AFTER REPEATEDLY REACHING FOR — but never grabbing — global gold in recent years, coming in 4th in Rio and claiming WC silver in ’17 and bronze in ’19, Soufiane El Bakkali finally climbed to the top of the podium.
The 25-year-old Moroccan clocked 8:08.90 in a light rain, leaving in his wake yearly leader Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia (8:10.38, reprising his Doha silver) and Kenya’s Benjamin Kigen (8:11.45).
El Bakkali conducted a master class in patience. For almost 7 minutes, he was content to run mid-pack, staying out of trouble by generally running in lane 2, occasionally even 3. He might have been invisible if not for the fact that at 6-1¼ (1.86) he stands about a head taller than most of the field.
At the front, Kigen, Girma, Abraham Kibiwott and Getnet Wale seemed to be writing a new chapter in the fierce Ethiopia–Kenya distance rivalry.
But coming off the penultimate waterjump, El Bakkali reminded his fellow Africans that he was the prerace favorite. First he surged past the two Kenyans. Then he caught Wale on the backstretch and finally Girma just before the last water. He stretched the lead all the way to the line. Last laps: El Bakkali 57.9, Girma 59.9, Kigen 60.8.
“I am so used to seeing Kenyans win, it’s a big accomplishment for me,” he said. “I have been aiming for this for years and this was my opportunity to show that Morocco is capable of winning this prize in front of the Kenyans.
“It was not easy for me to be in front of the Kenyans and Ethiopians. I know how hard it is to be first in front of them.
“I have been thinking about being more confident, working on my self-confidence and also trusting that I can win. I have tried so many times to compare myself with the Kenyans and Ethiopians to see whether I could reach this gold, and I did.”
It was a historic race for Ethiopia — while the red, green & gold is a dynasty in flat races, it has treated the steeple like a neglected stepchild. Girma’s medal was that nation’s first Olympic prize in this event since Eshetu Tura’s bronze in ’80.
Kenya, on the other hand, has had an almost proprietary hold on the steeple for decades. Since ’72 — excluding the boycott years of ’76 and ’80 — Kenyans have won 52 of the 84 global medals on offer (54 if you count Kenyan-turned-Qatari WR holder Saïf Shaheen). Not medaling would have been an athletic disaster.
On the final lap, Kigen, running 4th, seemed to sense the historic blemish that was about to happen. He gained ground on the lead trio on the backstretch and as he caught Wale at the beginning of the final curve, Wale stumbled and couldn’t recover. Kibiwott, meanwhile, faded to 10th.
The heats had been tough on the T&FN formchart, with 4 of our top 10 picks failing to advance. Further confounding our prognosticators, Girma wasn’t even supposed to be in Tokyo, as the Ethiopian record holder was a DNS at his country’s trials, but was added to the team at the last minute. He then proceded to lead qualifying with history’s fastest-ever prelim, 8:09.63. The old low was 8:10.34 by Kenya’s Paul Kosgei at the ’99 WC.
USATF champion Hilary Bor was one of the non-advancers, as was Mason Ferlic. The U.S. was represented in the final by Kenyan-born Benard Keter, 10th in 8:22.12.
MEN’S STEEPLE RESULTS
(August 02) (temperature 82F/28C; humidity 83%, light rain)
1. Soufiane El Bakkali (Mor) 8:08.90;
2. Lamecha Girma (Eth) 8:10.38 (5:35.66);
3. Benjamin Kigen (Ken) 8:11.45;
4. Getnet Wale (Eth) 8:14.97;
5. Yemane Hailesilassie (Eri) 8:15.34;
6. Matt Hughes (Can) 8:16.03;
7. Ryuji Miura (Jpn) 8:16.90 (2:50.04);
8. Topi Raitanen (Fin) 8:17.44;
9. Ala Zoghlami (Ita) 8:18.50;
10. Abraham Kibiwot (Ken) 8:19.41;
11. Benard Keter (US) 8:22.12;
12. Alexis Phelut (Fra) 8:23.14;
13. Mohammed Tindoufti (Mor) 8:23.56;
14. Ahmed Abdelwahed (Ita) 8:24.34;
15. John Gay (Can) 8:35.41.
HEATS (July 30)
I–1. Girma 8:09.83 (fastest prelim in history); 2. Miura 8:09.92 NR; 3. Kigen 8:10.80; 4. Zoghlami 8:14.06 PR; 5. Tindoufti 8:15.91; 6. Gay 8:16.99 PR; 7. Djilali Bedrani (Fra) 8:20.23; 8. Mason Ferlic (US) 8:20.23; 9. Albert Chemutai (Uga) 8:29.81; 10. Vidar Johansson (Swe) 8:32.86; 11. Karl Bebendorf (Ger) 8:33.27; 12. Carlos Andrés San Martín (Col) 8:33.47; 13. Phil Norman (GB) 8:46.57;… dnf—John Koech (Bhr), Fernando Carro (Spa).
II–1. Kibiwot 8:12.25; 2. Wale 8:12.55; 3. Abdelwahed 8:12.71; 4. Hughes 8:13.56; 5. Hailesilassie 8:14.63; 6. Keter 8:17.31 PR; 7. Avinash Sable (Ind) 8:18.12 NR; 8. Sebastián Martos (Spa) 8:23.07; 9. Ryuma Aoki (Jpn) 8:24.82; 10. Abdelkarim Ben Zahra (Mor) 8:28.63; 11. Edward Trippas (Aus) 8:29.90; 12. Louis Gilavert (Fra) 8:36.35; 13. Emil Blomberg (Swe) 8:39.57; 14. Zak Seddon (GB) 8:43.29; 15. Hichem Bouchicha (Alg) 8:44.75.
III–1. El Bakkali 8:19.00; 2. Raitanen 8:19.17; 3. Phelut 8:19.36; 4. Osama Zoghlami (Ita) 8:19.51; 5. Leonard Bett (Ken) 8:19.62; 6. Hillary Bor (US) 8:19.80; 7. Ole Hesselbjerg (Den) 8:24.08; 8. Takele Bikila Tadese (Eth) 8:24.69; 9. Altobelli da Silva (Bra) 8:29.17; 10. Simon Sundström (Swe) 8:29.84; 11. Kosei Yamaguchi (Jpn) 8:31.27; 12. Daniel Arce (Spa) 8:38.09; 13. Matthew Clarke (Aus) 8:42.37;… dq—Ben Buckingham (Aus). ◻︎