A look back at the men’s 3000m steeplechase as Steve Smythe reflects on the history of events at the Olympics

Ezekiel Kemboi is probably the least internationally regarded multiple Olympic champion. A double Olympic winner, he has won medals in the last seven world championships and taken gold in the last four to go with his earlier three silver medals.

In 2015, he ranked only third fastest behind Jairus Birech and American Evan Jager.

Neither of those ahead of him in the rankings made the podium at the World Championships where Kemboi again dominated on the last lap. If Kemboi survives the Kenyan trials, which will be the best quality race of the year, his competitive expertise will make him a big favourite for Rio. Birech and Conseslus Kipruto look the most likely to join Kemboi in the team.

Jager, with 3:32 1500m speed, looks the best of the non-Kenyans. However, note that enigmatic two-time Olympic silver medallist Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad was absent from the track in 2014 and also has the raw speed to match the Kenyans at his best.


The first Olympics to hold a steeplechase was Paris 1900 and Canadian George Orton won over 2500m, while Brit John Rimmer won over 4000m – see ‘British successes’ below.

In St Louis in 1904, American James Lightbody, who also won the 800m and 1500m, dominated the chase over the curious distance of 2590m and won by 22 seconds.

There was more British success in 1908 – over 3200m. The heats were delayed when the Americans showed up in white shorts which were against the rules and had to wait for black shorts. The final saw a British one-two – and, while there was no steeplechase in 1912, they also won in the next Olympics in Antwerp in 1920.

The first non-British Olympic steeplechase champion over 3000m was Ville Ritola. He won in 9:33.6 and just missed the world record of Paul Bontemps, who finished third.

Ritola attempted to defend his title in Amsterdam in 1928 but, exhausted after a tough battle with Paavo Nurmi in the previous day’s 5000m, he dropped out. Finland nevertheless swept the medals. Toivo Loukola shattered the world record with 9:21.8, with Nurmi a distant second.

The Finns also won in 1932 and 1936 through Volmari Iso Hollo. He won in 1932 when he clocked 10:33.4 when everyone
ran an extra lap. Over the proper distance in Berlin, he reduced the world record to 9:03.8 with Kaarlo Tuominen giving the Finns yet another medal in second.

In 1948, it was Sweden who dominated with a clean sweep of the medals. Thore Sjostrand won in 9:04.6.

FBI agent Horace Ashenfelter improved from 9:06.4 to 8:51.0 in his heat and then ran away from world record-holder Vladimir Kazantsev in the last 150 metres to win in a world record 8:45.4.

Chris Brasher put Britain back on top in 1956 and Europe also won gold in Rome in 1960. Polish world record-holder Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak set an Olympic record 8:34.2.

Belgium’s Gaston Roelants finished fourth and then in 1963 reduced the world record to below 8:30. He just missed the record in Tokyo in 1964 but reduced the Olympic record to 8:30.8. The record naturally survived in Mexico’s altitude. There, Amos Biwott, who only started chasing in 1968, won with the then never- before-seen technique of clearing the water jump without stepping on it. Favourite Ben Kogo finished second.

Kenya also gained a one-two in Munich in 1972 where another chasing novice Kip Keino, the Olympic 1500m champion from 1968, won in an Olympic record 8:23.6.

Kenya were absent because of the boycott in 1976 where Anders Garderud won – see ‘most memorable’ below.

In Moscow in 1980, the Montreal runner- up, Bronislaw Malinowski, had to chase down former world 1500m record-holder Filbert Bayi’s big lead. The Pole caught him on the last lap. Malinowski died in a car crash the following year, aged 30.

After missing two Olympics, the Kenyans were back in force in Los Angeles in 1984, with Julius Korir winning, and then Julius Kariuki just missed the world record of 8:05.4 as he won in Seoul in 1988 in 8:05.51.

Kenya did even better in Barcelona as Matthew Birir led their first medal sweep. Birir was only fourth in Atlanta in 1996 so they didn’t repeat the sweep. The huge favourite was Moses Kiptanui, who had taken the world record below eight minutes and was the three-time world champion. However, he was outsprinted by Joseph Keter.

Kenya also gained a one-two in 2000 in Sydney as Reuben Kosgei caused a surprise. They returned to medal domination in Athens in 2004 with Ezekiel Kemboi edging Brimin Kipruto and Paul Koech.

Kipruto won in Beijing in 2008, just getting the better of Mahiedine Mekhissi- Benabbad. The Frenchman also won silver in London in 2012 as Kemboi regained the title in style.

British successes

Sidney Robinson was runner-up in the first Olympic steeplechase, held over 2500m. The following day, Britain gained a clean sweep in the 4000m steeplechase, led by John Rimmer.

John Daly just lost out on gold in 1904 over 2500m and the distance increased to two miles (3200m) in London in 1908 where Arthur Russell led home team-mate Archie Robinson. British success continued in 1920 through an easy win for Percy Hodge.

The next British medal came in 1932 in Los Angeles where Thomas Evenson moved up to second on a last lap that only happened because the official lap-checker miscounted the laps.

There was then a 20-year gap to the next British medal when John Disley took bronze in a fast 8:51.8.

The man with whom he would later co- found the London Marathon, Chris Brasher, won the next Olympics in Melbourne in 1956. The Briton was boxed in on the last lap, had to push his way through a gap and then sprinted to a two-second victory over world record- holder Sandor Rozsnyoi in an Olympic record 8:41.2.

He was originally disqualified for pushing but both the other medallists felt it wasn’t worthy of disqualification and Brasher was reinstated. He won Britain’s first Olympic track gold in any event for 20 years.

In 1964, Maurice Herriott won silver, having made up 40 metres on the last-lap leader Gaston Roelants but fallen 10 metres short.

Britain’s most recent medal was won by Mark Rowland in 1988, the former 1500m runner finishing just two seconds down on Kariuki’s still-standing Olympic record. Rowland’s time is still the British record.

Most memorable Olympic 3000m steeplechase: Montreal 1976

Due to the boycott, there was an absence of Kenyans in Montreal in 1976, but this period was dominated by the Europeans anyway. World record-holder Anders Garderud, who had previously failed to win a major title, finally won a gold medal. It was an exciting race and improved his record to 8:08.2. East German Frank Baumgartl fell heavily while challenging the Swede over the final barrier but got up quickly enough to salvage a bronze medal.

Poland’s European champion Bronislaw Malinowski, who had made the race hard with a forceful pace, had to step over the German to finish second. He was to go one better four years later.

The tall-striding, elegant Garderud, who had earlier ran a 3:54 mile and 13:17 5000m, retired internationally that year. However, he has attended many championships since as a journalist. It’s worth noting the Olympic record has fallen by less than three seconds in the 40 years since Garderud’s victory.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s 3000m steeplechase feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the January 7, 2016, edition of AW magazine