Soufiane El Bakkali and Winfred Yavi (© AFP / Getty Images)
Women's 3000m steeplechase
In the relatively brief history of this event at the World Athletics Championships, with eight editions since 2005, five different nations have struck gold in the women’s 3000m steeplechase and there looks a huge chance for a sixth to join that list in Oregon.
Bahrain and Kazakhstan, neither of which has ever won a World Championships medal in this event, look to hold the two aces in the women’s steeplechase pack in Winfred Mutile Yavi and Norah Jeruto.
The Kenyan-born duo have been in sparkling form so far this season, and they were a class apart when taking on most of their main rivals at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Eugene in May. Jeruto proved the stronger, clocking a world lead of 8:57.97 to beat Yavi (8:58.71).
Before that, Jeruto had clocked a highly impressive 9:04.95 at altitude in Nairobi. The 26-year-old has never won a global medal at senior level but she was the world U18 champion back in 2011. She missed last year’s Tokyo Olympics while in the process of transferring allegiance from Kenya to Kazakhstan, but weeks after the Games she moved to third on the world all-time list with her 8:53.65 in Eugene.
Hayward Field is a stadium that clearly brings out the best in her, but can she produce the same magic in the absence of pacemakers?
Yavi will certainly be hoping to turn the tables and earn her first global medal, having finished eighth in the world final in 2017, fourth in 2019 and 10th in last year’s Olympic final. She was ultra-impressive in Paris a few weeks ago when bettering Jeruto’s world lead with her winning time of 8:56.55.
Ethiopia’s best result in the women’s steeplechase at these championships was the bronze won by Sofia Assefa in 2013 but in Mekides Abebe, the 20-year-old who was fourth in the Olympic final last year, they have an athlete capable of bettering that. She finished third to Jeruto and Yavi in Eugene in May in 9:03.26.
Just behind her there was an athlete who we know can handle the white-hot heat of a major championship: Peruth Chemutai. Uganda won gold when this event was first staged at the World Championships in 2005 through Dorcus Inzikuru but they haven’t reached the podium since, although Chemutai looks capable of fixing that. The 23-year-old turned in the run of her life to win Olympic gold in Tokyo last year in a national record of 9:01.45 and she finished a close fourth behind her chief rivals in Eugene earlier in the year in 9:05.54.
Peruth Chemutai and Emma Coburn at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (© Getty Images)
Werkuha Getachew and Sembo Almayew are two Ethiopians worthy of much respect. Getachew won the African title last month and finished fifth in Eugene in May in a PB of 9:07.81, while 17-year-old Almayew was a late call-up to the national team and this should be the first of many appearances on the global stage. She clocked a PB of 9:09.19 to finish second to Yavi last month in Paris.
Kenya has claimed three of the last four women’s steeplechase titles at the World Championships and their chances here will be carried by Celliphine Chespol, Jackline Chepkoech, Beatrice Chepkoech and Purity Kirui.
Beatrice Chepkoech gains an entry as defending world champion, though it’s difficult to assess her current form of the world record-holder as she has run the event just once this year, clocking 9:28.34 at altitude to win in Nairobi in April, which she followed up with a below-par 8:50.74 3000m run in Doha in May.
Chespol set a world U20 record of 8:58.78 back in 2017 and is the quickest of the Kenyan quartet this year with the 9:10.17 she ran in Eugene, but she was beaten comprehensively by Jackline Chepkoech at their national trials.
On home soil, the US trio of Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs and Courtney Wayment are sure to put up a strong showing. Coburn, the 2017 world champion, endured bitter disappointment in Tokyo last year but she looked back to her best self when winning her 10th US title last month in 9:10.63, and history has shown the 31-year-old always finds an extra gear when it comes to major championships. She won Olympic bronze in 2016, World Championships gold in 2017 and World Championships silver in 2019.
Following Coburn home there was Wayment, the reigning NCAA champion who clocked a PB of 9:12.10 in that race. Back in third was Frerichs, who clocked 9:16.18 and whose form is steadily coming to the boil – once again – for when it matters most.
The 29-year-old went to Tokyo last year with a season’s best of 9:11.79 before producing a stunning effort to win Olympic silver in 9:04.79 and as a world silver medallist in 2017, she has the experience to again be in the mix at the front end.
Men's 3000m steeplechase
If the form on the circuit is to be believed – and replicated on this bigger stage – then the men’s steeplechase final in Oregon on 18 July should come down to a two-man battle for gold between Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma and Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali.
But all athletics fans know there’s a world of difference between those paced races and the cagey, cat-and-mouse affairs that tend to unfold in major championship finals.
The fate of the medals in the men’s steeplechase could hinge on what tactics are employed. If it’s an eight-minute final, or slightly below that, then it will come as a huge shock if it’s not – as it was at the Tokyo Olympics – Girma and El Bakkali duking it out for gold.
But the slower the race goes, the more they would be at risk from a pair of big kickers from Kenya: Conseslus Kipruto and Benjamin Kigen.
Historically, this is a title the Kenyans have defended as if their lives depend on it. Since 1991, and the first of Moses Kiptanui’s three world titles, Kenya has won 13 of the 15 men’s steeplechase gold medals, the two exceptions being 2003 and 2005, when Saif Saaeed Shaheen – a Kenyan-born athlete running for Qatar – claimed gold.
Kipruto is the defending champion, and while his form this season has been unspectacular, he has a blueprint for succeeding off such a build-up.
In 2019 he went to the Doha World Championships with a season’s best of just 8:13.75 as he returned from a stress fracture in his ankle, but in the final he clocked 8:01.35 to deny Girma gold in a photo finish. This year he has a best of 8:08.76, which placed him fourth in Rome last month, nine seconds behind Girma, before he coasted to third place at the Kenyan trials, choosing not to race for the win.
He'll be joined in Eugene by Kigen and compatriots Leonard Bett and Abraham Kibiwott. Kibiwott is the quickest of that trio this year, clocking 8:06.73 to finish second in Rome, but Kigen – the Olympic bronze medallist in Tokyo – is the best kicker and would be highly dangerous in a slow race.
Girma, though, seems unlikely to let that happen. The Ethiopian ensured an honest pace in last year’s Olympic final and the 21-year-old has shown he can run under eight minutes almost at his leisure, dipping under that barrier three times in a 10-day spell earlier in the season.
Lamecha Girma in the steeplechase at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (© AFP / Getty Images)
But hopes of a first Ethiopian gold should be kept in check due to one particular statistic: Girma has raced El Bakkali seven times in his career and has only beaten him once – in the 2019 world final.
As such, El Bakkali will start as the heavy favourite. The 26-year-old Moroccan possesses all the attributes needed for success here: proficient hurdling, oceans of endurance and – critically – a key change of gears in the home straight. He outkicked Girma in Tokyo last year to win Olympic gold and did the same in Doha and Rabat this year, setting the world lead of 7:58.28 in the latter event.
He's undoubtedly the current superman of the steeplechase, but if there is a kryptonite that could take him down then it’s a fully fit Kipruto.
The Kenyan has an 11-8 record against El Bakkali in this event, but it’s worth noting they’ve met five times in championship settings. The current tally? 5-0 to Kipruto. The Kenyan would pose a huge threat if still in touch with the leaders at the bell, but expect Girma, in particular, to do everything possible to run his rivals ragged long before then.
Girma will be joined by compatriots Hailemariyam Amare and Getnet Wale so he should have some assistance in keeping the pace strong, just as it was in Tokyo. Wale is an 8:05.21 athlete at his best and has wicked flat speed, with a 7:24.98 indoor 3000m to his name. He finished third in Rome earlier this year in 8:06.74 and fourth in both the Olympic final in Tokyo and the 2019 world final in Doha. Can he finally reach a global senior podium here? He’ll need to reach a new level if so. His teammate Amare will have similar goals, having clocked a PB of 8:06.29 in Rabat before doing the steeplechase-5000m double at the African Championships last month.
Evan Jager – the 2016 Olympic and 2017 World Championships medallist who trains in Portland, a two-hour drive north of Eugene – is sure to have huge support from the home crowd at his first major championship for five years. Since then Jager has been through a nightmare run of injuries, but he showed his class and resilience by clocking 8:17.29 to qualify at the US Championships last month, finishing second to Hillary Bor.
Bor was seventh in the Olympic final in 2016 and eighth in the world final in 2019 and with a best this year of 8:12.19, he’ll be hopeful of improving on those finishes in front of a home crowd that loves its distance running.
The European charge will be led by Italy’s Ahmed Abdelwahed, who lowered his PB to 8:10.29 when finishing sixth in Rome, while there is an intriguing presence from India in the event through Avinash Mukund Sable, who lowered his national record to 8:12.48 in Rabat. The 27-year-old was a silver medallist at the Asian Championships in 2019.
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics