Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali produced a sensational final lap surge to break Kenya’s long-held grip on the men’s steeplechase, winning gold in damp conditions in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
The 25-year-old stayed with the leading pack throughout the race, which started to move away in the final lap. As the group went into the final corner and over the last water jump, El Bakkali broke away to move past Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia and Kenya’s Benjamin Kigen to make a dash for the finish.
El Bakkali’s lead was left unchallenged. And with less than 50m to go, the Moroccan was well out of reach. He checked over his shoulder in what looked like disbelief. As El Bakkali neared the finish line, he realised the gold was his, and pumped his fists in celebration.
He became emotional as he crossed the line with a time of 8:08.90, bringing home Morocco’s first gold in the event. Girma finished second with a time of 8:10.38 to take silver, with Kenya's Benjamin Kigen rounding off the podium in third and taking the bronze with 8:11.45.
It was Morocco’s first steeplechase medal since Ali Ezzine won bronze in Sydney 2000.
El Bakkali’s win ended an era of Kenyan dominance in the men’s steeplechase that dates back to the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. That year, Kenya’s Amos Biwott won one of Kenya’s first ever gold medals, when he crossed the line first in the 3,000m steeplechase.
Since then Kenyan runners have dominated the podium in every Olympic steeplechase, including two medal clean sweeps in 1992 and 2004. The only exception being in Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980, two games which the East African nation boycotted.
This dominance had clearly played on the mind of El Bakkali, who had finished fourth in Rio 2016.
"I am so used to seeing Kenyans win, it's a big accomplishment for me,” El Bakkali said afterwards. “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.”
In the absence of Kenya’s defending champion, Conseslus Kirupto, El Bakkali came into the finals as one of the favourites. Since missing the podium in 2016, aged just 20, El Bakkali has matured into his distance running, specialising in a strong finish that delivered him second place behind Kipruto at the London World Championships in 2017 and winning bronze at the Doha showpiece two years later.
"I have been thinking about being more confident, working on myself and also trusting that I can win. 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," said El Bakkali.
El Bakkali won’t have much time to celebrate, as he is due to race in the first heat of the 1,500m in the morning. With his season's best just 3 seconds off that of world number one Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya, El Bakkali may fancy his chances of causing another upset, if his legs will allow it.
The Moroccan win wasn’t the only history made on the night. Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan picked up the first of what she hopes will be an unprecedented hat-trick of track golds, comfortably winning the 5000m.
This was just hours after winning the second heat of her 1,500 metres heat, where she recovered from falling during the last lap, to jump up and race on to the finish. Hassan has her semi-final on Wednesday, where if she is successful will be competing in the final on Friday followed by the 10,000m final on Saturday.