By any measure, the men’s 3000m steeplechase has been Kenya’s event. Athletes from the east African athletics powerhouse have captured the discipline at all but two Olympic Games since 1968 – and those were the two the nation boycotted. But for the first time in recent memory its squad will be arriving at an Olympic Games without a reigning world or Olympic champion.
Conseslus Kipruto, the champion in Rio five years ago and winner at the last two World Championships, did not finish his race at the Kenyan Trials last month, and won’t be in Tokyo to defend his title. That passes the pressure of the nation on to the lean shoulders of Leonard Bett, Banjamin Kigen and Abraham Kibiwott.
Hopes are high for Bett, the 2017 world U18 champion, 2018 African champion and 2019 World Championships finalist, who took the top honours at the brutally competitive Kenyan Olympic Trials on 19 June, clocking 8:17.26 in the altitude of Nairobi. He’s raced sparingly this season however, so his true form won’t be revealed until opening round action gets under way on Friday 30 July.
Like Bett, Kibiwott, 25, was also a finalist at the 2019 World Championships where he finished seventh, so he too also brings major competition experience to the Japanese capital. The 25-year-old has an 8:05.72 career best from 2019 and has five sub-8:10 performances to his credit. The most recent came in Monaco on 9 July where he finished second in 8:07.81.
Kigen, 28, was sixth at the last World Championships and raced to victory at the All Africa Games earlier that year, and with several Wanda Diamond League and World Athletics Continental Tour victories to his credit, is also a proven commodity on the international stage. But with an 8:15.09 season’s best, he hasn’t been particularly fast this season, so he too has been cloaking his form.
But to keep their streak alive, the Kenyan trio will have to get past a short list of proven stars who will arrive as the favourites – topped by Moroccan Soufiane El Bakkali and Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia.
El Bakkali, 25, battled to silver and bronze, respectively, at the last two World Championships, has a dozen sub-8:10 performances to his name and a 7:58.15 career best, the fastest among the Tokyo entrants. He’s 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.
Girma, meanwhile, burst on to the world stage with a stunning performance at the 2019 World Championships, where the then 18-year-old fiercely battled Kipruto to the line, only to be beaten to gold by a scant 0.01. After a somewhat low-key 2020, Girma has raced just once outdoors this year but made it count, winning in Monaco on 9 July in 8:07.75, the fastest in the world in 2021.
He’ll be joined by Getnet Wale, the fourth-place finisher at the World Championships two years ago, to give Ethiopia a strong 1-2 punch. The 21-year-old has an 8:09.47 season’s best from his victory in Ostrava and has also improved his 5000m career best to 12:53.28.
Behind them, the form chart is less certain. France comes armed with Djilali Bedrani (8:11.17 SB) and Mehdi Belhadj (8:12.43 SB, PB), who finished third and fourth in the Monaco race. Bedrani finished fifth at the 2019 World Championships in 8:05.23, still his lifetime best, so also looks to be a factor.
Hillary Bor, the US Trials champion, was seventh in Rio and eighth at the last World Championships, and could also be in medal contention.
Meanwhile, local hopes lie with Ryuji Miura, the 19-year-old who twice broke the national record this year, first with 8:17.46 in Tokyo in May and again to 8:15.99 to win the national title in Osaka one month ago.