Moroccan El Bakkali ends Kenyan reign over 3000m steeplechase in the slowest final in history

Written by Nihal Koshie

Updated: July 19, 2022 7:03:02 pm

In the slowest steeplechase final in the history of the World Championships, Morocco's Soufiane El Bakkali, the Olympic champion, used his speed over the final 400 metres to end Kenya's streak of gold dating back to over a decade and a half. (Twitter/World Athletics)

A Moroccan made history and broke the stranglehold of the Kenyans, a cameraman on track was an unusual obstacle and an Indian national record holder was schooled when some of the best runners in the world turned the men’s 3000metre steeplechase into a masterful tactical battle.

In the slowest steeplechase final in the history of the World Championships, Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali, the Olympic champion, used his speed over the final 400 metres to end Kenya’s streak of gold dating back to over a decade and a half.

Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma was second and defending champion, Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto was good enough only for bronze.

El Bakkali’s 8:25.13, Girma’s 8:26.01 and Kipruto’s 8:27.92 were pedestrian times. Outright speed wasn’t on anyone’s mind till the final stages of the race. There were medals to be won and nobody was risking going all out and ‘hitting the wall’ too early.

What a race 💪

Olympic champion Soufiane El Bakkali 🇲🇦 battles hard, reigns supreme and confirms his 3000m steeplechase supremacy with world gold!#WorldAthleticsChamps

— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) July 19, 2022

The tactics of the leading pack perhaps caught India’s Avinash Sable by surprise. The man who has broken the national record eight times, most recently at the Rabat Diamond League last month, finished 11th with 8:31.75. Sable is used to running in front in domestic competitions but when the world’s best start to dictate the pace, especially when they slow it down, he will have to find a strategy which works best for him.

Sable is capable of going much faster as his national record stands at 8:12.47. He didn’t try to push the pace in the World Championship final with the best in the world chugging along smoothly. A brave charge would have been risky given the class of the runners ahead of him in the final.

Nine of the 15 finalists had a personal best below 8 minutes and 10 seconds and two of them El Bakkali and Girma had run sub-8s. There were 12 athletes with better personal bests in the final. By the end of the first lap it was clear no record was going to be under threat, except for the collective slowest one.

The runners also had to dodge past a cameraman filming the women’s triple jump final while being oblivious to the start of the steeplechase.

The top athletes have a strong finishing kick in the final 400 metres and that is where the 3000 metre steeplechase is won and lost.

18th World Athletics championships 2022, Oregon Update ✅

🇮🇳’s @avinash3000m finishes Men’s 3000m Steeplechase final at 11th position with the time of 8:31.75

Great effort Champ 👍
Keep up the momentum!!#Athletics #IndianSports

— SAI Media (@Media_SAI) July 19, 2022

El Bakkali ran the last 400 in 58 seconds and so did Girma. Kipruto was a wee bit slower but the pace the top three produced in the end was way quicker than during most of the race. The runners in the lead took 69 seconds to complete the first lap and the second was even slower with an average time of close to 72 seconds.

El Bakkali’s finishing kick, once he crossed the final water hurdle in third place, and storming-run into the last bend was too fast for the rest of the field. Kipruto was leading till the final 200 metres but could not respond to Girma’s pace. At the final hurdle, Girma for a second looked like he had enough in the tank to challenge El Bakkali but ran out of steam.

The quick changes of lead in the last stages of the race made for edge-of-the-seat viewing but what preceded was a wait-and-watch game with no athlete ready to break away and set the pace at the Hayward Field.

El Bakkali had run a blistering time in his last race before the World Championships.

El Bakkali’s gold-medal winning time on Tuesday was 8:25.13, nothing compared to the 7:58.28 he clocked to win at the Diamond League in Rabat in June. Girma was nowhere close to the 7:59.24 he produced at Rabat, a race in which Sable finished 5th to break the national record for the eighth time with 8:12.48. Kipruto had narrowly edged out Sable with 8:12.47.

Rabat witnessed a fast race, Eugene was a slow thriller. The pace of the race or the lack of it kept even the runners on tenterhooks with nobody wanting to risk exhaustion by launching a dash only to realise that others could keep pace.

“I am very happy to win my first world title after the Olympic gold,” El Bakkali was quoted as saying by World Athletics.
“The race was very difficult; it was very tactical and slow. I positioned myself well on the last lap. I am very strong in the 400m and it worked out for me.”

Even Girma, with four major silver medals in his kitty now, could not fox his competitors. “The pace was very slow today,” he said. “My tactic did not work and that cost me the gold. I was trying to change the tactic but the pace limited me very much. I will go for gold next year and my training is starting from now on.”

If Sable is to challenge the elite runners he will have to be prepared for a similar race strategy in the future. But to get closer to a podium, Sable will have to get faster to maintain the speed till the end of the race.

“I think once Sable runs under 8:10 (eight minutes and 10 seconds) he will be confident to push it. Like he did in the prelims (heats). It is a serious learning experience for him and for others too,” Scott Simmons, India’s distance-running foreign coach who trains Sable, told The Indian Express.

Simmons described the race as the ‘craziest championship steeple ever’. “Extremely slow and then got even slower. Never saw anything like this before and likely will never again. With two Olympic gold medalists and two silver medalists, no one decided to push. El Bakkali and Girma, the gold and silver winners from Tokyo Olympics, were the two major players and both had sub-8 times but they only focussed on gold and silver between them and never even pushed. So no lesser athletes felt compelled to challenge,” Simmons said.

The coach hopes Sable will run a sub-8:10 time this year. It could come as early as the Commonwealth Games or at the Diamond League this year. “But he needs to do that to get on the level with the best.”

Major championship races can produce slow times if the leading group of athletes decide to conserve energy for the final straight instead of going all out and risking a medal. A recent example of an extremely slow race was the men’s 1,500 metre final of the 2016 Rio Olympics. American Matt Centrowitz clocked 3:50.00, the slowest champion in the event at the Summer Games since 1932.

When El Bakkali won the Olympics gold last year, beating the Kenyans, he had put his achievement in perspective. “I am so used to seeing Kenyans win, it’s a big accomplishment for me,” he had said last year. “I have been aiming for this for years and this was my opportunity to show that Morocco is capable of winning this prize. 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.” A year on, it appears he has made it a habit.

Slow and steady at Worlds

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Soufinane El Bakkali

Lamecha Girma

Conseslus Kipruto

Avinash Sable

PB: personal best; SB: season best

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