Five-ring Circus

The Church of Steeple

Why I worship the steeplechase.

Don't mess with Kenya
Don’t mess with Kenya

At long last, the golden age of the human steeplechase is upon us. For almost 200 years, the marginally less obscure equestrian event of the same name has cornered the tiny steeplechase market. But at these games, the International Olympic Committee finally put down the horse version, eliminating the steeplechase phase of the Eventing Competition. (That’s equestrian-speak for less jumping over shrubbery.) The man-running-on-a-track variety is now the only game in town.

Don’t let its extreme unpopularity fool you: The steeplechase is the best event in track and field. The sprints? They’re over in the blink of an eye. The marathon? It’s got the stamp of history, but who has two whole hours to spare? The steeplechase, though, is not too fast and not too slow—it’s the sexiest of all the middle-distance events. There’s a bizarre history, festering controversy, and death-defying leaps that offer the exciting potential for serious injury. Indeed, this is the only track event where a slight miscalculation can leave you face down in a pool of fetid water.

The people steeple was modeled after the horse race (late one night by a drunk Oxford student, according to legend), and the horse race, in turn, was adapted from fox hunting. The rules have changed over the years, but like their forebears, steeplechasing bipeds still must negotiate a series of obstacles. The Olympic distance of 3,000 meters involves seven-and-a-half laps around a track littered with four barriers and a 12-foot-long water pit. These barriers are no mere hurdles! Clip one of those puny “high hurdles” and it costs you a fraction of a second; collide with a steeplechase barrier and you could lose a leg. They’re heavy, they’re thick, and they don’t move. The pool is located directly behind a barrier, and the steeplechaser’s ability to manage the double hazard with aplomb is the key to the race.

Since the 1960s, Kenya’s dominance of the event has been positively Jordanesque. They held the world championship for the entire decade of the 1990s. They’ve won Olympic gold seven times in a row (not counting 1976 and 1980, when Kenya boycotted the games). Kenyan-born athletes own 20 of the 22 fastest steeplechase times ever. Kenyans tend to run fast, but this fast?

Yet, in the past few years, Kenya’s medal-stand lockdown has been threatened. The current world-record holder, Brahim Boulami, happens to be Moroccan. And last year’s world champion, Saif Saeed Shaheen, runs for Qatar. Luckily for Kenya’s steeplechasers, the country’s unstoppable steeplechase mojo works off the track, too. Boulami’s not competing in the Olympics due to a two-year doping suspension. Qatar’s Shaheen has been kept out of the games as well. Until last year, he was known as Stephen Cherono—Kenya’s Stephen Chereno. Then Qatar offered him a $1 million bounty and a $1,000 monthly allowance for life, and Cherono defected.

Kenya’s jilted sports officials got their revenge, refusing to waive an Olympic regulation that bars athletes from competing for two nations within a three-year period, even when Qatari officials supposedly offered to build the East African nation a new stadium. In a particularly ugly episode of revenge, the Kenyan bosses also kicked Shaheen’s brother Abraham off their Olympic team despite his third-place finish at the national trials. You mess with the steeplechase, the Kenyans will mess with your family.

With their two leading challengers excluded from Athens, the Kenyan steeplechasers are everybody’s favorite to repeat. The team of Paul Kipsiele Koech, Birmin Kipruto, and Ezekial Kemboi can lay claim to the first, third, and fourth fastest times this year, respectively. (The second fastest belongs to their absent former countryman Shaheen.) Though history seems poised to repeat itself in Athens, the Beijing Olympics will start a brand-new era. In 2008, women who have been running the steeplechase for years will finally get a crack at Olympic gold. From horses to women in just a few centuries: How can anyone deny that the steeplechase is the sport of the future?