for Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma, the silver medallist at each of the last three global steeplechases (2019, 2021, and 2022). Indoors, Girma ran 7:23.81 for 3,000 meters to break Daniel Komen‘s 25-year old world record of 7:24.90. Outdoors, in his lone steeple of the year, Girma ran 7:52.11 in Paris to break Saif Saaeed Shaheen’s nearly 19-year old world record of 7:53.63. He followed that up with an Ethiopian record of 3:29.51 in the 1500 in Monaco.

Coming into the year, Girma was known as “Mr. Silver” as in addition to his three steeple silvers, he also was second at the 2022 world indoors in the flat 3000. Now, considering he’s just officially 22, it’s possible to consider a scenario where he ends up being one of the greatest Ethiopians in history.

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This year’s Worlds will be special these two men are faster than ever before but have yet to square off this season in the steeplechase. Last year, El Bakkali had beaten Girma in two previous meetings before the World Championships in Eugene.

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Prelims: Saturday, August 19, 5:35 a.m. ET; Final: Tuesday, August 22, 3:42 p.m. ET

2022 WCH Results
1. Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco 8:25.13
2. Lamecha Girma, Ethiopia 8:26.01
3. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:27.92
4. Getnet Wale, Ethiopia 8:28.68
5. Abraham Kibiwot, Kenya 8:28.95

2023’s Fastest Performers (among men entered)
1. Lamecha Girma, Ethiopia 7:52.11 WR
2. Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco 7:56.68
3. Simon Koech, Kenya 8:04.19
4. Getnet Wale, Ethiopia 8:05.15
5. Abraham Kibiwot, Kenya 8:05.51
6. Leonard Bett, Kenya 8:09.45
7. Ryuji Miura, 8:09.91 NR

Two-Man Race Up Front

El Bakkali and Girma have shown that the two of them are a class above the rest of the field. One of them will be your world champion.

From El Bakkali’s time to the next best time this year, there is almost an eight-second gap. El Bakkali has looked untouchable at times this year, and has not faced a real challenge in all of his Diamond League steeplechases, having won his steeplechase races by an average time of 5.26 seconds.

Historically, El Bakkali has owned Girma. Head to head in the steeple, El Bakkali leads 7 to 1.

Soufiane El Bakkali Lamecha Girma
2019 Paris 8:06.64 (1) 8:08.63 (3)
2019 Brussells 8:07.08 (2) 8:07.66 (3)
2019 Doha WCs 8:03.76 (3) 8:01.36 (2)
2020 Monaco 8:08.04 (1) 8:22.57 (8)
2021 Olympics 8:08.90 (1) 8:10.38 (2)
2022 Doha 8:09.66 (1) 8:09.67 (2)
2022 Rabat 7:58.28 (1) 7:59.24 (2)
2022 Eugene WCs 8:25.13 (1) 8:26.01 (2)
Lamecha Girma breaks world record 3000m Girma breaks indoor 3k WR (© Dan Vernon) for World Athletics

Before this year, El Bakkali had the advantage of being both faster than Girma in terms of PBs and having the better kick. There was no way El Bakkali was going to get dropped and then there was no way anyone was going to beat him during his signature final 400m.

Now, it is Girma that is the faster pb. One would think the best shot he has at knocking off the reigning champ is by making sure the pace is hot from the start so that El Bakkali’s devastating final 400m is a lot tamer than usual or he is too far behind him for the kick to work. And Girma should have confidence that he can set a fast pace himself as during his world record race he was only paced for 3 minutes and 20 seconds of his 7 minutes and 52 second effort. In that race, Girma was actually faster without the rabbit than with it.

Plus even if the race isn’t super fast, it might be possible for Girma to win. Outside of the hurdles, Girma has shown he has improved his speed, lowering his 1500m PB to 3:29.51 from 3:33.77. El Bakkali’s 1500 pb is 3:31.95.

The only race that Girma and El Bakkali have raced together this year was the Doha Diamond League flat 3,000. Girma was able to win that race in 7:26 and El Bakkali was in 4th in 7:33.

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A Dark Horse

Over the last 50 years, Kenya has been extremely dominant in the men’s steeplechase. The last time Kenya did not have someone on the podium in the men’s steeplechase World Championship? 1987 in Rome. The last time Kenya did not have someone on the podium in the men’s steeplechase at the Olympics where they didn’t boycott? 1964 in Tokyo. El Bakkali has snapped some amazing streaks as a Kenyan-born runner had won 15 straight World golds and 11 straight Olympic golds (ignoring the boycotts of 1976 and 1980) before El Bakkali rose to the top of the podium the last two years.

As of late, the Kenyan bringing home the medals was Conseslus Kipruto. However, Kipruto was injured this season and DNF’d at the Kenyan trials, opening up spots for the three fastest Kenyans this year: Simon Koech, Abraham Kibiwot, and Leonard Bett.

The 20-year-old Koech is the one worth paying attention to and the favorite for bronze. After winning the Kenyan trials, he made his Diamond League debut in Monaco and did not disappoint. He looked silky smooth and lowered his pb from 8:18.43 to 8:04.19 and got the win.

Beasides the three Kenyans, Ethiopia’s Getnet Wale is also a medal threat. Amazingly, he’s been fourth at the last three global outdoor finals (2019, 2021 and 2022) and may finish 4th again this year. His health is a bit of a question mark as after finishing 2nd in Rabat and Doha he was a DNF in Poland on July 16.

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The Americans

The American steeplechase team selection unfolded quite interestingly this year as the men who placed top 3 at USAs and are representing the U.S. in Budapest are ranked 5 through 7 among the fastest American men this year. Those men in order are Kenneth Rooks (8:16.78 sb), Benard Keter (8:17.19 sb), and Isaac Updike (8:17.47 sb). The four men faster than them this year include the injured Hillary Bor (8:11.28 sb), Anthony Rotich (8:13.74 sb), Mason Ferlic (8:16.03 sb), and Duncan Hamilton (8:16.23 sb).

Rooks has looked fantastic this year, as he is the NCAA champion and U.S. champion, and even beat the likes of Bor and Oceania steeplechase record holder and OAC member George Beamish in a steeplechase earlier this year in California. He has a great finishing kick, which can come in handy if the race is a bit slower like last year in Eugene. Rooks produced one of the moments of the U.S. champs this year, falling down and still coming back to win the race. That type of resilience is what will be needed to produce a great result in Hungary.

Benard Keter was the lone American to make the final in the Tokyo Olympics, but failed to make the final last year in Eugene after being 0.88 seconds off a time qualifier.

This is Updike’s first U.S. team despite being 31 years old. Coming out of Eastern Oregon University in the NAIA, Updike was not the hottest collegiate recruit, but he has slowly lowered his steeplechase PB to 8:17.47 (32nd in the world). He is in the form of his life and making the final would be a success.

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Alex Geula Prediction: 1. El Bakkali 2. Girma 3. Koech

El Bakkali has looked too good this year for him not to be the favorite in a championship race setting. Girma is clearly the number two and could contend for the win. The youngster Koech will look to mix it up with the veterans, and he is in the bronze medal position.

Rojo Prediction:  1. Girma 2. El Bakkali 3. Koech

I know El Bakkali owns Girma but Girma is just 22 and the gap between them has been shrinking. Three of El Bakkali’s first four wins over Girma were by more than a second. None of his last three wins have been by more than second. Plus I like how Girma has only raced one steeple all year. Last year, he had four in his legs.

Who will win the steeplechase at Worlds?

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Talk about the men’s steeple on our world-famous fan forum/messageboard. MB: El Bakkali or Girma? Who’s Your Pick? Official 2023 Worlds Men’s Steeplechase Discussion Thread

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