A retelling of the Commonwealth Games Steeplechase involving Avinash Sable of India

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A look back at the men's 3000m steeplechase event

Kenya’s and the Steeplechase

3000 meters Steeplechase is an event that usually needs some explanation with non-track followers. However, if you are in Kenya, it would take some explanation to convince you why you don’t know about steeplechase. Such has been the dominance of the Kenyans over the event.

Traditionally for a long-distance running country like Kenya, the steeplechase is a cherry on their cake. Kenya had won nine straight Olympic golds since 1980 in this event. It was Soufiane El Bakkali, the Moroccan distance running star who ended their dominance in Tokyo.

With the development of better running technology, training regimes and coaching programs, the Kenyan dominance in the steeplechase at the Olympics and World Stage was bound to end. Read more: [Video] Nigeria wins Commonwealth Games 2022 women’s 4x100m; times and complete teams

But what about the Commonwealth Games?

For Kenya, Steeplechase in Commonwealth games has been like spirited siblings fighting for a Prized Toffee. In the Commonwealth Games, it’s been all Kenya in the event for the past two decades.

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Since 1998, not even a single medal has been won by any other nation apart from Kenya. The last gold medal for a Non-Kenyan nation in the Commonwealth Games was to Graeme Fell of Canada in 1984!

For the last six games, Kenya had clean swept men’s steeplechase and were looking solid for the 7th straight sweep with former world champion Conseslus Kipruto, Abraham Kibiwot, a 2018 CWG silver medalist, and Amos Serem, an Under-20 World Champion in their line-up. But they were to be denied.

They were to be denied by India, a literally non-existent country in terms of long-distance proficiency. This story seems straight out of an Anime book or more like a perfect script for a Sports Movie. That is what makes this win, one for the ages for India and for Avinash Sable.

Who is Avinash Sable?

Avinash Sable is an Indian long-distance runner born in the state of Maharashtra. Born to a family of farmers, Sable would run six kilometers every day to reach his school as his village did not have any transport facility.

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After his schooling Sable joined the Indian Army and served in extreme climate and border regions. Sable’s marriage with distance running happened in the Indian army.

Sable started running at the urging of his colleagues but was soon found to be extremely good at it. Starting as a cross country runner, Sable soon switched to Steeplechase. After failing to qualify for the 2018 Asian Games due to an ankle injury, Sable broke the long-standing Indian National record in 3000 meters steeplechase with a timing of 8.28.94.

From then on, it’s been only Sable. He has been breaking his own National record several times with the latest one coming in Alexander Stadium with a timing of 8.11.20 which propelled him into the history books.

Sable also holds the national record for half marathon with a timing of 61 minutes. Sable was the first Indian to make it to a world championship final in Doha in 2019.

He finished in 13th place with yet another national record of 8.21.37. Sable’s best season yet has undoubtedly been 2022. This season Sable raised eyebrows in the Rabat Diamond League after finishing fifth with another national record of 8.12.48.

He also reached the world championship final in Oregon and was a prey for the pedestrian race like many others.

However, he had saved his best for the race that mattered- The 2022 Commonwealth Games, Birmingham.

Men’s Steeplechase Final – Birmingham

The men’s Steeple chase field in Birmingham just consisted of nine athletes out of whom three were the indomitable Kenyan.

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Tim Hutchings, the former middle-distance runner commenting on world feed posed a question to his fellow commentator Rob Walker that ‘Can he see anybody denying Kenya a retention of the title?’ Rob replied to him stating the Kenyans would fancy a seventh straight clean sweep.

However, Rob was academic enough to point out that Sable was having a fantastic season and could pose some difficulties to the Kenyans.

Nevertheless, both were soon to acknowledge it was a far ask and unrealistic for Sable to break the Kenyan trio. Sable made his intentions clear by taking the lead immediately at the start of the race.

By the end of the first lap, the Kenyan trio of Kipruto, Kibiwot and Serum brushed Sable aside and pressed on to a piercing pace. The initial kilometer by the Kenyans showcased why they were a force to reckon with in this event.

The three Kenyans left the entire field stretched within the first 800m. The first Kilometer was 2.39:00 a pace which was a sub-8 minutes tempo (The current Commonwealth record is 8.10). The three Kenyans continued their march across the track finishing the second kilometer in 4.47.

By the start of the third kilometer, the medal positions were almost certain with echelons of Kenyans leading.

However, there was one problem though, there were three medals in every competition, but then there were 4. The talking point of Kenyan dominance and the legend of Kipruto and others made almost everyone forget Sable was still in it.

The commentators appreciated Sable’s efforts and bold move, but were rightly ambiguous about whether Sable had gone too fast too early. With two laps to go Kibiwot, the race leader started looking around for his teammates and tried to push them to come with him.

In the penultimate water jump, Sable overtook Kipruto and Serum and started pushing towards Kibiwot who was well ahead of the others. With the bell ringing for the final lap, Kibiwot had a good three-meter lead over Sable and looked to make it home easily.

With 250m to go, Sable was shoulder to shoulder with Kibiwot and the commentators and the crowd were on their feet.

Kibiwot had a mediocre final water jump with his stride checking over multiple times. However, the Kenyan recovered immediately to take a meter lead in the last 120 meters. With the last barrier Kibiwot took a decent meter lead to make it simple.

However, Sable had another gear left in him. Sable cruised towards Kibiwot with 20 meters to go. However, Kibiwot had made it enough to secure his Gold medal. Kibiwot finished with 8.11.15 while Sable closed it out at 8.11.20, another National Record.

Finally, the indestructible Kenyan Fort had been breached. And it was breached by a simple Indian runner who likes his fellow Kenyans would run to school.

What does it mean for India?

India is a country that predominantly worships the game of cricket. Hockey, Badminton and even Football to some extent are followed and appreciated. However, track and field in India is still in the nascent stages.

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This writer, being a former steeplechaser understands the gravity of this success. The media and the public are still not able to comprehend the magnitude of this achievement yet. But surely this will create waves across the Indian track and field fraternity.

In the Oregon World Athletics Championship, a commentator questioned ‘Can Neeraj Chopra’s gold finally wake the sleeping giants?’

India is indeed a giant. With a 1.35 billion population, talent has never been a problem. Right guidance, support and motivation are required. Sable’s achievement is unthinkable and will surely go a long way in pursuing young children across India to take up track and field.

The rise of India as a track and field powerhouse would completely change the global scenario of Athletics. It would revolutionize the popularity of the sport and take the commercial aspect of our sport to unthinkable levels.

I would need an entirely different article to cover this aspect. But for now, let’s sink into the achievement of Avinash Sable, who has immortalized himself in the history books and shall be one of the torch bearers of the Athletics revolution in India.

Nilesh Beliraya

Nilesh Beliraya is a former middle distant athlete who ran in Indian circuits. Currently, pursuing law, he aspires to specialize in sports law. He takes great pleasure in following global athletics and closely analyze the same. His hobbies include debating, freelancing and catching up with books. You can reach him at @Nilesh Beliraya in Twitter and @Nilesh_bk on Instagram.