The second week of the Olympics are underway in Rio, meaning swimming and gymnastics have given way to track and field (“athletics” to most non-Americans). And while most track and field events are fairly straightforward — run this distance as fast as you can; throw this object as far as you can — one event in particular stands out for its sheer weirdness. This would be the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
The casual fan of the Olympics may, understandably, wonder what’s going on with the steeplechase: what are these massive barriers doing on the track, and why are the runners jumping over them? Why is there a water pit? And why, really, is this silly race called the steeplechase?
Allow us to explain.
Like many track and field events, the steeplechase’s origins can be traced back to United Kingdom. Runners, as they were apparently wont to do, would often race each other from one town’s church steeple to the next. The steeples were chosen because they were easy to see from long distances, leading to the name “steeplechase.”
The countryside would also require runners to jump over various barriers over the course of their race. These included stone walls and small rivers. When the race was modernized, the walls were simulated with hurdles and the rivers and creeks were simulated with the water pit.
According to the IAAF, the modern 3,000-meter steeplechase track event — with the barriers and the water pit — first originated at Oxford University in the mid-19th century. It was then included in the English Championship in 1879. In the Olympics, men have raced the steeplechase since 1920, while the women, somewhat shockingly, only first raced it at the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing.
Today, the race features five barriers: four hurdles plus the barrier before the water pit. For the men, those barriers are 36 inches, and for the women they are 30 inches. The water pit, meanwhile, is 12 feet long for both.
Often you’ll see runners land one foot on the top of the barrier to propel themselves over it, though many elite runners just clear the whole thing altogether. Wipeouts are all too common, especially in or around the water.
Here’s an example of what can happen if you don’t properly traverse the water pit:
It’s a quirky race, to be sure, but it’s also a sneakily fun one.