Soufiane El Bakkali wins the steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics (© AFP / Getty Images)
Soufiane El Bakkali ended a 17-year Olympic gold medal drought for Morocco with a dominant victory in the 3000m steeplechase in Tokyo on Monday (2).
Since his fourth-place finish in Rio five years ago, El Bakkali has been one of the finest steeplechasers on the planet, striking silver at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London and bronze in Doha two years later. He put the experience and maturity he's collected since on full display in Tokyo, biding his time perfectly behind Ethiopians Lamecha Girma and Getnet Wale before making his move as he entered the final bend.
After safely negotiating the water jump for the final time, El Bakkali pulled away for good en route to an 8:08.90 win, well clear of Girma whose early pacing was rewarded with silver.
His was the first Olympic athletics gold medal for Morocco since Hicham El Guerrouj notched his historic 1500m and 5000m double at the 2004 Games in Athens. Also of note is that El Bakkali put an end to Kenya's decades-long dominance of the event. Until tonight, athletes from the east African athletics powerhouse had captured the discipline at all but two Olympic Games since 1968 - and those were the two the nation boycotted.
"I am so used to seeing Kenyans win, it's a big accomplishment for me," said El Bakkali, who raced sparingly but well this season, winning at the Golden Gala in Florence in 8:08.54 and perhaps more notably, clocking 3:31.95 in the Doha Diamond League 1500m, clipping 1.5 seconds from his previous lifetime best.
“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.”
The race played right into that improved speed, as Wale and Girma took early command with a fairly conservative pace. With the clock reading just over two minutes, Japanese record-holder Ryuji Miura made a brief move for the lead that managed to string out the tight pack, albeit briefly.
The Ethiopians maintained command but were joined at the front by Kenyans Benjamin Kigen and Abraham Kibiwott with three laps to go, with El Bakkali, making his presence felt for the first time, moving into fifth. A lap later, El Bakkali moved into third behind the Ethiopian pair and by the time the trio approached the bell, the towering Moroccan was clearly ready to pounce.
That decisive move came as they approached the water jump when El Bakkali surged confidently and was never challenged again.
"I have been thinking about being more confident, working on my self-confidence and also trusting that I can win,” El Bakkali said. “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."
Girma held on best to finish second in 8:10.38. Kigen passed Wale between the final two barriers to take bronze in 8:11.45 - and save Kenyan pride.
"I ran to my best and I have a medal," said Kigen, who was sixth at the last World Championships and raced to victory at the All Africa Games earlier that year. Representing Kenya in this event, he added: “There is a lot of pressure. I know a lot of our previous champions and train with them. Next time I promise I will bring the (gold) medal."
Wale was next, clocking 8:14.97, followed by Eritrean Yemane Haileselassie, who was fifth in 8:15.34.
Matt Hughes of Canada was sixth in 8:16.03, an improvement on his 10th-place finish in Rio.
Miura clocked 8:16.90 to finish seventh, the best ever showing in the event for Japan.
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics
|MEN'S 3000m STEEPLECHASE MEDALLISTS|
|🥇||Soufiane El Bakkali 🇲🇦 MAR||8:08.90|
|🥈||Lamecha Girma 🇪🇹 ETH||8:10.38|
|🥉||Benjamin Kigen 🇰🇪 KEN||8:11.45|