Kenyan Steeplechase Dominance Exists in a Reality Unlike Most Others
A common movie and television trope revolves around two people negotiating at a table.
Negotiator No. 1 writes a number on a small piece of paper before silently and slowly sliding it across to Negotiator No. 2. Then, No. 2 reads the number. It is dramatic as hell and I guess it is supposed to show that whatever they are brokering is very important and requires a certain acute shrewdness.
Well, I want you take a small piece of paper and write down a number or symbol that represents how good you think Kenyan steeplechasers are.
Got your figure? Nice.
Whatever your wrote down, whether it was 87 or eight starts or Texas With A Dollar Sign…It needs to be higher.
In a world all but obsessed with presenting the next idea, observation or hot take with an extra serving of hyperbole, there are few things that actually demand that degree of elevated hype.
One of those things is the Kenyan male dominance in the 3,000 meter steeplechase.
Sure, I bet you can tell me about how a Kenyan man has won the gold medal at the Olympics in the steeplechase every year since 1984…or how they have won 18 of last 27 Olympic steeple medals since 1984…or how 28 of the last 38 world championship medals have been won by Kenya…or how every world championship gold medal since 1991 has been won by a Kenyan (except for 2003 and 2005 which were won by Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar. He’s the 3,000 meter steeple world record and, by the way, was born in Kenya).
But I don’t know if you really get it.
To articulate with charts, take a look at the five countries that have produced the most sub-8:20 men’s steeple performances (Kenya (1,520), Morocco (209), France (159), United States of America (153), and Spain (109)):
This chart represents 77% of all sub-8:20 steeple performances, and as you can see, the majority were accomplished by a Kenyan.
Dissecting further, here is the same chart above, with only Kenyan performances:
There is a pretty natural progression where more and more Kenyan athletes churn out these quick times. One interesting possible anomaly occurs in 1995 and 1999: A LOT of dudes ran fast.
In fact, in 1999, 15 Kenyan athletes ran faster than 8:20 ninety-two different times. For a frame of reference, the Olympic “A” standard in 2000 (Sydney) was 8:27.00. Suffice it to say that potential medalists stayed home that year because they couldn’t even get on their Kenyan national team.
Examining the remaining countries, a few patterns emerge:
As with Kenya, a lot of Moroccan athletes were running sub-8:20 in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Maybe chalk it up to the African running revolution. Maybe it was the founding of the IAAF Golden League in 1988, harboring fast races across Europe. Perhaps it was, uh, more advanced training and recovery methods. I don’t know for certain. Let me know if you do.
With Spain and France, it’s more of the same, although there appears to be a mysterious gap in the 1990’s for both countries:
After the retirement of Frenchmen Joseph Mahmoud and Bruno Le Stum, France experienced a drought of sub-8:20 performances until the breakout of Bouabdellah Tahri, who has broken 8:20 fifty-three separate times. Regarding Spain, a similar lack of talent persisted in the 1990’s after Francisco Sánchez and Domingo Ramón retired.
With respect to the United States, there a is a pretty healthy surge after 2010, which we can refer to as the “Evan Jager Effect.”
As evident at the Rio Olympics, Mr. Jager single-handedly represented the United States on the medal stand, dueling a handful of French, Moroccan, and you guessed it, Kenyan athletes to get there.