Unsung Sports: Steeplechase

By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports

By and large, track and field events are rooted in the most fundamental of physical activities. Running, either all-out in sprints or at a controlled pace over a distance. Jumping, either horizontally or vertically. Tossing objects, most of them heavy.

Then there is the steeplechase, often called the cruelest of distance races. It must have been created by someone fond of leaping over fences and puddles. It is the most peculiar endeavor in track and field, edging out the hammer throw, whose utensil looks nothing like a hammer.

Awaiting the runners at one hurdle on the far turn of each lap is a water pit, long enough (12 feet) that anyone without jet-propulsion shoes lands in it. Staying airborne the farthest has its rewards: the end of the “pool” is shallowest.

On the other hand, tripping over the barriers — which, unlike in the hurdles races, do not bend — can result in soaked shoes, socks and ankles.

Gee, nice of the event’s designers not to stock the pool with piranha.

HOW IT WORKS: Runners circle the track 7 1/2 times, covering 3,000 meters and pausing enough to clear 28 hurdles. The women contend with shorter hurdles than the guys.

Olympians must survive a first-round race to advance to the finals.

HISTORY LESSON: The event is the human-only version of the equine steeplechase, drawing its name from races that began and ended at church steeples, following fox hunts. Contestants apparently were chasing each other, as opposed to the furry mammals or their pets.

The earliest record of a competition was mid-19th century in merry, olde England. The steeplechase was staged at various distances in the Olympics until 1920, when 3,000 meters was agreed upon.

The women’s race did not make its debut until 2008, thus erasing perhaps the last vestiges of a myth that the gender could not handle long-distance running.

FIRST OF ALL: The U.S. was represented on the first men’s podium as Patrick Flynn, a native of Ireland, accepted the silver, beaten 100 yards by Percy Hodge of Great Britain in 1920.

Russian women took first and third in their inaugural race in 2008.

REMEMBER THAT?: In 1932, the designated lap-counter lost track and sent the field on an extra trip around the course. Joseph McCluskey of the U.S. would have pocketed a silver medal, but retreated to third in the additional lap. McCluskey chose not to lodge a protest. It is unknown if the counter was sent to remedial math class.

The ideal soundtrack to the 1976 race would be Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Frank Baumgarti (Germany), Anders Garderud (Sweden) and Bronislaw Malinowski (Poland) were vying for the lead when Baumgarti clipped the last hurdle and fell. Garderud defeat Malinowski by one second, both eclipsing the world record, while Malinowski grittily regained his footing and finished third.

STAR-GAZING: Kenya’s Paul Kipsiele Koech is ranked No. 1 worldwide among the guys but tends to melt in the Olympics and Worlds spotlight.

Milcah Chemos Cheywa of Kenya has rocketed to No. 1 for women since switching from shorter, no-hurdle distances in 2009.

WHO’S GOT THE POWER? For the men, can ya say Kenya? The Kenyans have dominated, winning all seven golds, plus five silvers and three bronzes, over the last seven Olympics in which they participated. (The country boycotted in 1976 and ’80). The balance of power is unlikely to shift this year, with Kenyans ranking 1-2-3 in the world.

Kenya also is favored on the distaff side, with Ethiopia close on its heels.

U-S-A, U-S-A: The Americans have snatched five medals, including Flynn’s silver and a gold in 1952 by Horace Ashenfelter, whose defeat of a Russian seemed fitting. In his real life, Ashenfelter was an FBI agent during the Cold War.

The latest of the three bronzes went to Brian Diemer in 1984.

If she qualifies, Emma Coburn will arrive in London as the No. 10-ranked female steeplechaser. Coburn placed 12th at last year’s World Championships.

The U.S. men were unable to send a single runner to the World finals, and their loftiest ranking is 21st.

AND THE NUMBER IS … 2 feet, 3 1/2 inches: The deepest part of the pool of water.

OLYMPIC DATES: Men, Aug. 3 (first round), Aug. 5 (finals); women, Aug. 4 (first round), Aug. 6 (finals).

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